REVIEW: In a neon lit laboratory with a wild-haired bespectacled scientist, we learn that every hero needs only one component for keeping relevant: a villain. Loaded in a metallic gun-looking syringe, a newly created virus called Chimera and its antidote Bellerophon are then taken aboard a plane headed to the U.S. of A. With these chemicals are the doctor who helped create them and our hero from MI: I, Ethan Hunt. Only here his name is Dimitri and he’s apparently good friends with the scientist. He tells Dimitri that while Bellerophon will work to reverse the effects of the horrible Chimera, if the virus is in your system for more than 20 hours, there’s nothing anyone can do. Antidote or no. But you can go ahead and forget that because it’ll never become important later in the movie. (spoiler: It totally does.)
Suddenly, the pilot informs the passengers that they’ve encountered a pressurization problem and they must put on their oxygen masks. The crew also complies and in a few seconds, everyone is unconscious. It wasn’t oxygen. The doctor, sensing something is up, and not wearing his mask, learns the hard way that his friend Dimitri is not who he thinks he is. He’s got a wholly different kind of mask. For his efforts, the good doctor wins a chop to the throat and a broken neck. Would Ethan Hunt do that?
Turns out, he’s not Hunt, he’s a rogue IMF agent named Sean Ambrose is after the chemicals to make some big money because that’s pretty much what any member of a spy organization who isn’t directly working with any movie’s main team is doing. He’s managed to orchestrate a rather complicated scheme involving the pilot of a 747 commercial airliner, the in-flight oxygen supply, a high altitude parachute jump and ultimately the crashing of said jet into a mountain. Nice guy. Now the real Ethan Hunt needs to get on the job. Problem is, he’s on holiday doing some light hiking in Utah.
They shoot a message over to him, literally, from a helicopter with a rifle. He accepts the mission and flies on over to Seville where his boss tells him he can have any two agents to help him track down Ambrose, but a third he has no choice but to assign to his team. Or rather try and recruit. She’s Nyah, a world class thief and, since this is Hollywood, also a busty, drop-dead gorgeous model type to boot. Oh, and she is also Sean’s ex-girlfriend.
She is smart, witty, cunning, and an exceptionally talented thief, but Ethan only needs her for her other um, assets. When she realizes what stakes are involved, she agrees to be the eye candy, er bait, and joins him in stopping Ambrose. Also on the team are Billy Baird, an Australian stereoty–er, pilot and Luther Stickell, the computer hacker from the first mission impossible. They hatch a plan to get Nyah back into the arms of Ambrose so she will have access to his home and gather information. The wrench in that system is that, wouldn’t you know it, Ethan went and got himself all googly-eyed over the girl and the two started their own under the covers secret mission. (They had sex). And since he’s a highly-trained covert government agent specializing in infiltration and espionage, he immediately let’s his emotions get the better of him, clouding his judgment. But then again, she’s a busty, drop-dead gorgeous model type.
Directed by John Woo, the second installment of the Mission: Impossible movie franchise goes in a decidedly different direction from Brain De Palma’s more plot heavy caper film. Action is the name of the game here, with the focus being putting Tom Cruise in increasingly absurd and dangerous predicaments, all apparently trying to outdo the train sequence in the first movie. One’s level of enjoyment will depend solely on how well one accepts this premise and rides along on this in-your-face escapist adventure. Relying heavily on Woo’s signature style of slo-mo and (pigeons?), the film is nothing if not a checklist for late 90s early millennial film making, where The Matrix set a standard and and others cashed in. But while The Matrix had the convoluted story about a world inside a computer to explain away the wild physics, other movies didn’t, and many just said, “screw it” and had people doing things well beyond the realm of reality (looking at you Charlie’s Angels). That counts for MI:2 as well with a ramping-up effect of silliness that culminates in a motorcycle chase that is exciting to watch but even more so ridiculous. Still, the leads are beautiful and Cruise is good in this role, proving himself again to be a reliable hero. But there is a blandness to this entry that is hard to escape. It’s cold and formulaic. The villains are just villainous to be villainous and everything has a hokey feel about it as if the makers knew it was silly but couldn’t get us in on the joke. At one point, hunt’s boss (played by Hannibal Lecter himself) even pokes fun at the name of the series, but it is forced and actually does more to pull us out then drag us further in. The intrigue of espionage takes a back seat to slam bang action and flash blinds us to whatever story matters, the film is ultimately a step down from the first, being too much a shift from the original and more painfully, the heart of the source material.
That Moment In: Mission Impossible II
Scene Setup: Sean Ambrose is a mostly generic bad guy. He’s a bit oily, smarmy, and appropriately brutal. From the beginning, he is in it for the money, and has gone through great lengths to bring his plan together. When his Number Two man fails him just a wee bit, he snip off part of the guys finger with a cigar cutter. Yikes. But, that doesn’t mean he has no weak spot. Not long after he crashed the plane and set up shop in Sydney, he goes for the bait Ethan set to catch him. A woman. His old girlfriend Nyah, the beautiful thief, has gone and got herself in trouble and needs some help. Ambrose swoops in and rescues her, having her brought to his hideaway via expensive yacht. He waits for her on the dock.
