In Mission: Impossible 2, Cruise and Woo Gag on Their Own Corruption
Mission: Impossible 2 Directed by John Woo
Here's the pattern: Impossible Missions agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) recruits jewel thief Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton) to help steal a deadly virus before Nyah's former lover Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) can use it to extort a pharmaceutical company and, ultimately, the entire world's health. Double-crosses, killings, fancy technology and mayhem result. A few more openings like this and Gladiator and Dinosaur and it really will be the death of cinema.
Everyone wants to have fun at the movies?that's the prime reason for going. But the blatant manipulation employed by director John Woo takes the fun out of watching M:I-2's action sequences. We've seen his firecracker gunfights and his damned interfering pigeons too often. And Tom Cruise has flashed his hollow grin to a near-rictus point. Know what decadence is? It's screenwriter Robert Towne having a villain crack a joke about the Cruise grin. (Towne flaunts his own pandering and the audience's shamelessness.) A similar boast happens in Gladiator when there's talk about putting on a good show to win over the mob. This kind of filmmaking expertise is simply contemptuous. In several scenes Towne's characters even joke about desperate suckers who are "gagging for it"?that is, for the illusion of love. The illusion of entertainment is all Mission: Impossible 2 provides. The Tom and Thandie action figures, the relentless chase sequences and the shootouts have no emotional appeal. They're contrived to make an audience think the noise and speed means it's having fun. While gagging.
There was a time in the late 80s when critics talked about John Woo as if cinema were going to be saved by Hong Kong action directors. Now it's plain how close Hong Kong was to Hollywood schlock?Mission: Impossible 2 suggests there was never any difference. The decline of popular entertainment can be traced to that emphasis on visceral effect, the common-denominator approach to moviemaking that insists people only respond to noise and spectacle. But what once was thrilling in the James Bond series was eventually improved upon by the more comical Indiana Jones series?violent shtick that, when done in excess and without humor, earned James Cameron a bogus reputation. At the heart of this generic formula is an undeniable adolescent thrall?nothing wrong with tapping that (Ready to Rumble has essentially adolescent charm and it's one of the most enjoyable films of the year). But when movies expend huge amounts of money and social influence to offer little more than dumb fun, then what's deliberately wack is out of whack.
Action movies now command the kind of acceptance that, years ago, one might grant charitably?as when, say, Ron Howard unpretentiously starred in Eat My Dust for drive-in crowds. Today, the film industry expects both gratitude and intellectual humility. This debased cultural response derives from television?the speciously free habit. It provided viewers with constant distraction but did not require them to think. As television increased its massive, blatant effect, other cultural forms such as live theater lost their popular touch. At one time prestigious Hollywood releases were frequently based on adaptations of plays, reflecting not only the importance live theater used to have, but also a general cultural interest in literacy and the verbal expression of moral dilemmas. Audiences now expect little and are thankful for it. Adaptations of tv shows like The Addams Family, The Flintstones, McHale's Navy, The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies and Mission: Impossible are significant only for how completely they obliterate the intellectual challenge and invitation formerly implicit in film versions of plays, novels and short stories. Though this may seem like merely an attitude change courtesy of boomers, the trend has a more coarse effect. And summer action movies like M:I-2 demonstrate the full extent of the catastrophe.
Popularity at the movies now implies tv-influenced inanity. That's how Gladiator gets away with visually inelegant, choppy battle scenes?cheap steals from Seven Samurai and Chimes at Midnight; slanted f/x without spatial density; murky characterizations and shallow political references. (Even Titanic's big dumb sinking boat and puppy-love plot similarly proved that all that can unite the contemporary, tv-blunted pop audience is bombast.) Thus M:I-2's set pieces include a pointless mountain-climbing episode with the star seeming to hang in limbo; a Tom-and-Thandie flirtation-cum-car-chase that zips around narrow cliffs like the nearly unintelligible stunts in Wayne Isham's Bye Bye Bye video for NSYNC. None of these sequences bear thinking about afterward; they're just momentary dazzle like in tv commercials. In fact, you get their essence in the tv spots. Going to the movie theater is just a way to confirm you have ingested the meaningless message.
