INFORMATION OVERLOAD affects even the best of us, and Tom Cruise's secret agent Ethan Hunt, back after a four-year absence, is a man in need of a vacation. We meet him on holiday, making audacious dynamic climbing moves on a sheer cliff. Why such Spartan, solitary pursuits for Ethan? The word "burnout" is never uttered anywhere in this exciting, competent, but ultimately routine summer action flick, because to do so would jinx the entire big-budget endeavor. Despite its topical, up-to-the-moment script, its bigger, grander predecessors—such as 007, True Lies, The Matrix, or director John Woo's own Face/Off—make M:I-2 feel more like M:I-2.0.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2
directed by John Woo
with Tom Cruise, Thandie Newton, Ving Rhames, and Dougray Scott
opens May 24 at Meridian, Neptune, and Oak Tree
Though besotted with technology, the movie's poles of good and evil beat within a human heart. A designer retrovirus is quickly stolen and ransomed, forcing Ethan to enlist the aid of the thief's ex-girlfriend Nyah (Beloved's Thandie Newton) to save the world—so naturally the two fall in love. This occurs after they engage in some high-speed car chase flirting, and after Ethan's rival Ambrose (Dougray Scott) is revealed to be a bloodthirsty ex-colleague of his. If those sound like two of the plot points from GoldenEye, you're right. Right off the bat, M:I-2 feels, well, familiar—beginning with a skyjacking similar to Woo's 1996 Broken Arrow and some jewel heist nonsense that's like every jewel heist scene ever made.
Globe-trotting from Seville to Sydney, however, Woo lets his camera swirl around flamenco dancers and the wind swirl Newton's scarf on a harbor jetty. (The slo-mo garment-teasing breeze is a Woo trademark, as are the pigeons that invariably appear in M:I-2's climactic scenes.) You sense that Woo wants to make the movie an operatic love triangle between its three main characters, but his mundane directorial duties prevent such unfettered romanticism.
ACTION SET PIECES get in the way, obscuring any real emotional connection to M:I-2's players. Ving Rhames barely makes an impression as Cruise's info-lackey, burdened with triumphant lines like, "The computer's up!" (Dramatic in the workplace, but hardly in the movies.) Dougray Scott sneers hard, but is too, well, Australian to seem genuinely threatening. Meanwhile, Newton spends half the picture looking ill. What you remember instead about M:I-2 are the shootouts, break-ins, and chases. (Those old rubber masks also figure in the plot.) As for all the computer gadgetry (GPS, voice emulators, instant physiognomy analysis), we get enough of that at work.
Woo tries hard to sell the action sequences, and the many roundhouse kicks and two-gun ballet leaps are undeniably fun to watch. Even if M:I-2 can't advance its genre to a new level, it does briefly make a nice joke of its familiarity when Ambrose drolly predicts and narrates Ethan's break-in to a supposedly impregnable biotech fortress. Otherwise, by the time you reach the final motorcycle chase and fisticuffs, there are only the occasional oohs and aahs of surprise, but no suspense or laughter.
Throughout, Cruise acquits himself capably. "I just do as I'm told," he says, and indeed there's no flash, no panache, none of the over-the-top theatricality that Cage and Travolta so enjoyably brought to Face/Off. Instead, Ethan is a decent, chivalrous, earnest, and somewhat perfunctory professional. Laptops and handguns are all the same to him; he's a software warrior. Robert Towne's script is much easier to follow than that of the convoluted first M:I, but it's devoid of any wit, spark, or imagination. "I'm not going to lose you," Ethan promises Nyah—not once, but twice, in case we don't get the idea what a good guy he is. By the time he accomplishes his mission, however, it just feels like another long day at the office.