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Mission: Impossible 2
A movie review

Tom cruise and Ving Rhames

Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames in M:I-2

Tom Curise and Thandie Newton

Thandie Newton and Tom Cruise

Dougray Scott, Richard Roxburgh and William Mapother

Dougray Scott, Richard Roxburgh and William Mapother

Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt

Photos: Courtesy of Paramount

By Melynda Nuss

NEW YORK, 28 July 2000 - It's summer, and that can only mean one thing: it's time for things to blow up. And so we have M:I-2. Never have so many flammable liquids been stored in so many inauspicious places. Ethan Hunt even shoots a car's gas tank after he's already killed the driver, just to see the thing blow up in mid air. It is, in all respects, an explosive production.

Action movies have had a problem since the late 1980's. The cowboy cop with a grudge against the system is all but gone now - perhaps we've all become a little bit more optimistic about structures of power these days - and good evil terrorists (not the kind trained by Americans) are hard to find. So the latest manifestation has been the techno-porn thriller, where the main attractions are the technology itself, the James Bond travelogues, which seem to be designed to sell you the very latest in technology products, the maturing familial angst of the Lethal Weapon movies, and of course, the glorified music video, designed to attract disgruntled MTV fans with a rush of light and noise. True, it's been a great decade for action qua action - it's hard to quarrel with John Woo's choreography and filmcraft - but for those of us who want a plot along with our action, these have been pretty dismal times.

M:I-2 changes all of that, and it does so with a combination of the old and the new that, for some reason, seems to work perfectly here. As for the old, this is what the old James Bond movies used to be - a cool hero, a shadowy government, a plot to take over the world, and lots of gadgets that you can't find at your local Sharper Image, plus enough sexual tension to cut a steel cable. As for the new, this is definitely a movie in the music video genre - it would be hard to imagine a movie with less dialogue (all of it delightfully bad) - but it does the music video much better than the previous incarnation of the genre, Armageddon. The cliff hanging scenes are more dizzying, the rush of speed more palpable, the characters more menacing - and lots of things blow up.

John Woo has also found a nifty solution to the no-good-heroes/no-good-villains problem, one that he tried - and botched - in Face Off. The hero and villain are each other's doubles - they look alike, talk alike, work for the same people, love the same woman - except that one is good and one is evil. In Face Off, this gambit turned into an actors' derby. Once you got tired of seeing Nick Cage do his John Travolta imitation, and vice versa, there was just no there there. Here, Woo insists less on the physical similarities and more on how you'd tell the difference. After all, if both are shadowy agents working for the same conspiracy, what makes one stay good and the other turn bad? The answer here is particularly interesting -- love, work and violence. Hunt is a real gentleman; Ambrose a sinister misogynist. Hunt's violence is graceful, acrobatic; Ambrose doesn't mind a good punch to the gut or a shot in the face. Hunt tries to take a vacation; Ambrose is always looking for the next big score. Like the James Bond movies before it, this film is about violence reaffirming values, only this time, they're new values of respect and skill, not old values of class and loyalty.

The music video format also shows off Tom Cruise in a way that is somewhat surprising. It's been hard to like a Tom Cruise film since the early days of Top Gun and Risky Business. Even in those movies, his characters were annoying, and since then, they've only gotten worse. For an actor's actor - one who has worked with Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Stanley Kubrick - he seemed to be a one trick pony, and not a very good trick at that. Here, though, he's amazing. Deprived of dialogue, he acts with his body and his eyes. Few actors who could portray so much character in so few words. When he does speak, though, the old Tom Cruise comes shining through - the sexy leading man becomes the insufferable hotshot. Maybe Cruise has missed his time - he would have made an excellent silent movie star. Whatever the case, though, even those who normally find Cruise unbearable may leave M:I-2 surprised and impressed.

What sort of star rating do you give a good action film? Action is popcorn fodder - it doesn't have the pedigree of drama or suspense. No action movie has ever been nominated for an Academy Award, much less won one. Even when they're good, action movies are the punching bag of the critic's world - try talking up Bronson or Van Damme at a cocktail party and see what kind of looks you get. Good action movies don't tend to get recognized until later, when, like the James Bond movies, Rambo or Die Hard, they suddenly come to be acknowledged as the crystallizations of an entire zeitgeist or generation. M:I-2 isn't as political as Bond, or as finely crafted as Die Hard, but it's taut, well paced, and (this is essential for the genre) cheesy. It knows it's a big summer blockbuster, and it plays it for all its worth. The result is worth seeing and seeing again-if you like this sort of thing.

Melynda Nuss is a writer based in Austin, Texas. She is currently working on a book about stagecraft and the Romantic drama.

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