Mission: Impossible 2 shows how the summer movie's degradation is one with the mass media's. It's in the tradition of 80s movies like Top Gun by the school of Brit-whore directors Ridley and Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker (and today their unholy progeny David Fincher, Michael Bay, Dominic Sena). Those directors perverted cinema into television?a development related to how Hong Kong directors like John Woo were able to master action movie techniques and extend them to incoherence and inconsequence. M:I-2 adds nothing to the formula Woo was imported to verify in Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Face/Off. The latter gets reworked at various M:I-2 plot points, even though the doppelganger enigmas Woo always favors give no deeper understanding of the Ethan-Nyah-Sean triangle.
Not that Cruise could actually play a believably complicated character. One of the wildest follies of recent movie history has been watching Cruise's elevation to great actor status. Sure, he has his stock role?the young guy working hard to prove himself more substantial than he appears. But Cruise has yet to make a movie where his credibility does not come from outside. Apologists for Eyes Wide Shut took the film to be Kubrick's commentary on Cruise himself. Sentimentalists fell for Jerry Maguire's whitewash of sports agents. Fans of Magnolia were suckers for over-the-top "acting." And Mission: Impossible fans simply lacked the wit to laugh when Tommy sneered, "You haven't seen me upset!" The mistaken-identity jokes in M:I-2 are especially laughable when we're meant to discern the true vacuous actor. Cruise has only consistently been an idol of success, starting with his proto-yuppie role in Risky Business (a more emblematic 80s figure than Michael Douglas in Wall Street), which established Cruise as a blameless capitalist mascot. Since then Cruise has chosen commercial projects less as a matter of taste than no taste?he's proven to be cannier than the merely lucky Travolta. Playing Ethan Hunt, there's none of the athletic or seductive qualities generally associated with action heroes but Cruise is an authentic movie star because he isn't believable as anything else.
After Ethan falls into comic book love with Nyah, he's forced to exploit her (and risk their relationship) by putting her back into Sean's bed. This recalls the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman-Claude Rains dilemma at the heart of Hitchcock's great 1946 Notorious?and it ought to be the moment M:I-2 gains heart?but expecting a modern action movie to supply such moral intricacy is a truly impossible mission. Instead, cynicism passes for sophistication. Ethan and Nyah never develop rapport, but Ethan's boss (Anthony Hopkins) demeans Nyah by telling him, "To go to bed with a man and lie to him? She's a woman, she's got all the experience she needs [to do that]." Nothing in the story refutes or justifies the attitude behind such lines. It's there merely to jack up tired, juvenile formula. Or maybe something worse. The James Bond movies did not display such cynicism toward women. It's doubtful that Hollywood would treat a white actress so disrespectfully but there may indeed be some sly bias going on here because each major male character gets to inject Nyah, sexually or biomedically. (Though by the time Ving Rhames?playing Cruise's techno-butler?gets to inject her, it's sloppy thirds.) Despite these hostilities, Thandie Newton, the most remarkable actress in movies today, stays graceful and glowing, mainly by smirking at Nyah's assignment. At least she's never gagging for it.
Repeated throughout the film are Towne's lines about "To search for a hero, one needs a villain." It's a generic platitude, meant to impress teenagers?or childish fans?who are eager to see M:I-2 as some kind of distillation of the epic form (a tv addict's perspective). It's all just an example of Towne conforming to Hollywood's debased idea of entertainment. The moment Towne's screenwriting credit first appeared on a Tom Cruise film in Days of Thunder (turning his back on Chinatown, The Last Detail and Shampoo) we saw the ugly truth of sellout. Inventing characters titled Cole Trickle and Harry Hogge, plus making Nicole Kidman a brain surgeon, were hallmarks of venality (later reprised in The Firm). But here Towne mostly taints himself with the sub-Notorious sexual conflict, then fails to make a plausible boy-girl dynamic duo. In the best dialogue of the entire film, Ethan asks if Nyah would feel better knowing he hated exploiting her. When she says yes, he shouts: "Feel better!" Clever but shameful. It's the same as Woo, Towne and Cruise demanding absolution for their own corruption. They're gagging for it.
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