[With the upcoming release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, we’re reposting our retrospective series on the Mission: Impossible franchise.]
Mission: Impossible was a resounding success, and yet it didn’t firmly establish what a “Mission: Impossible” movie was in terms of tone. There was Tom Cruise acting at Peak Tom Cruise within the confines of an action spy story. How much flexibility was there in a franchise that was anchored by Cruise and tried to balance a team dynamic against its big star while throwing in fun twists and neat gadgets. Cruise and co-producer Paula Wagner tested the dexterity of the film series by bringing in John Woo to completely change the complexion of the franchise. The result was a disaster that jettisoned what was fun about the first movie and reduced Mission: Impossible II to a painfully generic action film that sucked the energy out of its talented actor and director and left audiences with a shell of a picture that’s both crushingly dull and ragingly misogynistic.
This time around, the protagonist isn’t really even Ethan Hunt (Cruise). It’s Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), a thief who is recruited by Hunt when rogue IMF Agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) makes off with Chimera, a virus created by Biocyte Pharmaceuticals chemist Vladimir Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija). Nekhorvich believed that he was getting the virus into Hunt’s safe hands, but Ambrose, impersonating Hunt by wearing a mask and using a digital voice changer, took possession of the virus, or at least he thought he did. In the film’s convoluted framework, Ambrose only has the cure, Bellerophon, and needs to get Chimera. Then he’ll work his way into the idiotic plan of Biocyte’s slimy CEO John C. McCloy (Brendan Gleeson).
The plan is to release Chimera, which gestates inside a host for 20 hours before becoming fatal and contagious, and then when there’s a worldwide epidemic, the company will release Bellerophon and make an ungodly sum of money. The particulars of this deal include forcing the audience to watch Ambrose negotiate stock options with McCloy because Woo thought that was just riveting stuff. Meanwhile, both baddies (and the screenwriters) seem oblivious to the fact that if a worldwide, deadly epidemic struck and a company had the cure, people wouldn’t patiently wait in line at their local pharmacy and pay for it. The governments of the world would simply take the drug and distribute it freely to prevent the collapse of civilization. While I don’t demand “realism” from a Mission: Impossible movie, I prefer if the villains understand how the world works.
To stop this harebrained scheme, IMF sends in Hunt even though they don’t have a good reason for it. Ambrose may have impersonated Hunt to get Chimera from Nekhorvich, but that’s the end of his involvement. In Mission: Impossible II, Hunt’s role goes from operation point man to recruiter/handler for an asset whose skills are completely discarded. It’s hard to think of another film that’s tries so hard to craft a damsel in distress while simultaneously devaluing the knight in shining armor, but Mission: Impossible II puts Nyah at the front of the action, not because she’s a skilled thief, but because she used to date Ambrose. Her actual skillset is a red herring so that the movie can engage in jaw-dropping misogyny.
Women rarely fare well in the first three Mission: Impossible movies, but Nyah gets it the worst. Even when she’s supposed to be at her best, Hunt comes in and ruins her heist. Later when she’s trying to drive away, he almost runs her off of a cliff before the two go goo-goo eyed at each other and hop into bed. Now that Hunt has “feelings” for her, we can have Mission Commander Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins) step in to reveal that he wasn’t recruiting Nyah for her thieving, but because she can seduce Ambrose. Hunt, using reason and logic, tries to explain that perhaps its best not to rest the fate of the world on an untrained civilian conjuring up old feelings from her highly suspicious ex, but Swanbeck replies, “What? To go to bed with a man and lie to him? She’s a woman. She’s got all the training she needs.” And it somehow gets worse to the point where she’s later referred to as a monkey because why be sexist when you can be shockingly racist as well?
Nyah is a professional damsel who might be able to think on her feet as long as Hunt is holding her hand. Unfortunately, she never has Ambrose fooled for a second, and the film lets us know that he’s unconvinced and just using her for sex. So all of our heroes are dumber than the guy who thinks he can get rich by unleashing the Plague. The whole endeavor is so corny and overwrought, but it’s also a Tom Cruise blockbuster, which is why Mission: Impossible II is morbidly fascinating.
Watching M:I 2, it looks like John Woo interpreted the material as the American James Bond, but minus the interesting gadgets and slathered with a melodramatic, B-movie style, which pushed the director into self-parody. Set aside that all of the fights, shootouts, and car chases are inert and feel like someone trying to copy Woo’s better movies; the glowing dove may as well be the director stepping out and saying, “None of us are taking this seriously, right?” And if Mission: Impossible II were some subversive bit of filmmaking, I could at least applaud it on those grounds, except it never has the guts to truly break free of the summer blockbuster. It plays like a kid who’s constantly rolling his eyes at what’s happening.
What’s more bizarre than seeing Woo direct like an amateur film director is watching Cruise take a backseat in his own movie. Somehow, Ethan Hunt has even less of a character this time around, which is a problem since Hunt and Ambrose are positioned to be mirrors of each other. In the movie’s only good scene, Hunt’s plan to break into Biocyte and destroy Chimera gets described by Ambrose. It’s a great moment where the villain is positioned to be so powerful that he’s the one who breaks down and ridicules the hero’s plan and character. He points out that Hunt would prefer to engage in “acrobatics” than drop a few guards. It also gets a little meta when the villain criticizes Hunt/Cruise by remarking, “You know, that was the hardest part about having to portray you: grinning like an idiot every fifteen minutes.”
Perhaps if Mission: Impossible had developed more of an identity as a franchise, and there was more care being put into the subversive qualities, Mission: Impossible II could have functioned as a thoughtful deconstruction of the series. But not enough had been built up. I understand that they didn’t want to ape De Palma, but they also didn’t grow anything that had been planted. They don’t question why Ethan remains an IMF Agent; they don’t question the lone hero/team dynamic. Instead, they come up on the wrong side of a B-movie and hoped to awe the audience with generic action and lots and lots of masks.
Despite being absolutely wretched and offensive, Mission: Impossible II was a huge hit at the box office. Cruise’s career was still red hot, and while he was picking up critical acclaim for his work in Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, and Eyes Wide Shut, movies like Mission: Impossible are what made him an international sensation. However, when Cruise returned to the franchise six years later, he was at a very different point in his life. The next time we saw Ethan Hunt, his impossible mission was proving he could be a family man.
Tomorrow: Mission: Impossible III