Monday, June 4, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part II

Last time, I looked at the first film in the series and found it held up nicely. Let's see how the second installment fares...

But first: *SPOILER WARNING* I'll be talking about the plot, so if you haven't seen this movie yet, be warned there is astonishingly little to talk about.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

While I liked the first Mission: Impossible movie both when it came out and on rewatch, I remember being incredibly disappointed in part two. I hoped I'd have a different experience seeing it again eighteen years later, but if anything, I came away feeling like my memory had been generous.

Before I get into why I disliked this, I want to take a moment and touch on a few details I think this does well. To date, this is the only movie in the series where the main character is given a mission, assembles a team to complete that mission, and is never disavowed, branded a traitor, and/or hunted by his government. In other words, it's the only one that actually delivers on the premise of the franchise.

I'll also admit the twist in the cold opening was cool. Essentially, we see the same setup where an IMF team pulls off an impossible mission, only this time it's a renegade team using their skills for evil. Granted, the whole premise of the movie is lifted from GoldenEye, but it's still an interesting direction for this franchise.

Pity the movie squanders that premise. The villain may have been a good idea, but the execution is abysmal. The bad guy epitomizes every cartoonish cliche imaginable. He's at once overly effective and laughably idiotic, leaving no plausible explanation for how he's as successful as he is. Likewise, despite having had previous interactions with Hunt, the two have no relationship or arc together. They were never friends, they're not really presented as rivals (aside from working at cross purposes), and their opinions about each other don't change over the course of the movie. We're supposed to view them as each others' nemeses, but there's no depth or reason to care.

Likewise, the movie conveys none of the suspense delivered by part one. John Woo manages to deliver some pretty shots, but there's nothing beyond the imagery. There are points this almost feels like a Michael Bay movie - visually impressive, but void of feeling or substance.

This is most obvious when it relates to Hunt. In the first movie, he was always shaken, always in danger. He spent the entire movie on edge, and I felt that while watching it. In the sequel, he seems impervious. Villains unload machine guns in his direction, and he barely breaks a sweat. I understand the impulse to sell your hero as cool under pressure, but there's a fine line between making a character badass and just killing the stakes. To put it another way, it's as though the franchise went from Die Hard part one to Die Hard part five in a single movie.

And of course everything else interesting about Ethan Hunt is either dropped completely or watered down to get a cheap laugh. He's still good at acrobatics, but he's equally good at hand-to-hand combat, motorcycle riding, and slow-motion gun fights. There's a throwaway line about him preferring stunts to body counts, but it's primarily there as a joke. Meanwhile, everything setting him apart from being just another generic super-spy is gone. Cast a British actor and change his name, and this script could literally be a Bond movie - and not a particularly good one. Hell, they even have Anthony Hopkins phone in a generic version of 'M'. And, of course, there's a Bond-girl.

To be fair, Thandie Newton was a good pick for the role. She brings some presence to the part and deserves far better than this script, which introduces her as a capable expert before immediately relegating her to an object for the men to stress over. I mean, Jesus, the central conflict in the movie concerns her being asked to sleep with her ex so Hunt can spy on him. All so we can wallow in Hunt's distress at being forced to put her in this position, of course. The movie does take pains to give her a little agency, but it never comes close to justifying the trashy premise.

The other two members of Hunt's IMF team are bit parts - they're basically sidekicks. It's a shame the one movie in this franchise to adhere to the basic structure of the source material wound up being the worst. I'm convinced this is part of the reason every other installment veered closer to part one's structure (which is probably the least impressive aspect of the first movie).

Mission: Impossible II started with an interesting premise, but instead of following through, all we got was a generic action movie surrounding an even more generic love story. We wound up with a Bond movie, minus the style that makes even a bad Bond movie watchable. In the end, all this really did was establish that Ethan Hunt was good with a gun, removing what could have been a distinguishing trait from the character.

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