Wednesday May 24, 2000

     Except for irredeemably artistic types like Taiwan's Hou Hsaio Hsien or Iran's Abbas Kiarostami (though even they might have been tempted), star-producer Tom Cruise could have gotten any director in the world to do the sequel to his very successful "Mission: Impossible." The man asked was John Woo, and the result, now cryptically titled "M:I-2," lavishly displays the reasons for that choice all over the wide screen.
     Woo, who parlayed a legendary career as a Hong Kong actionmeister into domestic extravaganzas "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off," is a master of movement and chaos. Though they feature cascades of bullets and fists of fury, his films are more about the plasticity of the medium than pedestrian concepts like blood and violence. A director without limits who respects neither the laws of physics nor those of probability, Woo, in marvelous cult items like "The Killer," "A Better Tomorrow" and "Hard-Boiled," has made some of the most delirious films imaginable.
     Once Woo unleashes his bad self and ignites the proceedings here, once the glass shatters, the flames erupt, the gunshots ricochet and the doves fly, all is well with "M:I-2." While one of the film's drawbacks is that it takes awhile until that feverish point is reached, everyone tries hard and mostly successfully to keep us occupied until the killer moments arrive.
     Cruise himself, obviously, is one of "M:I-2's" strongest weapons. Looking a bit shaggier but still appropriately steely-eyed in this new incarnation of special agent Ethan Hunt, Cruise is involved in a lot of running and jumping but very little standing still, taking on stunts ranging from climbing a sheer cliff face in Utah to doing things with a motorcycle that would have intimidated Steve McQueen.
     Also demanding attention is the film's Robert Towne plot, a basically simple tale told with so much artful misdirection and disinformation that it takes a bit of time to figure out. You may not understand what's happening from moment to moment, but with Woo setting the pace, you may not have the opportunity to care.
     "M:I-2" opens with scientist Vladimir Nekhorvich (Rade Sherbedgia) injecting himself with a mysterious substance and sending a Delphic message to agent Hunt that ultimately proves to be the key to the plot: "The search for a hero begins with something that every hero requires, a villain."
     Speaking of bad guys, "M:I-2's" is former agent Sean Ambrose, played by "Ever After's" Dougray Scott, so ruthless he is capable of using a cigar cutter to remove the fingertip of one of his own men. Though fans of "Face/Off" may feel that Nicolas Cage's style of florid criminality was better suited to Woo's operatic sensibility, Ambrose's more controlled evil proves to be a good match for Cruise's coolly heroic Hunt.
     The link between these two rivals is the oh-so-beautiful and spirited Nyah Nordhoff Hall, puckishly named after the men who wrote the "Mutiny on the Bounty" trilogy and played by Thandie Newton ("Jefferson in Paris," "Beloved"). A master thief who looks good in designer clothes, Hall is recruited for the operation by Hunt at the insistence of his boss (an unbilled and not particularly energetic Anthony Hopkins), who neglects to say what her job will be.
     Turns out that Hall is the ex-flame of the turncoat Ambrose, and the boss wants her to function as a seductive Trojan horse in the evil one's compound, finding out exactly what nefarious plots are being hatching behind those surveillance-proof walls. Hunt, who in the interim has fallen for Nyah himself, says that will be difficult. "This is not Mission: Difficult, this is Mission: Impossible," the top guy dryly notes.
     Helping everybody do their jobs in "M:I-2" is a whole lot of gadgetry, so much computer and electronic gear that the film plays at times like a James Bond extravaganza without the smug '60s overlay. Though agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) returns from the last film, he spends so much time tediously sitting in front of the computer you start to wonder if he had a hand in the "I Love You" virus.
     Even when "M:I-2" is at its exposition-heavy early stages, Woo's marvelous visual sense is always an asset. Working with cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball, Woo brings a showy flair to the most potentially pedestrian situations. Woo's films, and this one is no exception, are also characterized by an over-the-top emotionalism that amplifies all feelings to mythological status. The power of film to irrationally transform and exalt is almost a religion to Woo, and another reason why he was the natural go-to guy for this lucrative movie franchise.

M:I-2, 2000. PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action and some sensuality. Paramount Pictures presents a Cruise/Wagner Production. Director John Woo. Producers Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner. Executive producers Terence Chang, Paul Hitchcock. Screenplay by Robert Towne; story by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga; based on the television series created by Bruce Geller. Cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball. Editors Christian Wagner, Steven Kemper. Music Hans Zimmer. Costume designer Lizzy Gardiner. Production designer Tom Sanders. Supervising art director Dan Dorrance. Set decorator Kerrie Brown. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes. Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. Dougray Scott as Sean Ambrose. Thandie Newton as Nyah Nordhoff Hall. Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell.

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