Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Film Appreciation - This is not Mission: Difficult

Cody Hamman talks his fandom of Tom Cruise and Film Appreciation for 2000's Mission: Impossible II.

The films of Tom Cruise have always been regular features on my family's TV screens. From when I was a kid, I can remember my sister watching The Outsiders, my brother watching Taps, Top Gun, Cocktail, wanting to go see Born on the Fourth of July, everyone in the family watching Rain Man at some point. I was always aware of Cruise as an actor who did quality work, but it wasn't until the release of Jerry Maguire when I was 13 that I became a full-fledged fan. It was a great film, Cruise did an amazing job in it, and they both became one of my favorites. When Jerry Maguire hit VHS, I showed the movie to every family member I could. For me, the summer of 1997 was all about two movies: Chasing Amy and Jerry Maguire.

A movie that came out later in '97 was Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, which I loved. So when I heard that Tom Cruise would be in PTA's next film, Magnolia, I was very excited. And when I saw Magnolia, I was completely blown away. I proclaimed it my favorite movie and during the several times I've watched it over the last 12 years, it's the one movie that I've never made it through a viewing of without crying. One of the highlights of that fantastic film is Cruise's performance as sexist self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey.

It was while I was over the moon with Magnolia and Frank T.J. Mackey that the trailer for Mission: Impossible II started making the rounds, with the movie set for release in May 2000. I had seen the first M:I movie in '96 and enjoyed it, though I was one who had gotten lost among its twists and turns. But this sequel looked totally different. Cruise's idea for the M:I film franchise was to make it a "director's showcase", to hire a different, interesting director for each installment and have them take the basic idea and Cruise's character Ethan Hunt and handle the story and tone in their own way. The first had been directed by Brian De Palma. The director for part 2 was John Woo, who had packed his film with action. Among the shots of gunfire, explosions, and vehicular chases (there was a rumor that the motorcycle chase would take up the entire last third of the movie) in the trailer, there was a sight that was awe-inspiring: Tom Cruise doing all sorts of flips and kicks, beating up bad guys in a way that he had never before done on film. This looked awesome.

I went to the theatre to see Mission: Impossible II with high anticipation based on getting to watch Tom Cruise kick ass John Woo style. The movie totally delivered what I was there to see.

The story is quite simple, so simple that one character even questions if it really could be that simple. The response, "Why not?"

Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt is offered a mission, which he chooses to accept, that requires him to recruit civilian Nyah Nordoff-Hall (the lovely Thandie Newton) as a member of his team. Hunt makes contact with Nyah in Spain and they've embarked on a love affair by the time he receives further details from a superior - Nyah has been recruited so she can infiltrate a group led by her former boyfriend Sean Ambrose, an IMF agent who's gone rogue.

After Nyah agrees to do the job, the operation moves to where Ambrose is, in Sydney, Australia. Hunt reluctantly sends Nyah off to make contact with Ambrose and completes his mission team with the addition of helicopter pilot Billy Baird (John Polson) and techie Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, the only actor other than Cruise to be in all the movies), with whose help he's able to keep satellite surveillance on Nyah. As Hunt describes it, "We just rolled up a snowball and tossed it into Hell. Now we'll see what chance it has."

It's soon revealed that Ambrose has stolen the only known cure for a new, very deadly virus and is blackmailing the CEO of the pharmaceutical company where it was created. The action kicks in as Hunt does his best to thwart Ambrose's plans.

John Woo developed the action sequences and then passed them over to screenwriter Robert Towne (best known for Chinatown) to work into his script. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga (writing partners on Star Trek: The Next Generation projects and a rejected draft of Freddy vs. Jason) also have a "story by" credit.

The clear inspiration for the screenplay was Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, which featured Cary Grant as a government agent who falls for the civilian he's been assigned to make contact with (the lovely Ingrid Bergman) before he receives further details from a superior - the girl is meant to infiltrate a group of Nazis led by a man who was once in love with her. Mission: Impossible II uses the set-up of the 1946 film, and several scenes and dialogue exchanges are almost directly lifted from it.

Ethan Hunt is at his coolest in this film. In the others he's much more harried and hapless, in part 3 especially he screws up all over the place, nothing goes right for him in that movie. Here, he's totally suave and at the height of his capabilities. This is the closest the films ever got to making Ethan Hunt the American equivalent to James Bond.

Despite the rumors I had heard before the film came out, the motorcycle chase doesn't take up a third of the running time by itself. It's even better than that - the action sequences combined take up almost the whole second hour of the film. There's some of Hunt's trademark "acrobatic insanity", some stealth, copious amounts of gunfire, that motorcycle chase is great, and yes: Tom Cruise taking down villains with fists and feet, jumping up and doing flips in the air to put boot to skull.

I mentioned in my Appreciation for Richard Linklater's Tape that there were several movies that I was watching over and over as I neared my high school graduation in June of 2002, Tape being one of them. Mission: Impossible II was another, as was the first M:I and another Tom Cruise film that I'll be writing about soon. Along with that other Cruise film, M:I 2 is the one that I have the most clear memories of watching repeatedly at that time, the movie playing out on a nearby screen as I crammed like a madman to finish up my schoolwork.

I was watching the two Mission: Impossible movies a lot at that time because Mission: Impossible III had just been confirmed as officially in the works, probably for a 2004 release, and the announcement of the director in April of 2002 was amazing news: David Fincher. I was so excited for a Fincher-directed M:I 3, I could not wait to see what his dark, twisted vision would bring to the franchise. Fincher described his idea as "really cool, really violent", and the story was reportedly about the black market buying and selling of human body parts in Africa. Oh my God! With my enjoyment of the first having grown since part 2 was made, I now loved both previous movies and the third one was going to be one of the greatest things ever.

The news hit that Fincher had left the project in early 2003, and I'm still disappointed that his M:I didn't happen. I was also quite interested to see the gritty, "punk rock" version of M:I 3 that Fincher's replacement Joe Carnahan put around a year's work into.

Putting the "what if" and "what could've been" daydreams about lost sequels aside, I do enjoy both of the entries that have followed; the J.J. Abrams-directed M:I 3 that finally reached theatres in 2006, and Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the DVD/Blu-ray release of which will be on the shelves of stores when they open in the morning. Within 12 hours of this article going up, a copy of Ghost Protocol will be in my collection.

But to this day, Mission: Impossible II remains my favorite of the series, because of how spectacular the sight of Cruise doing the stunts was to me immediately in the wake of Magnolia, and the important time in my life in 2002 that it accompanied me through.

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