In Mission: Impossible 2, Cruise and Woo Gag on Their Own Corruption

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Impossible 2
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

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
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
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

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.