Two decades ago, John Woo was midway through his tenure in Hollywood and riding high on the crest of the box office success and critical acclaim that had greeted his 1997 blockbuster, Face/Off. Tom Cruise had clearly seen that film and been greatly impressed by it, for he and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, recruited Woo to direct a sequel to their 1996 smash-hit reboot of the “Mission: Impossible” TV series. Mission: Impossible II is nowhere near as much fun as Face/Off (which remains Woo’s best Hollywood movie by some considerable distance), but it is still very enjoyable, and now stands as a highlight of both Woo’s US oeuvre and the M:I series of films to date.

When we first glimpse our hero, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), he is doing some very risky rock-climbing alone and ostensibly without any harnesses in what looks like the Mojave Desert. This activity is completely extraneous to the story and merely serves as a pretext for some utterly gratuitous stunt work by Cruise. Somehow, Hunt’s employer, the Impossible Missions Force, tracks him down on holiday and dispatches a mission to him from his handler, Swanbeck (an uncredited Anthony Hopkins). Whilst doubling for Hunt during his annual leave, IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) has stolen a deadly virus from bio-scientist Dr. Vladimir Nekhorvich (Rade Sherbedzija) which he was supposed to collect from him and deliver to IMF for safe-keeping, killing Nekhorvich and everyone else on the plane in the process. Swanbeck requests that Hunt recruit Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Billy Baird (John Polson) to help him recover the virus and bluntly proposes that he use Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandiwe Newton), a professional thief and Ambrose’s ex-girlfriend, as a honey trap to accomplish this mission.

Leaving aside the obvious plot hole of why IMF would want the six-foot Dougray Scott to double for the 5’7 Tom Cruise (and characters not noticing height differences between impersonator and impersonated was a similar plot hole in Face/Off, for that matter), the scenes introducing Cruise’s character to Newton’s are somewhat poorly written. The dialogue is corny and the scenarios they depict feel like contrivances designed to force the two characters into close physical proximity with one another. It’s difficult to believe that this screenplay was written by Chinatown scribe Robert Towne, someone from whom you’d expect better.

Dougray Scott makes up for these quibbles with a great performance as the brilliantly hateable Ambrose though, and you can imagine him having the time of his life playing this mega-villain. In a decision that must be regretted by both him and his accountant in roughly equal measure, Scott’s appearance in this film apparently forced him to decline the role of Wolverine in the first X-Men film to play Ambrose. As financially damaging a move as this was in the long term (although with M:I 2 standing as the highest-grossing film of 2000, it must have been a pretty good one in the short term), it resulted in one of the franchise’s best villain performances, perhaps bested only by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Owen Davian in Mission: Impossible III.

Mission: Impossible II is slightly unusual for a spy adventure insofar as the spies’ target realizes he is being spied on fairly early on in the film. Ambrose doesn’t fall for Nordoff-Hall’s story about having had a change of heart for him for a second and indeed, you’d think an agency of hardened spies would have the resources to fabricate a more convincing pretext. He decides to feign being taken in by it anyway for the simple reason that he misses having sexual intercourse with his ex-girlfriend. The surveillance of him is conducted by Hunt, Strickell and Baird via satellite from a remote safe house in the New South Wales outback, presenting another plot hole; wouldn’t satellite connectivity be an issue in such an isolated, rural location, particularly at the turn of the millennium? But of course, this film, along with the entire genre of which it is a part, is all about encouraging the viewer to suspend their disbelief and enjoy themselves, and there is ample opportunity to do that here.

It’s important to note that the film’s predecessor was a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, and the franchise abruptly shifted genres for this and subsequent installments; the lukewarm response the film initially received from critics can possibly be attributed to this change in direction. This volte-face is reflected in the film’s visual style, as well as its plot. In stark contrast to the crisp, austere look that cinematographer Stephen H. Burum brought to the first film, here Jeffrey L. Kimball’s photography is glossy and colorful, treating the viewer’s eyes to an array of dazzling blues and greens.

This being a Woo film, though, all considerations about plot holes and visual comparisons with its predecessor go out the window when the gunfights begin at around the 75-minute mark. These scenes are what Woo excels at, what he was brought on board to do and what make this installment of the M:I series a film that is still enjoyable to watch after 21 years. Hunt and Nordoff-Hall attempt to steal the virus and its antidote from Ambrose, but are foiled by him, causing her to inject the virus into herself to prevent Ambrose killing her. Cue IMF agents and the bad guys shooting at each other pointlessly but enjoyably. The following day, during a meeting at which Ambrose attempts to make himself rich by selling the antidote to Nekhorvich’s boss, McCloy (Brendan Gleeson), in exchange for becoming the majority shareholder in the latter man’s pharmaceutical company, Hunt steals the antidote by impersonating Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh), Ambrose’s lieutenant. When Ambrose realizes this deception, he and his men shoot at Hunt and chase him on motorcycles to a deserted beach where Hunt and Ambrose proceed to kick the living shit out of each other. As there have been four subsequent M:I films starring Cruise as Hunt, you can probably guess who wins. This climactic sequence almost (but not quite) replicates that of Face/Off, in which John Travolta and Nicolas Cage chase each other on speedboats before engaging in a fistfight to the death on a beach. The change in vehicles aside, Woo’s handling of the scenario is noticeably less brutal here due to the film’s PG-13 rating.

Looking back at Mission: Impossible II now, as an early installment in a six (soon-to-be eight)-film franchise and a potboiler work in the oeuvre of an action auteur whose time in Hollywood lasted a relatively short 10 years, it stands up well. While the technology and nu metal-influenced Hans Zimmer score definitely date it, it’s probably the last M:I adventure in which the director imprinted a distinctive visual style of their own on the film, rather than developing/working to a house style, as J.J. Abrams and Christopher McQuarrie did in later installments. Indeed, this film and Face/Off are Woo’s only Hollywood films which don’t feel at least slightly underwhelming when compared with his late ‘80s/early ‘90s Hong Kong work. Hard Target and Broken Arrow were both misfires, the World War II drama Windtalkers was stodgy and leaden and sci-fi actioner Paycheck was over-glossy, hammily acted and generally lacklustre. Woo left Hollywood altogether following the latter film’s poor reception. Mission: Impossible II is also the last film in the franchise not to feature the fundamentally irritating Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), whose constant goofiness in the fourth film obscured the delivery of crucial plot information. The recent sixth film in the series was one of the best Hollywood action films of recent years and may well prove to be the last one to be made before the series was afflicted by the law of diminishing returns, but Mission: Impossible II was the first one that was an actual, proper action film, and as such is well worth revisiting.

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