Look, I like John Woo movies. Don’t get me wrong. The Killer is one of my all-time faves, and I think his brand of amped-up, bullet-crazy action wasn’t just part of what made Hong Kong cinema great, it helped to make movies everywhere better, too. But Woo isn’t perfect, and the strengths of this storytelling style can easily become weaknesses. I am reminded of a moment from Once a Thief, a television show remake of Woo’s 1991 caper film of the same name, in which a bad guy demonstrates how explosive the fine flour dust in his factory is by setting off an incendiary that explodes some shack and almost takes out a worker. It’s not like the story was supposed to be that zany, Woo just couldn’t help from throwing a gratuitous explosion in there. That’s what you get with John Woo; a kind of hyper-kinetic approach that observes no limits, doesn’t care to tell much of a story, and ignores how crazy everything gets. Sometimes, when applied to the right thing, it works. Sometimes, when applied to the wrong thing, it’s an unholy mess.
Mission: Impossible II is one such unholy mess.
Man, where to begin with this thing? Ethan Hunt is rock climbing out in Utah or something when an IMF helicopter swings by and fires a bazooka at him containing his latest orders. They could have just landed and given the orders to him, but look, man, if you’re gonna worry about those kinds of details, go read a book or something, amirite? Hunt’s briefing is in the form of digital-screen sunglasses, which I guess is cool if you need to be briefed in the middle of a crowded train station. But Hunt is literally standing on top of a mesa in the middle of the desert. It’s okay if a vulture knows he’s got to go off and save the world again. And can we talk for a minute about how his mission briefing self-destructs, as usual? This time, the glasses freaking explode, like if they had been on his head, he’d be without a head. I guess that’s a good way to weed out dumb recruits in basic training, but this was just ridiculous. And this is the first few minutes of the movie. At this point, you’re thinking, okay, I didn’t think things would get this nuts this quickly, so why not pass the time by looking for the telltale signs of a John Woo movie?
Hero dual-wields pistols left-right-left-right style? Check! People walking around with long, flowing clothing that billows in the wind? Check! White doves fluttering around decrepit old buildings right before a shootout? Check! After a while, you’re so busy playing John Woo cliche bingo that you forget that this is a movie that looked at the first Mission: Impossible, noticed that the action scenes worked better than the brainy espionage scenes, and decided to dumb things down to houseplant level.
A rogue IMF agent is after a weaponized virus so he can release it and make a fortune selling the world the only cure for it—the kind of business plan that makes sense only to laudanum-addled screenwriters, but whatever. Ethan Hunt assembles a team of Ving Rhames from the last movie, some Aussie who is totally forgettable, and Thandie Newton as a thief who used to be the girlfriend of the rogue IMF agent behind all this drama. Ethan promptly beds her for reasons that make sense only to Hong Kong action directors, and off we go to Sydney and a few other places that basically look like Sydney. Ethan sneaks into some place, pulls some shenanigans at a horse race, and blah, blah, blah he tracks the bad guys down to a deserted island that used to be a bunker or something, right off the coast of the city.
It’s like the Sydney zoning board decided HERE is where the city should have its convenient bad guy lair where you can have shootouts and chases and explosions without endangering the public. Hunt fights his way through the place, more doves fly through walls of fire, there’s a crazy motorcycle chase because Tom Cruise likes riding motorcycles, Thandie Newton almost jumps off a cliff and you’re like MAYBE LETTING HER JUMP JUST THIS ONE TIME WOULDN’T BE SO BAD and Ving Rhames ditches his laptop for a grenade launcher, and by the time it’s all over, you realize the moment of truth isn’t in any of these scenes. Despite this movie’s commercial and middling critical success, it’s such a bad derailing of the source material that if you’re gonna do any more of these, you really need to take stock of what it means to create a Mission: Impossible for the future that draws on the series’ strengths but creates a relevance for modern audiences. Whatever that will be, Mission: Impossible II sure as hell isn’t it. I don’t care if it is John Woo’s most successful film. This thing is a nightmare that should never have been made. But if it, in its fashion, helped to pave the way for Mission: Impossible III, Ghost Protocol, and Rogue Nation, then so be it. Those movies are all so immensely enjoyable that if dealing with this half-witted sideshow is the price of admission, it’s something I’ll gladly pay. And realizing that is this movie’s moment of truth. Wish I had a better reveal for you. But some movies, you have to slog through for the sake of the series. This is one of them.