Her “job” is to appear vulnerable and try to learn as much information as she can about Ambrose and relay that back to Ethan. She’s dutifully whimpers and wines about her problems and presents herself to Sean as thanks for his help. She also gets to use some of her wily thievery skills and does a little pickpockets of her target to acquire some data concerning the Chimera virus. But, as skilful as she is, she’s no match against Ambrose, who has suspected from the start she is up to no good. He decides that instead of tossing her aside, or worse, he will use her to learn who is manipulating her and knows about that person’s secrets. It’s not long until he discovers it’s his ol’ pal from the IMF, Ethan Hunt who has entrusted his ex-girlfriend to betray him. To be sure, he creates a rouse that fools everybody.
The Scene: (Time stamp 58:20) The Chimera virus was only able to be smuggled into the United States by carrier, meaning that wild-haired bespectacled doctor we met on the plane in the beginning had actually injected himself with it so as to get it through customs, intending on giving himself the antidote once landed. That antidote, called Bellerophon, is now in Ambrose’s hands, but he doesn’t actually have the virus because he killed the doctor on the plane. Whoops. Through blackmail, he forces the CEO of Biocyte, the company where the virus was manufactured to sell him the Chimera so he can, in turn, sell it as a biological weapon. Meanwhile, Ethan, masquerading as the dead doctor, also fools the CEO into revealing the entire story, including Ambrose’s plan. Sneaky bunch. With Nyah’s part complete, she believes it’s time to get out of Dodge, and makes an escape attempt from Sean’s compound under cover of the night. Outside, running for the sea, she meets Ethan, already on the property. They embrace, and she is immediately relieved to be in his arms. He, however, seems a little less than enthused. That’s because, we learn that at the same time, Ethan is also standing over the hospital bed of the Biocyte CEO, posing as the dead doctor and learning that he is the one responsible for illegally testing the virus with plans to make millions off the antidote. So who is that holding Nyah?
Once again, Sean has put on his Ethan mask and with suspicions about his girlfriend’s loyalty, seeks to find out just where she stands. It only takes a moment, and he discovers that she is actually in love with Hunt and has no intention of being with him. He carries on the charade, this time telling her that she mustn’t leave the compound, that she needs to stay undercover and learn what Ambrose’s is up to next. It is imperative that she remain embedded in the group and continue to deceive Sean. She reluctantly agrees, hugs him deeply, and runs back into the house. Once out of sight, Sean removes the mask and we see that he’s actually so devastated by this turn, his face is wet with tears and his face creased with pain. Whatever his plans were, they are quickly changed.
The moment reveals much. First, we realize that Ambrose is no fool. He has been one step ahead of Nyah from the start, but just how far has been uncertain. In his ploy, he is most especially thinking he can learn from her what Ethan is up to, but learns more than he expected, finding out that she has deep feelings for his former IMF team mate. When the mask comes off, that fact riddles him with anguish. Second, we know that Ambrose will never let that love last, and his words to her reveal just that, though she, thinking it is Ethan talking, mistakes, “It’ll all be over soon” as a promise she’ll be safe rather than the death sentence it is intended to be.
Credit goes to both Tom Cruise and Dougray Scott (playing Ambrose). Cruise does a nice job being the face of emotion for Ambrose while he (Ambrose) wears Ethan’s face. We know it is Sean under the mask, but of course it is Cruise playing that part, and once we learn that, we are able to notice the subtle differences between the characters and the meaning of the dialogue. Cruise is able to capture the heart of Ambrose well, most particularly when Nyah attempts to kiss him, believing him to be Hunt. He flinches and reels back a bit, not allowing her to taste him, knowing that would surely give away his secret. He instead holds her tight and pecks her forehead. We can already see the pain coursing through him and much of that goes to Cruise’s performance.
When the mask comes off, and it is Sean underneath, Dougray Scott carries on that pain, giving his usually col-blooded Ambrose something we didn’t expect: emotions. It is a bit surprising to see just how hurtful her betrayal is, especially since we have seen him suspect her from the start. So deeply moved by this, he is shaken enough to weep, and this is good for the viewer. It gives him the necessary motivation to become the real bad guy. Until this point, he has been sterile, a man interested in only making money. Now, he has passion. A woman, or better yet, a love for a woman, and that love vanquished, gives him the bitter heart he needs, and we want, to be the kind of “mad” we expect. We know that from this point on, it is no longer about the potential dangers of the Chimera on the world we must consider, which itself is statistical and has no real weight, but the girl, which makes it singular and therefore far more identifiable for the viewer. Indeed, when Nyah actually injects herself with the virus, she fully becomes the very face of it all, and the story becomes a race to save her. Or destroy her. It’s personal now.
It’s why when we talk movies, we love That Moment In . . . Mission: Impossible II.