Gabby: The Indefinsibles chose to accept Brett’s mission and go undercover for this not so secret operation…
Brett: Mission: Impossible II. I would like to preemptively disavow!
Jeremy: Welcome back, everyone. This is the first movie in our latest block of films, which we’re calling “Summer of Sequels.” We’re each picking a little-loved summer sequel we can’t help but enjoy.
And this might end up as the shortest conversation we’ve ever had. I assume we’re all in agreement about this one: the first hour and a half of M:I II exists solely to get us to that last half-hour of John Woo mayhem, which is still astonishing and ridiculous to this day.
Brett: Yeah, likely. There are cool things before that, but it’s mostly loaded on the back end. You have 3/4 of the runtime to wait until the moment when John Woo remembers he’s John Fucking Woo.
Gabby: Have either of you seen all the Mission movies and John Woo’s movies? It wouldn’t surprise me, Brett, if you have.
Jeremy: Me neither. I’m guessing you were, like me, obsessed with Hong Kong action movies from somewhere around the American release of Rumble in the Bronx to the Matrix sequels.
Brett: It took me a little longer. I got into them about a year before Rush Hour came out. Between ’96 and ’97. I first got into Jackie Chan via a super cheap copy of Fearless Hyena. From there I got into some of his other movies.
I will point out for those not in the know, I am the resident guy who spent the early 2000s buying DVDs from Asian sources and owned a region free player for that reason. I have seen things… glorious things. I should really catch you guys up on some of these movies.
I didn’t even give John Woo much of a look for a long time. I remember seeing some of Face/Off and thinking it was so absurd. I switched it off that first time, actually. And then one day A Better Tomorrow II was on cable and I was simply entranced by the madness of it all. The end shootout switched something on for me. And then I saw Hard Boiled and was all, “Oh… so that’s what all the fuss was about.” Needless to say, we saw M:I II on opening night.
And I’ve seen all the Mission: Impossible movies.
Jeremy: Same here for the latter. MI: II is the last one I saw in theaters. I always enjoy these movies, but I can wait and watch them at home, since they’re mostly technical exercises. Granted, they’re really enjoyable technical exercises…
Gabby: I haven’t seen the first one in absolutely ages. I saw it on video once or twice perhaps in 1999. I have seen Ghost Protocol a few times since it came out and I really love that one. Very, very fun!
Jeremy: And back to your question, Gabby. I’ve watched most of Woo’s ’80s and ’90s output. His name alone wasn’t enough to get me to watch Windtalkers, and I haven’t seen a movie of his since. I still think a lot of his films are great, but Hong Kong action movies don’t thrill me like they used to.
Brett: This movie and Windtalkers both have boring, action-less first and second acts. It takes even longer to get to the action in Windtalkers. So I kind of wonder if, when making MI: II, he sighed, slumped his shoulders, and said, “Well, they want the two guns and the crazy action. Better give it to them.”
Jeremy: I wouldn’t say he’s going through the motions here. There’s too much energy and care in the action scenes for that. He was trying to stretch himself with a love story. From everything I’ve read about John Woo, he loves movies from the ’30s and ’40s. He seemed enthused by the notion of making a classic romantic thriller with his sensibility. He wanted Thandie Newton’s character to be something more than a Bond girl for Ethan Hunt.
Despite all the fancy camera moves and awful Hans Zimmer score, he’s striving for this story to have weight, meaning. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Not at all. It’s impossible to care for these characters. Most people who bought this on DVD did so to fast-forward to the good parts, which is Tom Cruise doing ridiculously amazing stunts.
Brett: The DVD had a lot of features about the stunts. Cruise did a lot of them himself.
Gabby: Is it Dr. Nekhorvich who called him Dmitri?
Brett: Dimitri was also the name used at the beginning of the first Mission: Impossible movie. Not 100% sure what the connection is, if there is one.
Gabby: There are several versions of this name but they all originate from the Goddess Demeter, of Ancient Greek mythology. She was the goddess of harvest and high rank in watching over the cycle of life and death. That is interesting when put together with the name of the disease, Chimera, which was said to be immortal in mythology.
Bellerophon was the one that killed the Chimera, with the help of Pegasus. He flew over the Chimera and pointed a spear in its neck. When it breathed fire, it melted the lead and it was suffocated.
They call the cure Bellerophon. I always enjoy a few Greek mythology references in movies. He was the son of Medusa and Poseidon (born when she died, with Pegasus also being created at the same time). Which is interesting when paired with how many face masks are in this movie. Maybe this one is going to be insulting Brett, but it isn’t meant to be: was this a new technique or something? This came out in the same year as Charlie’s Angels, which also used face masks in the same way.
Brett: The masks are just a thing for M:I. They were a staple on the TV show.
Jeremy: This is a nitpicky screenwriting criticism, but there were times they used “Bellerophon” where I was like, ” ‘Cure.’ You would’ve just said ‘the cure’ there.”
IMDB trivia alleges that the rough cut of this film was three-and-a-half hours, and a lot of post-production trickery was employed to get MI: II down to a sensible running time and still be coherent-ish. That’s probably why Chimera, Bellerophon, and other character names and incidentals keep getting repeated to an unusual degree.
Word has it that legendary editor Stuart Baird did uncredited work on this and the first Tomb Raider to help save those movies. His deal with Paramount for doing so was a chance to direct another film, which ended up being Star Trek: Nemesis. So, you know, goddamn these two films and their production problems.
Gabby: Going back to what you said Brett about John Woo having to be John Woo, I feel this happens with so many directors. It’s hard for them to escape certain expectations. This was also a similar problem with a film we discussed recently, The Black Cauldron. Some audiences saw the Disney label above it and were frustrated they didn’t get the fairy tale they had come to expect. The audiences came to expect Woo to go nuts, because it is friggin’ fun. But it also puts him in a box, constraining what he does with his films.
Judging how the films I see of his go, I much prefer the guns ablazing nuts Woo. But I do enjoy the character development and exchanges in The Killer. It’s not as well developed here. He certainly had enough time to do that here. He tried to develop the two leads as well as the villains. But it all comes out a bit flat and dull. At least there was an effort there though.
Am I wrong in thinking that it is out of character, in this specific movie, for Ethan Hunt to go batshit, two gun, crazy? He seems much more the long game guy than the shootout guy in this one.
Jeremy: Yeah, the main bad guy, played by Dougray Scott, says that Ethan Hunt favors misdirection over confrontation. But that doesn’t mean Hunt can’t do confrontation and look freakin’ sweet while doing it in slow-motion.
Speaking of Dougray Scott, what is up with all the misogynistic lines he has to spew in this movie? Someone mentioned on Twitter that the misogyny was probably coming from the writer, Robert Towne (most famous for writing Chinatown). I don’t know enough about him to make an educated guess. True, only the bad guys and Anthony Hopkins – who plays Tom Cruise’s boss as someone being a bastard in order to do his job – say such nonsense. But Jesus, it’s unnecessary.
Gabby: I wanted to comment briefly on two quotes in the film. ‘You know women, mate. Like monkeys, they are – won’t let go of one branch until they’ve got hold of the next.’ And then this one: ‘You’re not going to shoot me Sean, not this bitch’ I am not exactly sure what to say to this. I just wanted to air the fact I found these two quotes problematic.
Talking of shooting bitches, do either of you know what the practical to green screen shots were like, and how many Tom Cruise did himself in this one?
Jeremy: Very little green screen – but a fair amount of wire removal for the safety rig Cruise wore during the climbing stunts. Is this the first Tom Cruise movie with him getting away with crazy stunts because he was also the producer?
Brett: Was there an action scene/style that worked better for you guys than others?
Gabby: The hand-to-hand combat seems to suit him much better, along with the rock climbing and flips through the air. Much more Cruise’s style.
Jeremy: The gunplay and hand-to-hand stuff works for me, but it’s the stunts that really make this movie special. From everything I can gather, the knife to Tom Cruise’s eye stunt was completely real. They blocked the scene, measured the distance between the knife and his eye to a quarter-inch, and tethered Dougray Scott to a cable that would stop him from making contact with Cruise by said distance. Un-fucking-believable. Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but he is Jackie Chan-levels of committed to wowing you.
Brett: I found the shootout in the lab really, really didn’t work. But him shooting the gun at the motorcycle behind him, aiming in the mirror, that worked for me. It’s part of the big end setpiece, where it’s just stunts and stunts and stunts and then that happens and I’m like “Sure, that, too. Why not?” The car bit at the beginning doesn’t work, but the hand-to-hand fight on the beach kind of does.
Gabby: Moving away from the action scenes, what do you both think of the performances?
Brett: Tom Cruise is dragging this film towards success. What’s his name, the blonde side kick to Dougray Scott, he seems to have an idea what he’s doing. Thandie Newton seems to be in an entirely different movie. Dougray Scott seems to be under directed. Like he was told to look sad or confused or angry, but wasn’t given a lot of direction beyond that. There are so many shots of him just staring into camera.
Gabby: Can you elaborate on what movie Thandie Newton is in? I think I might agree with that.
Brett: I think she thought she was in a lighthearted heist movie. Like this was sold to her as a mid-’60s throwback.
Gabby: Yeah, that is it.
Brett: There is a playfulness to her performance that is at odds with much of the rest of the movie. Right up until the lab, she’s being the Nora to Tom Cruise’s Nick. Had this movie had a light and fun tone, it would have been accepted, stupid as it it. But John Woo wanted tragic sadness in Sean and Ethan’s relationship. If you listen to the commentary, Woo mentions the sadness in Scott’s eyes so many times. There’s supposed to be this tragic, operatic sadness to everything.
Gabby: Do you think the sadness works at all?
Brett: No. Categorically, no.
Gabby: I agree.
Jeremy: I’m on the same page about the performances. Only thing to add is that, if the rough cut was indeed an hour and a half longer, everyone’s acting choices probably made more sense before the puzzle was put together with only about half the pieces.
And these films kept going back to the same well with the rogue IMF agent being the bad guy. None of the movies really commit to the idea. You’re supposed to look at Jon Voight, Dougray Scott, or Billy Crudup and think about how easy it would be for Ethan Hunt to go over to the dark side. The problem is it’s Tom Cruise – he’s going to be damn near perfect and save the day.
That’s why everyone loves Ghost Protocol so much. It loses a lot of the melodrama and focuses on giving trickier and trickier situations for Ethan Hunt and his team to get out of.
Do you think John Woo is capable of a light touch, Brett? I always got the impression that Hard Target’s nuttiness came from Sam Raimi. Do a double feature of Hard Target and Army of Darkness. They’re cut from the same bolt of cloth.
Gabby: I love Hard Target!
Jeremy: I’ve only seen it a handful of times, which is odd. Every time I watch it, I think, “This is amazing. Why don’t I own this?”
Brett: Once a Thief, the movie Woo made just before Hard Boiled, actually has a light touch. Not a perfect movie in any regard, but it has a sense of fun about it. It’s got sort of a love story, it’s got some high wire tricks, it’s got some action. It’s pretty good, just not great. It’s kind of silly, but silly in a way it means, rather than, say, Hard Target.
Jeremy: A Better Tomorrow II is also a comedy, right?
Brett: A Better Tomorrow II is hilarious, but not for the reasons intended. It’s the most sequel-y sequel ever made.
Jeremy: Been so long since I’ve seen it. I remember the first one being one of those movies that shouldn’t have a sequel but the money was too good to resist. They had to give Chow Yun-Fat’s character a twin brother, since he died in the first movie.
Brett: Yup! And it includes a rant where Chow Yun Fat demands a mafioso apologize to a bowl of rice. It’s that sort of transcendent movie we look for when we talk about good-bad movies. And it is the ultimate sequel.
Jeremy: And did Chow Yun-Fat’s long lost twin brother and company ever find Curly’s Gold?
Brett: They blew it up. They blew up a lot of stuff. So many explosions. Such action. Wow!
Jeremy: Speaking of classic movies like City Slickers 2, one thing I’m surprised hasn’t come up yet – especially from you, Gabby – is that MI: II is an unapologetic homage of Hitchcock’s Notorious.
Jeremy: It works well enough. The problem is MI: II doesn’t have time to be just that story. Notorious has enough breathing room for Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to fall in love before she has to go seduce the bad guy. I do like the twist that Thandie Newton poisons herself in this version.
Gabby: I enjoyed that too. The main problem when comparing the two is that Woo really misses the tone of the original film. The sadness of Ingrid Bergman is just beautifully played and worked into the film. Whereas in this it seems just a bit of a mesh. Notorious is such a tightly woven plot, even the character building all feels like it is going somewhere. So not only do we feel for her, and Cary, but we get the emotional story of their past and what her reputation is versus what is really happening, combined with an incredibly suspenseful, beautifully filmed movie. The emotional drama in MI: II is a miss. It doesn’t get why it works so well in Notorious.
But MI: II is its own thing and I appreciate that. This is definitely an entertaining film in the last section. The rest drifts too much. And like I say, it certainly tries and I like a lot of the action seems grounded. Even the beginning rock climbing is fun and adds a great backdrop to the opening of the film. And it prepares you on some level to the batshit awesome of the last section. I think it has more to offer than that, for reasons that we have pointed out earlier, but if you are still not convinced, watch it if only for that I would say.
I think that is about all I have to say about that – other than Cary Grant and Tom Cruise are very different actors and I don’t understand how to compare them. Cary Grant was one of the most charming people ever to walk the Earth. I think Tom Cruise is more of a fun version of John Wayne perhaps, than anything.
Brett: I think Tom wanted to be Cary. And there are shots of Chow Yun Fat where I have seen him from the corner of my eye and thought Cary Grant was suddenly there. So I think Tom Cruise thought John Woo could turn him into a guy like that. The problem is, that wasn’t in the director, it was in the actor.
Brett: One last question before we get to our final thoughts, why can’t the IMF keep executives? Tom Cruise has a different boss in every movie. Granted, they kill the Secretary in Ghost Protocol, but still…
Gabby: The series should have a consistent M or Moneypenny.
Jeremy: I like the revolving door of talent, both in front of and behind the camera. I’m of two minds about where the series has gone since MI: III, when it fell under Bad Robot’s stewardship.
The Bad Robot movies are more consistent, but the flipside is they have a more predictable formula. MI: III is the last movie which keeps to the original mission statement for the franchise: give the reins to a different idiosyncratic filmmaker each time, provide them will all the talent and resources they could ever ask for, and tell them to turn their brand up to 11.
Don’t get me wrong, you can clearly hear Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie’s directorial voices in Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, but I don’t think you get their passions and idiosyncrasies like you do with the directors of the first three movies.
And here’s my final thoughts, which I’ll keep brief, since this did not turn out to be our shortest conversation. I haven’t seen MI: II in over a decade. Watching this again was like discovering an old mix-tape from high school and giving it a listen – fun, nostalgic, and a little embarrassing. This was never my favorite John Woo movie, but I used to watch this and think a genius was at work. I still think Woo is a genius, but no one’s on the same page here. It’s still worth a watch if you’re a John Woo or Mission: Impossible completest, but that’s about it. Otherwise, catch the last 45 minutes on cable and you’re good.
We’ll be back soon with Gabby’s pick, Night of the Museum 2. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave a comment below. Thanks for reading, everyone.