It’s Time to Stop Bashing ‘Mission: Impossible II,’ An Underrated Action Movie
I’m not exactly sure when it became cool to make fun of Mission: Impossible II. The reviews at the time of its release were largely positive. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is just five points lower than Mission: Impossible’s; on Metacritic they have the exact same score. Roger Ebert called Mission: Impossible II “more evolved, more confident, more sure-footed” than the original in his review. I saw it in the theater and thought it was a totally agreeable follow-up to the first Mission: Impossible. But at some point, the consensus about M:I-2 shifted.
In 2018, when the film comes up, it’s mostly as the “bad” Mission: Impossible and as a target of jokes about dated early 2000s style and fashions. And sure, some of it is dated. The wirework stunts are very much of its time. A few of director John Woo’s trademarks have passed into the realm of cliché. There really might not be another summer blockbuster with so much slow-motion photography. When compared to the rest of this franchise, it’s hard to argue with the sentiment that it’s the worst Mission: Impossible.
But just because Mission: Impossible II is the weakest entry in the series doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Here are five reasons why it’s time for the M:I-2 bashing to stop.
1. Mission: Impossible II Is the Movie Where Mission: Impossible Became the Franchise We Love
The first Mission: Impossible is a very solid spy thriller and an impressive update of a decades-old television series. It has some rather effective action set-pieces, including the famous sequence where Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt steals data from a CIA computer by hanging from the ceiling on a wire. It’s also got some great Brian De Palma camera moves. By any measure, it’s a fun summer blockbuster.
It is not, however, “a Mission: Impossible movie” as we understand that phrase today. Today, we define a Mission: Impossible movie as a frenetic action picture where Tom Cruise tries to kill himself on camera for our pleasure. And that really only began with Mission: Impossible II’s rock climbing scene, where Cruise dangles from the edge of a gigantic cliff at Dead Horse Point, seemingly without a harness or net.
The production brought in a world-class climbing professional to teach Cruise how to fake it, and then to play his double during the dangling shots. In the end, Cruise picked things up so quickly, and was so intent on doing everything himself, that his double did almost nothing. Nearly every shot in that sequence is really Tom Cruise hanging 2,000 feet off the ground.
Tom Cruise clinging to a mountain by his fingertips became a huge selling point for M:I-2; it was the focal point of the film’s trailer and commercials. And that became the Mission: Impossible formula from that point on. Paramount stopped selling Mission: Impossible as a movie based on an old TV show your dad watched, and started selling it as a movie where Tom Cruise might die in extremely entertaining fashion. It worked too; Mission: Impossible II made $35 million more in the United States than the original film, was the highest-grossing movie of 2000 worldwide, and remains the franchise’s biggest domestic hit.
Without Mission: Impossible II, we might never have gotten Tom Cruise on the Burj Khalifa or clinging to the side of an airplane in mid-flight, or free-falling without a parachute from the International Space Station. (I’m just spitballing here but come on, that’s bound to happen eventually.) If you love the current state of this franchise, you have Mission: Impossible II to thank.
2. It Has the Franchise’s Best Use of the Mission: Impossible Masks
Even as M:I-2 morphed the franchise from what it was into what it became, it also found extremely clever ways to use the series’ long-running signature gag: Lifelike masks that allow the heroes to disguise themselves as part of their impossible missions. In the first Mission: Impossible, De Palma had makeup artist Rob Bottin create actual masks and prosthetics for Cruise to wear; the results were not very convincing.
The sequel did away with the prosthetics and just used computer effects to disguise the mask switches between actors. Mission: Impossible II’s villain is a rogue IMF agent named Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), which means he has access to the mask technology, and turns the heroes’ best weapon against them. It’s a fun inversion of the way the franchise typically works. This time Ambrose — not Hunt — uses most of the masks in the film, often to pretend he’s Hunt himself. That gives us the rare and very fun sight of Tom Cruise being super evil. (In the opening sequence Ambrose-as-Hunt steals a flu vaccine and hijacks a plane.)
There’s also an ingenious mask gag during the film’s climax, where Hunt switches clothes and faces off with Ambrose’s right-hand man, and then captures “himself” and turns “Hunt” over to Ambrose. The henchman’s mouth is duct taped beneath his Tom Cruise mask, so he can’t protest while Ambrose kills him, believing he’s finally stopped his arch-enemy once and for all. That gives us another rare sight (Tom Cruise dies!) before hitting us with another superb twist.
It also allows Cruise a plot-motivated costume change in the middle of a gigantic action sequence, so he has a legitimate excuse to wear a cool leather jacket when he rides a motorcycle in the finale. Respect.
