With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.
Going once again by my Netflix ratings, I apparently preferred the second Mission: Impossible to the first whenever I initially rated them, although now it seems obvious to me that the sequel is not as good, despite featuring a more coherent plot and a better villain. It also has plenty of visual style, but while Brian De Palma used his flashy imagery to call attention to the artifice of the storytelling, sequel director John Woo just seems interested in making things look badass. Not that there's anything wrong with badassery, which Mission: Impossible II has in abundance. It's still a fun action movie and a worthy addition to the franchise, but it's not as exhilarating as the first movie turned out to be.
Like De Palma, Woo brings many of his signature visual elements to this movie, including slo-mo action scenes and the inexplicable presence of doves. He also relies heavily (to an almost comic degree) on the franchise device of characters pulling off hyper-realistic masks to reveal they aren't actually who they appear to be. Bad guys disguise themselves as Tom Cruise's main character Ethan Hunt, Hunt disguises himself as various bad guys, and the whole thing becomes a bit ridiculous after a while. Then again, that's probably no surprise from the man who just a few years earlier directed the gleefully over-the-top identity-swapping movie Face/Off, although this movie doesn't quite have Face/Off's nutso charm.
The main thing that Mission: Impossible II does is firmly establish the franchise's focus on Ethan Hunt, superspy, rather than a team of operatives like the TV series. Here there's barely even a nod to Ethan putting together a team, although he does get support from his old buddy Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and some forgettable Australian dude. More importantly, the latest IMF head (played by an uncredited Anthony Hopkins) tasks Ethan with recruiting master thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), whose main function turns out to be as Ethan's love interest and a damsel in distress. Newton is great (and very sexy) in the role, and her introduction, as Nyah attempts to steal a valuable necklace and Ethan thwarts her, is playful and fun and one of the most entertaining sequences in the movie. So it's disappointing that she spends the bulk of the rest of the time as a pawn, of Ethan and of villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a former IMF agent now in possession of a deadly virus.
Like the first movie, the sequel was written largely around the predetermined action sequences, and Woo generally excels at those. Cruise's reputation for doing insane stunts himself probably began with the mountain-climbing sequence at the beginning of the movie, which has no plot relevance whatsoever other than to show off Cruise's bravado and re-establish Ethan as a total badass. There's nothing quite as memorable as the computer-vault sequence in the first movie, though, and the motorcycle-duel finale is a little anticlimactic. Overall, though, it's an enjoyable action movie that establishes the franchise's policy of giving new directors free rein for each sequel, and it's one of Woo's more successful combinations of his operatic visual style with the demands of Hollywood filmmaking.