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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (3/24/19) 8:37pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  <none>
Movies:  Mission Impossible 2
TV:  <none>

Mission: Impossible 2
This is the 2000 sequel in which super-spy Ethan Hunt has to track down a dangerous biological weapon that's been stolen by an equally high-tech team of supervillains.

This movie's pedigree is impeccable.  The story is from Brannon Braga and Ron Moore, two Star Trek vets who between them created most of TNG and Deep Space Nine.  The script was by Robert Fucking Towne, a screenwriting icon best known for Chinatown; he rivals William Goldman for having endless varied and wonderful credits throughout the golden age of auteur cinema.  The director is John Woo, who is still one of the great Hong Kong action directors of all time.  And saw what you will about Tom Cruise's Scientological antics, he's always been a great movie star.  And they're building off of the original Mission: Impossible, a silly and fun spy caper with a bravura heist sequence as its centerpiece.

And yet, this movie is a great, steaming pile.  It does not work.  It does whatever the opposite of "work" is, and it does it so hard that it bears close analysis.

Oh, where to start.

Let's start with the stupidity.  The first Mission: Impossible was stupid, right?  It fell apart if you thought about it at all — and so the film did its best to keep the action moving, and keep you keenly aware of how you were *supposed* to be interpreting that action.  Mr. De Palma kept everything flashy and bright and tense, neatly distracting you from asking any awkward questions.

This sequel takes that stupidity and... maximizes it to a point that it becomes kind of surreal.  Like you've moved beyond "wow, that was stupid", beyond "these people shouldn't be spies, they should be institutionalized for their own well-being", and onto "what... is even *happening* here?"

Example: the opening sequence.  In the opening sequence of Mission: Impossible 2, the bad guys do the following:

  1. Kill a pilot, hide his body, and ensure nobody reports him missing.
  2. Get a replacement pilot to either take his identity or sneak aboard the flight.
  3. Jerry-rig the plane so it reports a nonexistent drop in cabin air pressure.
  4. Jerry-rig all the oxygen masks with colorless poison — counting on the poison to both work instantaneously *and* not fill the cabin with deadly gas, and counting on everybody aboard the plane to immediately use their masks properly.
  5. Impersonate Ethan Hunt, using both a mask *and* a new-fangled voice-synthesizer module.
  6. Ensure that a team of terrorists are secretly aboard this plane.
  7. Kill a scientist aboard the plane.
  8. Take a suitcase the scientist was carrying.
  9. Open a sizeable aperture in the bottom of the cargo bay, which I guess they must have custom-installed without anyone noticing?
  10. Parachute from the plane into some random part of the wilderness and presumably find their way back to civilization.
  11. Set the plane, via autopilot, to crash into the Rocky Mountains, thus killing everyone on board a second time.[1]
Why did they do all this?  Why did they take actions that would instantly get the attention of every law-enforcement agency in the country, leaving about a dozen threads of evidence leading back to themselves?

It was so that they could steal a bag from an elderly scientist.

I'd hate to see these villains try to make a sandwich.  In the process, they'd probably burn a house down, somehow violate the 3ʳᵈ amendment, and commit several kidnappings.

But this is the level of stupid we're dealing with.  It's *complicated* stupidity.  It's in-your-face stupidity that clamors for your attention.  It's the kind of stupid that actively interferes with suspending disbelief.

And it's so persistent that it kind of puts you back on your heels, leaning back from the movie, looking around for the next bizarrely dumb choice.

I'm going to go on a useless tangent here, but I need to talk about my favorite dumb thing in the movie.

The MacGuffin in Mission: Impossible 2 is "chimera", a dangerous bioweapon.  There is a scene where Ethan et al get details about this terrifying virus.[2]  And in quick succession, they learn the following:
  1. Everyone who contracts the virus shows the disease.
  2. Everyone shows clear symptoms within 20 hours, and it pretty much incapacitates them.
  3. The virus infects a cell and causes it to lyse — basically blow apart with nothing left.
  4. The virus infects erythrocytes, implying it may be a blood-borne disease.
As the team learns each of these facts, they're horrified.  The movie, via its editing choices, its cinematography, and its scoring, is clearly horrified too.

But the bizarre part is, if you're dealing with a virus with basically 100% lethality, every one of those facts should have been something of a relief:
  1. If everyone who gets the disease shows the disease, then it won't have "asymptomatic carriers" — i.e., people who are full of viruses but don't know that they're sick (think "Typhoid Mary") and thus get everyone else sick.
  2. A 20-hour incubation time is incredibly fast, and it's a godsend.  The worst thing is somebody infected with a virus, showing no symptoms, and (again) getting everyone else sick before we realize they're a problem.
  3. Viruses work by infecting cells and making them produce more viruses.  If it just blows the cell up — removing its host, and itself, and leaving no progeny behind — you have a virus that doesn't know how to virus, and shouldn't be a big problem.
  4. If the virus is blood-transmitted, that's a *huge* sigh of relief.  You can educate people "hey, if somebody's bleeding out on the sidewalk, please step clear" and the greater population will likely be okay.  It's airborne agents that are full-on terrifying.
I realize this is deep in the weeds — not everybody has a side interest in epidemiology — but this one stuck out to me because it was so *needlessly* stupid.  The gentlest rewrite would have established "this is a terrifying bioweapon" without even a whiff of idiocy.  But nope, here we are in dumbland, and the movie is just going to constantly, compulsively self-own.

So it's needlessly stupid.  It's also needlessly misogynist.  You go into this movie thinking, "Hey, Thandie Newton is in this!  She's a good actress.  It'll be nice to see this sequel give a female character some more agency than Emmanuelle Béart had in the first one."  And then Anthony Hopkins shows up, Tom Cruise tells him "She's got no training for this sort of thing," Mr. Hopkins responds with, "What? To sleep with a man and lie to him?  She's a woman.  She's got all the training she needs," and suddenly you know what you're in for over the next two hours.

True to form, Nyah (Ms. Newton's character) might as well be replaced with a cake.  Ethan Hunt decides he's really into the cake.  The cake is put in danger, and has to be protected.  The good guys and bad guys fight over the cake.  Eventually it all comes down to whether they can take down the bad guys and make sure the cake is safe.

They try to make a love story between Nyah and Ethan, but it just doesn't land.  They meet.  Nyah demands that Ethan best her in a car race (what?) in which she willfully destroys her BMW (wait, I'm still "what"ing about the car race) and they nearly get themselves killed (wait, *what?*).  This should tell us everything we need to know about how well this movie understands relationships between actual, round-earth humans — everything between them proceeds from there, feeling like an alien is making educated guesses about human mating procedures.  Between the lack of chemistry between the leads and the lack of agency for the love interest, one can again replace Nyah with a cake and things stay mostly the same.[3]

Quick sidebar: the movie gets weirdly racist on occasion too.  The villain snarlingly refers to women as "monkeys" while staring dead at Thandie Newton, a Zimbabwean-English actress.  And then there's a scene where, for no fathomable reason, the villain is in a Japanese-style room wearing a kimono.  Nyah is in the next room — he shuts a shoji screen to that room, and has a private conversation about whether to kill Nyah.  Because... that's how shoji screens work?  I don't even know any more.

"But Peter," says the voice in my head, "This isn't about relationships or logic.  This is a John Woo movie, so it's mainly about balletic action building up to bravura slow-motion "splash page"-esque shots.

Even on this, the film rarely delivers.  We *do* see some elements of Hong Kong action cinematography successfully carried over to this Hollywood production — things like repeatedly showing a fight's most impressive attack from several angles — but Mr. Woo's work here also reflects some bad aspects of American action cinema.  Sometimes you just can't follow the geography of a fight.  And sometimes Mr. Woo throws in slow-motion shots that aren't true slow motion — it's just a 24fps take that is slowed down, choppily showing each from for, say, a quarter of a second.

And the movie-combat conventions he leans on feel stale, here.  Yes, this is the universe where you can shoot a car near where you put gas into it, and it will explode like whoa, propelling the car skyward.  In fact, cars are rather miserably explosive in this universe.  Hit another car?  Explode.  Get shot?  Explode.  Take a turn too fast?  Spin out, roll over, explode.[4]  And of course if you don't absolutely double-tap the bad guy, they're going to pop back up at a dramatic moment.

They're the sort of action conventions that, say, John Wick feels like it's pushing back against, eschewing 80s-style explosions for a relentlessly-efficient "this is how you might kill lots of people in the real world" aesthetic.

The action is rarely engaging.  But Mr. Woo still tries to hit those balletic, slow-mo "beauty shots".  Only now, they're just completely un-earned.  My favorite (in the sense of "the silliest") example of this had Nyah meeting the villain on a pier.  It's just shots of each of them, on the pier, in slo-mo, for no reason.  By this point, I was just cheering it on — if this movie was going to be stupid, it might as well commit?

I'm not sure what else to say about this.  As I mentioned before, there's a massive passenger-jet crash in the first ten minutes, and then that somehow never crops up in the news — Mr. Hopkins talks about it like his top agent might not have gotten wind of it.  Amusingly their biggest most exciting piece of high-tech here is a GPS lo-jack tracker.  They set most of the story in Australia, and nothing about it, except its desperately repetitive stock footage of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, conveys that it's happening there.

They do have one promising action sequence, which is a heist at a biomedical firm.  It's got an interesting twist: the bad guys are trying to heist the same thing at the same time, with the advantage of knowing exactly how Ethan Hunt tends to organize his thefts.  But then they pull the brakes on that sequence so that they can have a long, long character-relationship scene.  Given that their characters are terribly thinly drawn, this is not a good thing.

And the score is just staggeringly bad.  It might be the worst score I've heard since Burn Notice.  It's just repetitive, chugging, 'edgy' guitars... forever.  It somehow makes the main Mission: Impossible theme sound dull.  It's like if Nickelback tried to score a porno.

And the thing is, if this movie weren't over two hours long, I'd actually recommend watching it.  It is by no means good, but as train wrecks go, this one is fascinating.  So much talent, and so much money, all going up in flames like so many regrettably-Pinto-esque SUVs.


For next week: I'm watching season one of GLOW and season two of The Dragon Prince.  I'm reading Amy Gentry's debut novel and Vegetable Gardening for Dummies.  I'm just starting up an audiocourse about the Islamic Golden Age.

_______
[1] "... what we in the army call 'overkill'."
[2] Note that this is about *an hour into the movie*.  Prior to this point, unless this is a re-watch, all you know is that the bad guys are after... something?  Something that's probably some sort of biological thing?  I'm told later movies have fun with *never* defining the MacGuffin, but here the protracted vagueness just makes it harder to get into the story.
[3] ... which is a massive loss for the film.  Exploring how being a spy makes it nigh-impossible to have normal relationships is one of the oldest tropes of the espionage genre, and they pretty much leave it on the table here.
[4] Note: this never actually happened.  But I'm sure it was happening *somewhere* in the world of this film.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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