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Don't Forget to Breathe
'Mission: Impossible 2' Gives an Aerobic Workout

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2000


    'Mission: Impossible 2' Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible 2." (Paramount)
Forget Tom Cruise. Forget the first "Mission: Impossible" (if you haven't already). Forget the television show of the '60s with its doodley, infectious musical theme and Peter Graves's gravitas. Forget Thandie Newton and the cross-racial love interest. Forget . . .

Well, forget everything: your mortgage, the things you regret, the times you weren't up to it, the things you never got caught for, the betrayals, deceits and banal heroisms of everyday life.

Forget them all.

Remember: John Woo.

For "Mission: Impossible 2," which opens today, is such a feast of outlandish pleasures it'll send you home steam-cleaned and shrink-wrapped. It's straight from the hyperfervid brain of the Hong Kong director who has reinvented the action film, and it's so far over the top, there ain't no bottom; you're in outer space, sucking for oxygen. Woo-woo-woo, the man's a pirate, a circus master, a flapdoodle and a necromancer at once, but boy can he make a motion picture!

The plot would be unmemorable save for the fact that it's incomprehensible. Something about an artificially created virus and its artificial cure, meant to be huckstered to the world after the fashion of the dear old Krupp firm of years gone by, which built an armor that no gun could penetrate so everybody had to buy it, and then built a gun that could penetrate it so that everybody had to buy that, too. (Funny, they make such good coffee machines.) So it is with Chimera, which turns people to blood sponges, pus sacs and corpses in 30 hours, and Belleraphon, the magic drug that makes it go away.

It's apparently stolen by a rogue M:I agent named Sean Ambrose (the Scotsman Dougray Scott). Now it's being shopped to the world for billions. Therefore Ethan Hunt (Cruise), who was higher up the M:I alpha-male pecking order than Ambrose, is ordered by Hannibal Lecter to go get it back, in Australia. Why Australia? I would suspect because that's where the best stuntmen live, and Woo's wild and woolly film is a tribute to the guts of professional stuntpeople. And, I suppose, a tribute to Cruise, who appears to do a lot of his own, a la Jackie Chan, including an astonishing opening sequence where he's matching the strength in his fingertips against the ragged glory of the mountains.

And why Hannibal Lecter? Oh, okay, it's an unbilled Anthony Hopkins, but he's clearly playing Hannibal, with that meditative pause between words, that sense of sublimely superior knowledge and that sense of confidence that he can dominate a movie in exactly two scenes.

The subtext here has nothing to do with movies or movie stars: It's almost a dialogue between Woo and his fans. He seems to be saying: I will be the Woo I want to be; then I will be the Woo you want me to be, but I will do that as it suits me, not you. I love a director who makes you crawl like a slug to the good stuff.

Woo opens in a romantic mood. The first part of the film watches as Cruise's Ethan must recruit Newton's Nyah Hall. She's the key to the caper because she's Ambrose's ex-lover and he misses her tragically. Woo on wooing is something to behold: The camera glides swoonily, lovesick and capricious, as Ethan stalks Nyah in romantic Spain where she's gone to steal some jewels, and spots her across a roomful of slow-mo flamenco dancers, their red capes billowing voluptuously as they tappity-tap-tap a duenedo of love.

Woo loves the big and beautiful, and in these two stars he's found it. Cruise has an art deco face, a stylized icon of male beauty that could be lifted from the hood ornament of a '34 La Salle, all streamline and art moderne. Meanwhile, Newton seems an E.T. from the planet of the small perfect people; her face is exquisite but somehow weirdly untouched by reality. It's like she's still an embryo floating in her little sac of nourishing fluid.

So Woo takes his time, watching these two tryst the night away, as they find substitutes for actual sex. First is thievery (she's good, he's better); second comes driving, as they flirt at 75 miles per through the Spanish Alps, his Boxter nuzzling her Mercedes, as they skid toward oblivion with smiles on their handsome faces. The danger is exhilarating. Soon they're in bed, love and partnership and he's pitched the deal: re-up with Ambrose and get the virus back, while the M:I team tracks her with a global satellite that reads a microchip in her bloodstream from halfway to the moon.

There follows what might be called the foreplay stage. It has nothing to do with the story, since there's hardly any story to begin with. It has to do with the fans who know Woo waiting for him to get to it, as he holds off with a smile. Wait a little longer, my unruly children, says old papa Woo as the movie just gets drearier and drearier until you are sustained by nothing except love and trust in Woo.

It turns out to be worth it. The last hour of "M:I-2" rocks so hard it rocks its way off the planet. It's one long crescendo after another, as each climax trumps the one before.

You want capers? Woo sends Tom Cruise rappelling down a shaft in the center of a building to land an inch from the glass he must cut through to get into a top-secret lab. You want gunfights? Ten men with MP-5s await him. He seems to have about 20 Berettas. They fired less at Normandy in 24 hours than they fire here in five loud, smoky minutes. You want martial arts? Cruise appears to have mastered enough whirligig flying dragon whipsaw kicks to get by with it (though he's no Jackie Chan). But . . . you ain't seen nothing yet.

The finale is an ecstasy of testosterone-fueled kineticism. Maybe you have to have a taste for this sort of thing or just a single-digit IQ, but the final dust-up, which seems to last an hour, follows Cruise on a racing cycle (which shows up handily enough at just the right moment) to set up a final spasm of vehicular mayhem and ballet that just won't stop. On a red two-wheeler, Cruise darts in and out of the armada of bad-guy Land Rovers, shooting and gymnasticizing as he figure-eights this way and that. Is it believable? Not for a single second. Will you care? Not for a single second. But it's less pure violence than it is pure dance, albeit of men, guns, vehicles, explosions, landscape and a camera style so aggressive it might be identified as Nureyevian.

We have left the workaday world far behind. We have left much of movie art and culture far behind. We are in some new place, beyond sense and motive, where motion is its own reward and things whirl and fly about with gay abandon, none quite so liberated as your own heart. And you think, as you suck for air, if I get a heart attack, hey, this is a pretty good way to go.

Certain minor flaws must be charted. Besides the fact the plot is incomprehensible, add the following: There is not one recognizable moment of actual human behavior, just as there is not one recognizable human being. Newton and Cruise are employed purely for their iconography. Scott is a little small for his big role, and the rest of the cast--except for the amused Dr. Lecter--are ciphers meant only to swell the story or die on cue. Add in: No one outside the U.S. Army owns as many Berettas as Cruise seems to (where does he hide them and how did he order them from GSA?) and these are the sort that never run out of ammo. Also: When Thandie Newton gets sick unto death, you can tell because she's .000001 percent less beautiful than when she's well.

And finally: Woo has no interest in reality or reasonableness. His view of cinema is as a perpetual motion machine, a circus with 50 rings and a trick in each of them. Like the best of directors and pizza joints, he delivers it piping hot every time.

Mission: Impossible 2 (125 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and sexual suggestion, though there's very little blood.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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