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Mission 2: Successful

With a head full of Notorious thoughts, director John Woo leads the charge in the visceral M:I-2

Early on in Mission: Impossible 2(or M:I-2, as the confident Paramount now calls it), hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) complains to his boss about his new assignment: "It's going to be difficult."

"It's not mission difficult, Mr. Hunt," the boss icily replies. "It's mission impossible. 'Difficult' should be a walk in the park." Similarly, making a sequel to a huge hit like the 1996 Mission: Impossible without allowing it to turn into a complete redundancy (i.e., a thinly veiled remake) may not be a walk in the park, but it's not impossible, either. And for the most part, Cruise, director John Woo and screenwriter Robert Towne have succeeded.

M:I-2 is a quintessential summer movie. More to the point, it is, save a few plot flaws, a very good summer movie. It's yet further evidence that in terms of savvy career management, Cruise is the new Clint Eastwood. (John Travolta, on the other hand, to judge by Battlefield Earth, is the new Burt Reynolds.) The endless shoot for Eyes Wide Shut may have eaten up a lot of Cruise's revenue-generating time, but working with Kubrick was a classy decision and hence a good long-term career move. M:I-2 has all the trappings of a classy project and, unlike Eyes Wide Shut, will reaffirm Cruise's box-office power.

Your mission, Tom: To act like you're not constantly upstaged by John Woo's operatic action scenes.
Paramount Pictures
Your mission, Tom: To act like you're not constantly upstaged by John Woo's operatic action scenes.

For the first Mission: Impossible, Cruise, in his role as co-producer, chose to hire Brian de Palma rather than the music-video hacks that his former producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Days of Thunder) likes to employ -- people like Simon West (Con Air) and Michael Bay (Armageddon). It may have been no surprise to see the name of David Koepp (Jurassic Park) among the screenwriting credits, but also on board were Towne (Chinatown) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List).

Cruise brought back Towne to do the screenplay for the new film and signed up Woo, a distinctive stylist who is regarded by many to be the greatest living action director. The result is part Woo, part Cruise/Towne, a hybrid that works well 90 percent of the time.

The film opens with a precredit setup sequence involving a research biochemist (Radé Sherbedgia) and a lethal virus, then proceeds to another setup sequence: Hunt receiving his new assignment while rock-climbing in the middle of nowhere. Hunt is instructed to include in his team a beautiful young thief, Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton). Only after he has fallen in love with her does he find out why she's so essential: She is the ex-lover of Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), the renegade Impossible Mission Force operative, who is planning to make a mint off the hideous virus. Hunt's superior (played by a very major star in an unbilled cameo) orders him to send Nyah not only into incredible jeopardy (which could have been predicted), but also into bed with Sean.

What's a top-secret-operative-in-love to do?

Well, if you really want to know the answer ahead of time, drag yourself over to the video store and rent Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 Notorious, from which this plot concept is lifted wholesale. Cary Grant recruits disreputable Ingrid Bergman, falls in love with her and then discovers that her assignment is to move in with Nazi ex-admirer Claude Rains. There are so many blatant similarities, including at least two specific early scenes, that one has to assume forthright homage rather than outright theft. (There is also a small debt to North by Northwest.) Still, an acknowledgment of the source material would have been nice. Of course, stylistically, this isn't Notorious at all. It's basically Notorious refracted through four decades of James Bond films and then executed with Woo's trademark visuals.

That said, those expecting a repetition of Woo's late Hong Kong masterpieces, with their stylish gun battles, should be warned: While the film is full of action, the first shoot-out doesn't occur until more than halfway through. Most of the action scenes prior to that revolve around cars, motorcycles and bombs -- everything but guns.

While Woo stages, shoots and edits some of these bits with his usual combination of regular-speed footage intercut with various degrees of slow motion, they don't always bring out his best, which depends on the gracefulness of human movementŠ or at least a heightened simulation of that gracefulness. It's hard to infuse explosions and speeding vehicles with the kind of beautiful motion that Woo brought to his Hong Kong shoot-outs.

In fact, the most satisfying moments in the first half aren't the big action sequences but the shots of Hunt first spotting Nyah and their subsequent "meet cute" in the middle of a robbery. Woo directs this material very much like a dance, with the camera and the performers choreographed together into passionate movement. Woo's technique has always had emotional undercurrents; in this sequence, the emotions are right on the surface.

While the filmmakers have avoided the urge simply to clone the first film, they have reprised its most memorable set piece: Hunt's dangling break-in of a well-protected lab. For the second go-around, they simply take the original concept and multiply its physical dimensions by ten. It's pleasingly ridiculous -- and exciting.

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