3. It’s a Sneaky Good John Woo Movie
The Mission: Impossible masks, and the fact that Hunt and Ambrose often wear each other’s faces, reinforce all of John Woo’s favorite ideas as a director. Pretty much all of Woo’s best movies are about the same things: How good guys and bad guys (not to mention the line between right and wrong) are often indistinguishable, and how the war between these two sides gets very confusing, very violent, and very oddly beautiful.
In a lot of ways, Tom Cruise was the perfect American actor for Woo’s aesthetic. He has the athleticism to perform his own stunts. No one questions the sight of Tom Cruise firing two guns while jumping through the air, or performing a graceful flip kick after running at full speed at a guy. Cruise also has the right intensity level (i.e. an extremely high one) to pull off Woo’s brand of poker-faced melodrama. He’s not the American Chow Yun-Fat, but he’s probably a lot closer to it than he’s given credit for.
All the mask shenanigans, and actors pretending to be other actors (who are in turn pretending to be the first actor) also makes Mission: Impossible II a perfect thematic follow-up to Woo’s Face/Off, where John Travolta and Nicolas Cage swap faces and personalities as part of a war between the government and criminals that is both epic in its stakes and highly personal for the two lead characters. (In the case of Mission: Impossible II, both Hunt and Ambrose love the same woman; more on that in a bit.)
And yeah, there are doves flying all over, and some borderline ridiculous action beats, like when Ambrose and Hunt play a game of chicken on their motorcycles, leap at each other, and their motorcycles inexplicably fly into the air and simultaneously explode. But all of Woo’s films have these moments of heightened action, when the emotions of the leads become so white-hot it seems to give them the ability to break the laws of physics. If that’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine. But it’s very much a part of the John Woo Experience.
I also want to pause and note that Anthony Hopkins plays Ethan Hunt’s boss in this film, and, after Hunt complains that his latest mission will be extremely difficult, he replies, “Mr. Hunt, this isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible. ‘Difficult’ should be a walk in the park for you,” and that might be the greatest line of dialogue in the history of cinema.
4. The Plot Hinges on Every Man on Planet Earth Instantly Falling In Love With Thandie Newton, A Concept That Is Extremely Plausible
Back to Hunt and Ambrose’s rivalry. It boils down to their mutual lust for a woman named Nyah Nordoff-Hall. She’s a master thief, and also happens to be Ambrose’s ex-girlfriend. After Ambrose (disguised as Hunt) brings down a plane, Hopkins’ character orders Hunt to recruit Nyah and have her seduce Ambrose, learn his endgame, and leak his plans to the IMF.
In the meantime, Hunt falls in love with Nyah, which means he now has to send a woman he cares about into the arms (and, uh, other things) of a psychopath who might want to destroy the world. Hitchcock fans will notice the plot’s strong resemblance to Notorious, in which Cary Grant’s spy falls in love with Ingrid Bergman and then sends her to sleep with Claude Rains in order to find out what he and his fellow former Nazis are up to. My theory about this: Anthony Hopkins’ character is a big Hitchcock fan and has seen Notorious. He knows this scheme worked pretty well there. Why not try it again?
The whole apparatus lives or dies on whether or not you can buy Ethan Hunt falling for Nyah in a matter of seconds and Ambrose risking hundreds of millions of dollars just to win her back. Because Nyah is played by Thandie Newton, these are both extremely believable.
Coming on the heels of her starring role in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, M:I-2 cemented Newton’s international stardom, and rewatching M:I-2 it is very easy to see why. She brings a mix of innocence and toughness to Nyah, who, little by little, pushes against the damsel-in-distress role she’s been cast in, both by Woo as the director and by Hunt as the guy who shoves her back into her ex’s arms. (The fact that Newton is stunningly beautiful doesn’t hurt matters either.)
Nyah makes the key decision that sends the film into its final act when she injects herself with the deadly Chimera virus in order to prevent Ambrose from selling it to the highest bidder. And she plays the character’s confusion and angst as she bounces between the two male leads perfectly. Comparisons to Ingrid Bergman would be tough on anyone, but Newton actually fares pretty well in this instance.
5. Tom Cruise’s Hair Is Magnificent
If you rate the film on a more broad scale then yes, Mission: Impossible II is the weakest film in the franchise. But if judged solely by the extremely scientific and important metric of the magnificence of Tom Cruise’s mane, M:I-2 is the second-best Mission, behind only Ghost Protocol and Cruise’s even more glorious locks.
Cruise’s M:I-2 hair is perfectly tousled throughout. In every scene, he looks like he just stepped out of a Drybar. It seems like a highly impractical coif for a super-spy; how do you aim a gun with all that hair in your face? But it speaks to Ethan Hunt’s absolute excellence at his job. He’s so good at spy stuff he can even do it while his bangs are in his eyes. And that’s why he love him.
Plus, if Cruise and Woo never made Mission: Impossible II, Ben Stiller would never have been able to make this.
Gallery - Movie Stars And Their (Terrible) Action Figure Likenesses: