Josh Slater-Williams

Rogue Sequel: In Defence of John Woo’s ‘Mission: Impossible II’

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In the largely homogeneous world of blockbuster franchise filmmaking (hi, Marvel Studios), the nearly 20-years old Mission: Impossible series is perhaps the only still ongoing one that can, without a doubt, be described as director-driven. Brian De Palma’s first film in the series was loosely based on the popular television series of the same name, but it saw fit to treat fan service as red herrings: all IMF squad bar members except Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt are slaughtered within the first act, while series protagonist Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) is revealed to be a traitor. Of the utmost concern to De Palma are his trademark motifs regarding voyeurism, and his spy film fits better in the company of his films like Blow Out than something like the prior year’s Bond entry, GoldenEye. He takes the basic concept of Mission: Impossible and reboots it to suit his own whims.

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And so, it is that a similar approach has been carried over to each installment, where every sequel is like its own reboot in a way. There’s continuity and commonality here and there (hi, Ving Rhames), and more so of that in the most recent three films (hi, Bad Robot Productions), but the big connective tissue is always that of using Cruise as a tool, placing him in oft-incredible, elaborate cinematic spectacles — Ethan Hunt is a device, not a character. Yet, the installment that arguably made the best use of Cruise as an instrument of violence is considered the black sheep of the series. Not to say that John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II is the best of the franchise, but there’s much to appreciate here and its rhythms have only become more interesting with age.

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Fully asserting the series reboot mantra, M:I-2 eschews the original’s ethos in favour of half a Hitchcock riff (a lot of Notorious, with a pinch of To Catch a Thief) and half traditional, near self-parodic Woo bombast (not enough for some fans, but there’s set pieces here that are among his very best). It’s often dopey, but then, to be fair, so are a lot of Hong Kong action films that don’t tend to get flak for that attribute, including Woo’s own action masterpieces made there. Fifteen years on and three more sequels later, it’s curious to observe how Woo’s film is even less like a traditional Hollywood action blockbuster than De Palma’s. It actually wouldn’t seem terribly out of place among the output of Milkyway Image, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s production company known best for crime and action films that have more in common with Jean-Pierre Melville than a Michael Bay type.

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Milkyway’s films (e.g. Exiled, Drug War) tend to deliberately hone in on the mechanical, focusing on process and favouring fluidity in motion. They can often be complex, but the filmmakers prefer inference in mood and minimal exposition. Woo’s M:I-2 is almost like a blend of prime Woo and the newer tendencies of Milkyway, with soaring melodramatics being driven by what’s possibly the least showy performance of Cruise’s career in terms of actually speaking. Much like a Milkyway cop or assassin, Hunt is a man just doing what he does and doesn’t need to tell us much. In the best moments of M:I-2, one might be inclined to lament the other sequels’ favouring of more banter-heavy interpersonal conflict, over examination and manipulation of Cruise’s cinematic persona. But then, that’s the beauty of the series. There’s a mission for all tastes, should you choose to accept it.

Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.

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