[Deep Focus]
Hey, ladies.

As a confirmed John Woo fan who thinks Face/Off is just about as close to a perfect summer movie as Hollywood has come in the last 10 years, I suppose I'm required to have an opinion on his follow-up. Trouble is, M:I 2 is everything that detractors of Hollywood blockbusters claim they are - loud, technically proficient, very expensive, and pretty much soulless.

It is, however, reasonably enjoyable. And I left mindless out of that description above because it's obvious that this film was made by very intelligent people. Tom Cruise is the Hollywood wonder boy who continually strives to Do the Right Thing. It's not sufficient that he took two years out of his life to star in a Kubrick movie (and one that was aggressively misunderstood by so many viewers). It's not even enough that he followed that up with a stint in the three-hour Magnolia for director P.T. Anderson. No, Cruise has insisted, for two films running, that the very lucrative Mission: Impossible franchise be handed over to a confirmed auteur.

The first picture, a highly entertaining (and unfairly belittled) exercise in visual storytelling, was Brian De Palma's 70s-style suspense thriller in the guise of a 1990s blockbuster. Along those lines, the new one can be read as John Woo's homage to his own movies. Robert Towne, whose credit as the writer of Chinatown generally follows whenever his name is mentioned, was brought in to re-work the script after the lavish action sequences had been set in stone. You can feel the resultant tug-of-war in the movie, with the characters and story pulling one way while the precisely shot and timed action scenes want to go somewhere else entirely.

To wit: how can a film pair Cruise with the intelligent and very good-looking Thandie Newton, incite his sexual jealousy by hooking her up with her villainous ex-boyfriend to milk him for info, and then fail to allow Cruise to rescue her after she's been injected with a lethal virus? There's a wonderful motorcycle chase through the outskirts of Sidney, Australia, full of balletic fluorishes, which is followed by the obligatory scene in which good guy and bad guy beat the hell out of each other. Nonetheless, isn't it just crazy to deny your leading man the dignity of rescuing his leading lady? What the hell happened to chivalry? And was this accidental, or is Woo really only interested in the relationships between the men in his movies?

The other big problem is, unfortunately, Tom Cruise. Don't get me wrong -- it's been a while since I've watched him in a movie without flinching or wincing at least once, as he overreaches or hits a hopelessly sour note (generally whenever he's asked to weep openly). But in this one, he manages pretty much exactly what's demanded of him, hitting all his marks and quite credibly portraying a wider range of emotion than you might expect in a soulless Hollywood blockbuster. Trouble is, once John Woo cranks up the shutter speed and asks his hero to twist himself in mid air, landing a double kick upside the villain's face, it's a situation that demands a battle-hardened bad-ass of the caliber of Chow Yun Fat, not a relative pretty boy like Cruise. (Yes, I know Cruise could kick my ass, but that's irrelevant. I'm not up there acting like Chow Yun Fat.)

I'd forgive all this if I thought Woo was working at the absolute top of his game in the action scenes, but, most disappointingly, I don't even think that's the case. Maybe there was too much pressure from the folks holding the pursestrings, maybe movies just go on autopilot when they hit a certain budgetary level, or maybe Woo just wasn't so inspired by his material this time around. Whatever the reasons, the action set pieces that dominate the last 45 minutes of Mission: Impossible II are technically impressive but rote, and never as overwhelming as the jaw-dropping, character-driven action that topped out Face/Off. In my estimation, it all comes as too little too late.

At times like these, however, I'm reminded that Oliver Stone was, at one point, a contender to direct this movie, and I remember how pleased I felt when I learned that he wasn't doing it, after all. I suppose a Stone-helmed MI: 3 could be a satisfactory undertaking, assuming the director doesn't insert his dubious brand of Native American mythology into the mix just for the hell of it. At the same time, despite my very mixed feelings about the results, I'm glad my man John Woo got to go there first.

Directed by John Woo
Starring Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton
USA, 2000

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Panavision)
Screened at Loews Palisades Center, West Nyack, NY

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