Tom Cruise meets John Woo in M:I-2

Note: this is Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) – part of a 6-part series on all the movies in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Click here to read Part 1 on the original Mission: Impossible (1996).

By the summer of 2000 the action movie was absolutely back in favor with audiences and Mission Impossible had been at the very birth of that renaissance. The action movie had evolved quickly but more effort was put into special effects than star power. Films such as the The Matrix (1999) and the return of both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises on the big screen were wowing mainstream audiences with action presented in a way they had not seen before.

Although the first Mission Impossible movie contains some action that is thrilling to this day, it owed more to the more grounded, mature techno thrillers of Tom Clancy and William Gibson than it did to high concept sci fi. With movie goers tastes very much concentrating on big spectacle sci fi fare the Mission Impossible franchise moved with the times.

A Mission Impossible Sequel

Several of the action sequences for the movie had already been decided before a script had been written and interestingly two big names in sci fi where brought in to give a sci fi edge to this spy film. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga both had a long standing relationship with the Star Trek franchise and they gave Mission Impossible’s first sequel a push in the direction of this tone and genre that were so popular at the time .

It’s often the way with a groundbreaking action movie that with its influence being felt everywhere and built upon in other movies  that the need to innovative and break out of that mold becomes apparent. This was incredibly true for the second Mission Impossible film.  It changed action movies, giving them a darker psychodrama that the first Mission Impossible had. From the aforementioned The Matrix (1999) to Xmen (2000) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider (2001) all contain the fingerprint of the first Mission Impossible. This meant that the sequel had to aim for just as much impact. The first movie’s director gave subsequent action movies that feel so a new director would be needed to reinvigorate the franchise.

Our man from China

Something else would happen to action movies in the 1990s that would prove vital to the development and success of the second Mission Impossible. Asian action cinema was being looked at by Hollywood with new eyes. Hong Kong stars were coming to America’s attention. Jackie Chan was breaking into international audiences and Michelle Yeoh was a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Another Hong Kong action cinema star would grab the director’s chair for Mission Impossible 2. That man was John Woo.

The action cinema of John Woo had long been admired by fans before Mission Impossible 2 with his chaotic action sequences, gunplay and slow motion. In fact Woo had been having success in the Hollywood system for some time with films like Hard Target (1993), Broken Arrow (1996) and Face/Off (1997). Part of Woo’s style is the perfect blend between large action sequences and emotional characterization where the protagonist and antagonist share resentment for one and other on almost a mythic scale. With this kind of style, pedigree and reputation, he was perfect to carry the franchise forward.

In front of the camera

Now that Tom Cruise had assembled world leading talent behind the camera one of Mission Impossible 2’s greatest challenges was to match the incredible cast that had come together for the first film. This film doesn’t disappoint. One of the real merits of the first movie was its cast and how careful casting in that movie allowed the actors, particularly Cruise to telegraph the emotion of the movie to the audience and this is an element of the franchise that is really built upon in Mission Impossible 2.

Tom Cruise shows real character development as Ethan Hunt, in the first movie he was a man on the run betrayed by his mentor and in Mission Impossible 2, Hunt is in control of his destiny, an international man of mystery (Cruise would cameo as Austin powers). He is confident and classy with an easy smile and is happy with bending the rules. His nemesis Sean Ambrose is brilliantly portrayed by Dougray Scott who plays the role perfectly with psychopathy and avarice.

Thandie Newton as Nyah

The performance that absolutely steals the show is Thandie Newton who plays Nayh. Newton absolutely shines in this movie, her character is brilliantly set out and developed throughout. I spent most of the film asking myself why Newton had never been cast as Catwoman. Nayh is full of feline grace and moral ambiguity. It’s not just the principals that are great, the supporting cast are also brilliantly put together… You have the return of Ving Rhames as Luther Strickell, who brings the audience a sense of continuity from the first movie.

Richard Roxburgh brings a memorably sinister performance as henchman Hugh Stamp and a small but brilliant show by Brendan Gleeson as well as an excellent cameo from screen legend Anthony Hopkins as the cold as ice IMF mission commander. The foundation of creating a great cast around Cruise and building upon it by really developing those characters really helps the overall effect of the movie.

Acrobatic insanity

The action set pieces for this movie are fantastic. From the famous opening credits sequence to the escape from the lab in the second act, to the excellent final action sequence which shows off all of John Woo’s directional flair. That duel on motorbikes between Hunt and Ambrose is possibly one of the best action sequences of the early 21st century. Although the pacing of this movie may not be as tight as the first the action is well worth waiting for. It is backed up by an impressive musical score by Hans Zimmer which really enhances the action.

Mission accomplished

Mission impossible was a huge success commercially, it was the most financially successful film of the year 2000 and definitely caught the popular imagination of the cinema going public. The film was supported by songs from Limp Bizkit and Metallica which were both successful as well as by a healthy promotional campaign. Critically the film also fared quite well although many retrospective reviews have pointed out flaws in the movies pacing and its similarities to Goldeneye (1997). Mission Impossible 2’s greatest legacy is that it cements the property as a franchise and also defines the formula that the franchise will follow.

18 years on

I first sat down to watch Mission Impossible 2 some 18 years ago in my local cinema and I remember coming out into the hot summer’s day absolutely buzzing. Having watched it again for this retrospective I came away with exactly the same feeling… Woo deals with his material with style and sophistication. The first act of the movie is a thriller worthy of To Catch a Thief (1955) and the rest of the movie is peppered with great performances and epic action. Take a seat with a massive bucket of popcorn and revisit this true summer action classic.

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