The Mission: Impossible franchise is one that really is a showcase for different styles; both in writing and in directing. We’re now in the thick of the Cruise-McQuarrie era, which I’ll just start out by saying I like. I think Tom Cruise has found someone who’ll let him run wild with his ideas, but reign him in when needed. Still, McQuarrie is the passenger, and Tom is driving that car.
That wasn’t always how this franchise was. The first Mission: Impossible is such an underrated gem; because while Tom Cruise is a big part of it yes, it’s first and foremost a Brian DePalma movie. DePalma loves movies like Psycho, so he utilizes similar twists to that movie; including the opening fakeout where he kills practically the whole IMF team. Then, later on, you find out that a staple character from the original show (Jim Phelps) is a villain. It’s such a wild departure from the show; that if you were to watch that show (and I doubt many have at this point) it would serve as an exciting and wildly divergent twist.
But this isn’t a defense of Mission: Impossible; a movie that doesn’t really need one. It’s about Mission: Impossible 2.
Enter John Woo And The Hong Kong Action Style
Mission: Impossible 2 was not my first entry point into the series; as I had seen the first film as a child. It was certainly hyped up enough through word of mouth and advertising. Something the series has always done well; but if you recall in 2000 when the movie was released, it was a flurry of excitement.
This mostly had to do with the hiring of John Woo as Director. Made famous in the West for movies like A Better Tomorrow and Hard-Boiled; the Director was supposedly Cruise’s first choice after Cruise saw movies like Face-Off and his other movies.
While the Hong Kong action style isn’t as prevalent these days as it was back then; it’s still a ton of fun. In rewatching Mission: Impossible 2, you have all the iconic stylings of that style of film; and dare I say as silly as it can seem sometimes, it largely works. Woo instills the movie with gun-fu that gives the movie a really slick and polished feel. Yes, it seems a bit more stylish than the last movie; but Cruise is rocking a longer haircut in this. He’s more free and his Ethan Hunt is more James Bond than a grounded IMF agent. They’ll eventually reverse that and make him more of a grounded individual with Mission: Impossible III; but there was a brief one-movie time when Ethan Hunt was charming and fun. Something we got twinges of in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.
A Great Melding Of Styles
While John Woo did instill his regular sensibilities, Tom also brought his regular level of intensity and excitement. From the opening of the movie filmed without a safety net; or the infamous knife scene which had a cable stopping the knife less than an inch from Tom’s eye. It’s all this stuff of legend and an actor who’s willing to push boundaries for the sake of entertainment. It’s peak Tom Cruise and it’s the standard for Mission: Impossible.
Melding John’s style with Tom’s sensibilities also worked at a time when movies were moving to CGI. So even back in 2000, the idea of doing a Mission: Impossible movie with mostly practical effects works. Simply put, though, the action in this works incredibly well and looks fantastic even today. There is some CGI in this, and it does show its’ age, but aside from that, other sequences remain timeless.
Even the villain, played by Dougray Scott, is an interesting villain. Yes, the plot basically feeds into him and Tom fighting but there’s a lot more to it. Thandiwe Newton‘s Nyah proves to be a point of contention for the two men; both men vie for her love. Still, Nyah is no pushover and is a strong female character; which is something these movies have always done well with. If not for Nyah, other characters like Julia (Michelle Monaghan), Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), and Grace (Hayley Atwell) would not exist.
The final showdown and fight prove to be as cool and stylish as you should expect from John Woo and Tom Cruise. There’s a lot at stake; even if the villain’s motivations are not always the most sensical. It makes sense enough that you know Ethan Hunt needs to stop him. Not just to save Nyah, but the world as well. Which, hey, that’s just a regular day for Hunt, right? Once you set the standard for action in this movie; it’s like watching a highly proficient craft with people at the peak of their game.
Dulling The Blade
As we get to Mission: Impossible III it becomes a more coherent movie but also lacks the excitement. Phillip Seymour Hoffman makes for a great villain, but he’s not chewing the scenery like Dougray Scott. The action gets cleaner but also loses the excitement and personality of the action from the previous movie. Mission: Impossible III arguably prioritizes the safety of the box office over taking risks and trying new ideas.
There’s a lot about Mission: Impossible 2 that admittingly doesn’t make sense or out of context seems absurd and weird; but I do think it all gets rather exaggerated. The movie still works well and is still pulse-pounding even to this day.
Brian DePalma took risks with the first film, and it paid off; Cruise and John Woo took risks with the second, and it paid off. Now the franchise is practically printing money, but it was only because these movies took risks and made you get excited. At the time, Cruise wasn’t guaranteed success with the sequel. He was gambling with the franchises’ future, and it arguably paid off.
You may skip over Mission: Impossible 2 on your annual Mission: Impossible rewatch, but I implore you not to. It does a lot of exciting stuff and maintains a constant aurora of excitement and risk. Some will argue it doesn’t make sense, but that’s simply not true. The movie is exciting, fast-paced, and It instills a director’s style. It does so in a way that gives the movie an iconic look and trademark. In the sequels; we lost in the pursuit of box office revenue.
More big blockbusters need to take risks and try new things. If we don’t celebrate when franchises do so; we’re doomed to see them repeat the same story beats again, and again, and again.
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