John Woo Brought Genuine Hong Kong Spectacle To 'Mission: Impossible II'

(Welcome to Team Leaders, a series where we explore how the directors of the Mission: Impossible movies used this franchise as a canvas to explore their pet themes and show off their unique sensibilities. In this edition: John Woo's graceful Hong Kong transplant, Mission: Impossible II.)

18 years after the May 2000 bow of Mission: Impossible II, it's somewhat hard to swallow that the movie made $546 million worldwide, mostly because it's garnered such an awful reputation (with many cinephiles considering it the unqualified nadir of the franchise). Some folks flat out hate John Woo's Tom Cruise team-up (and fourth American theatrical feature), utilizing it as the prime example in arguments regarding how the United States studio system somehow "broke" the legendary Hong Kong action auteur.

Getting the Team Back Together

To be frank, these detractors are only half-right. Though the film was editorially mangled for wide release (its bloody, melodramatic refinement restored via a DVD Director's Cut), Windtalkers stands as Woo's second American masterwork (behind '97's anti-realist all-timer, Face/Off), while Paycheck ('03) remains just as borderline unwatchable as it was in theaters. Like it has with many other global superstars, Hollywood chewed Woo up and spit him out, resulting in an artist whose fingerprint became distorted yet still incontestably identifiable. Nevertheless, Mission: Impossible II is a "John Woo Film" to its very core, complete with the hyper-violent artist transforming Cruise's lion-maned IMF agent into another one of his dual-pistol wielding protags.

Thanks to returning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown ['74]) – who also co-wrote Brian De Palma's franchise starter with David Koepp – Mission: Impossible II becomes the second installment to blatantly integrate influences from a stone classic. Only where De Palma was riffing on Dassin with his Langley heist sequence, Towne and Woo are blatantly riffing on Hitchcock's Notorious ('46). Woo provided the blueprints for action set pieces he wanted to include in the sequel, while Towne engineered what's ostensibly a full-scale "homage" to the suspense master; a killer virus taking the place of uranium, with many scenes (including dialogue) redone, right down to shot selection (see: Hitch's race track scene, transposed into this franchise's unique pulp territory).

With a story assist from Battlestar Galactica/Star Trek: TNG movie scribes Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, Mission: Impossible II keeps the narrative simple (as opposed to the first's somewhat convoluted plotting). Russian scientists have concocted a potentially Earth-ravaging disease known as "Chimera" that's fallen into the hands of sadistic rogue IMF agent, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott, doing his best "Sean Bean from Goldeneye ['95]"). Hunt is called back from a mountain-climbing holiday – by a new IMF honcho (played by a hammy Anthony Hopkins) – to recruit Nyah (Thandie Newton): an old flame of the world's newest threat, to help disarm this terrifying bioweapon. Along for the ride is hacker Luther Stickell – Ving Rhames, becoming the series' other constant player besides Cruise – and Australian operative Billy Baird (John Polson), comprising a revived mission force to help stop this latest international terrorist.

A Dark Streak

Yet despite the formulaic nature of "getting the band back together" – which is a franchise staple for its first three films – Woo is instead much more captivated by the opportunity to inject Ethan and Nyah's dynamic with his own trademark, Spanish-guitar tinged romanticism. It's long been known that the Mission: Impossible series is Cruise's compromise for never getting to play Bond, and Newton's a fine successor to De Palma's French heartthrob Emmanuelle Béart (who portrayed Claire in the first M:I picture).

Unfortunately, there's a cold misogynistic streak that runs through the center of Mission: Impossible II, as Nyah is relegated to being a pawn passed between powerful men (going as far as to engage in unwanted sexual congress with Ambrose in his Sydney hideaway). Even Hopkins' debonair task master says that she's recruited mainly because being born a woman has gifted her the innate ability to "deceive men". One wonders if the lengthy custody battle Towne endured with his ex-wife Julie prompted him to inflict some rather heinous fictional trauma on the heroines (though, in fairness, his "manly" pulp screenwriting has historically presented women in a questionable light). 

Grandiose Woo Melodrama

For the movie's somewhat dubious missteps – not mention Scott playing a rather milquetoast villain – Woo still manages to thrill us with his adrenaline-juiced bullet ballet. A shootout in a pharmaceutical high-rise sees the action auteur dropping the sounds of gunfire yet again (much like he did with Face/Off's "Over the Rainbow" bloodbath), in favor of Hans Zimmer's rising mix of electric and orchestral shredding. It's a gorgeous moment of pure cinema storytelling, climaxing with Hunt screaming at Nyah to "stay alive" before blowing out the side of the lab and leaping out of the building, free-falling to the city streets below. This is what Woo enthusiasts signed up for when they sat down to watch his version of a Mission: Impossible film: grandiose melodrama, brought to life with a full clip to spare.

Being the grand showman that he is, Woo saves his very best magic trick for last: a motorcycle chase that disregards any semblance of scientific sense, as the duel reaches ludicrous heights of vehicle fu that culminates in Cruise and Scott flinging their bodies at one another like rag dolls (before engaging in seaside fisticuffs, of course). Though the movie was reportedly cut down from R-rated territory (not to mention a three-plus hour original edit that's never seen the light of day), the tactile nature of watching these movie stars engaging in full-scale violence is spectacle unto itself. While Mission: Impossible II never reaches the heights of Woo's Hong Kong work, it still packs an emotional and visceral punch that few blockbusters have replicated in the years since.

In all honesty, the movie's negative reputation amongst fans, especially as we've entered the superhero cinema age – which is dominated by CGI punching masterminded by pre-viz SFX wizards, as opposed to actual directors – is somewhat baffling to this writer. Woo's style of balletic choreography is on full display with Mission: Impossible II, along with the numerous hardships that went into making the movie (a near interminable shooting schedule and apparent creative differences with Cruise behind the scenes). Sure, it's flawed, but there's real vision on display.

For the first two films in the franchise, Cruise's role as Paramount super producer allowed him to enable two mavericks, who in turn made the movies they desired to make. This would all change with J.J. Abrams' Mission: Impossible III – whose auteurist stamp would shrink this grandiose canvas ever so slightly – but for two films, the M:I series was (for better or worse) as big and bold as blockbuster filmmaking got.