Mission: Impossible 2 would have been better perceived if it had a subtitle like the post-threequel sequels. Like with those sequels, it would have made it more intriguing (if not easier) for conversational purposes. Chimera makes the film seem more cerebral. It wouldn’t be an asinine aside to point out that Mission: Impossible III is only perceived as being a classier affair because of the Roman numerals and the fact that it was J.J. Abrams who was chosen to lead the fray. Maybe John Woo’s red herring of the film franchise would’ve been taken more seriously had it not been edited to go from an R rating to PG-13. Much has been made of the fact that M:I-2 was originally three and a half hours long. It’s common for films to have that much footage for continuity purposes (otherwise there would be a stop/start feel to the whole proceedings). Things don’t add up – Troy was an R-rated period film with less star power, had a longer running time in the theaters (162 minutes), and was a big hit.
Warner Brothers allowed Wolfgang Petersen to have the director’s cut be a DVD release. Wolfgang’s cut was 195 minutes whereas Woo’s cut was 163 minutes. It’s sad that no-one over at Paramount has business sense. The theatrical cut of Woo’s movie was more successful than Wolfgang’s equivalent; not just in terms of number of dollars but the ratio of budget to box office being an accountant’s dream. Troy is an exemplary example because Nicolas Cage played a man named Caster Troy in Woo’s Face/Off, which reminds me of something – the Tom/John collaboration would easily have been more acclaimed if it was titled Face/Off 2 or maybe just Interface. The two Woo films are thematically linked. Face/Off has a hero named Sean whereas the Sean in M:I-2 is a villain. Their surnames begin with A. Both movies have a final fight that takes place on a beach. In fact, the constant usage of masks in M:I-2 along with the adversarial love triangle has already drawn comparisons by some critics.
What has been said by others is that this should really have been a standalone movie given how different that it was from the first film and the following features. This is the only movie where Ethan Hunt is not on the run from I.M.F. or working outside of it. Also, the Australian sidekick played by John Polson never returned for the follow-ups. With M:I-2, it seems that Tom Cruise as the main producer wanted to make the sort of sequel that is a parody of the first film. If this had been a Face/Off sequel, it would’ve played up the comedy akin to Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers II (which has been described as what if Charlie Sheen’s character from Hot Shots! was the star of a Top Gun sequel where his sidekick is Val Kilmer from the first movie). The Austin Powers trilogy was two thirds complete by the time that Tom and Woo got round to filming M:I-2. Part of what makes it a successful parody is that the action has risen to levels that rivalled any nineties 007 movie and inspired xXx.
That, right there, is the key to the movie’s success. If you look at something like Paul Feig’s wretched Spy, you can see what went wrong. Paul was torn between wanting to make a spy comedy and wanting to make a spy movie that could be taken seriously in terms of real danger leading to real action. He was persistent (not just insistent) on the movie not being perceived as a spy spoof because he knows that parodies tend to have lousy action. Even action comedies (at least the Hollywood if not Hong Kong ones) tend to have no real stakes, because even the villains tend to be goofballs who we aren’t meant to fear. Well, there’s this aspect or that the action tends to have too much slapstick and therefore not really a fun experience for people who like their action movies to be serious. It’s a testament to the casting team that Dougray Scott gave the best villainous performance in any of the Ethan Hunt movies. It’s like pantomine without being goofy, but with enough humour so as to not seem unintentional.
You know that it’s meant to be a satirical comedy when the villain mocks the actions and periodic grins of the lead. When the villian references sex while punishing his subordinate by putting him in a position where he sounds like he’s having sex, that was Woo’s way of poking fun at the critics who perceive homosexual subtext in his body of work. You know that it’s meant to be a parody when the poster features a creature that has long been a staple in the director’s movies. What may seem like overkill of a motif is actually a running gag much like the seemingly overdone masks trope or the supposedly overboard athletic improvement of the protagonist. As a matter of fact, the only reason why it wasn’t advertised as a parody is for the same reason why Spinal Tap wasn’t originally advertised as that. No matter how many jokes are inserted to show that you shouldn’t be taking things too seriously, there’s a reason why Commando wasn’t advertised as an action comedy back in 1985, and why the 1989 poster of Tango & Cash is po-faced.
The funniest scenes are always played with a straight face. Humour comes from the factual reality of the situation rather than the farcical fantasy. One should keep in mind that Woo was a comedy director before he made it big as an action man. It’s this juggling act which makes the pleasure less guilty as more viewings are permitted. Part of the problem in perceiving M:I-2 as a comedy is that the film was heavily cut enough to make me write an article about how it was originally a wittier blockbuster. Actually, writing this article has been more sad than amusing given how Woo has made other films whose director’s cuts had similar running times. A Better Tomorrow II (1987) was originally 2 hours and 40 minutes whereas Bullet in the Head (1990) was 2 hours and 45 minutes. Understanding why M:I-2 was cut to appease young teenagers with limited attention spans is best explained by observing the main competition – Gladiator, Battlefield: Earth, Scary Movie, X-Men and Me, Myself & Irene.
Cruise was okay with the Eyes Wide Shut reshoots delaying M:I-2 because of the highly anticipated Star Wars prequel – The Phantom Menace. If it wasn’t for Stanley Kubrick’s schedule, he would have played Neo in The Matrix. This would then have made Woo more enthusiastic to work on M:I-2 because Yuen Woo-Ping would have been a reference in the job-seeking sense. It’s easy for Woo to be dismissed as a gun for hire who had no right to be involved with the series, but Money Crazy (1977) and Once a Thief (1991) had an influence on the first film. Ironically, Tom’s favourite H.K. Woo movie is neither of these but Bullet in the Head. It would seem that Tom wanted to redeem himself for having missed out on The Matrix by choosing to work with Woo instead of Oliver Stone (the second choice after Brian De Palma). This is comparable (except in terms of success) to Tom Selleck acting like Indiana Jones in High Road to China circa 1982 and the Legend of the Lost Art episode of Magnum P.I. circa 1988.
Back to Cruise, you can tell that there was an attempt to make the star be seen as more daring than Jackie Chan. Some of the stunt guys working on it had told Jeff Pruitt that Jackie got a big laugh one night when he was watching the behind-the-scenes featurette. Tom was telling the interviewer how there was absolutely no blue screen work, but lo and behold the next segment…they showed Tom hanging in a harness in front of the blue screen. Now, either this is playing up the spoofing nature of the movie or an editor is playing a prank on him on behalf of the stunt community who are aghast about Cruise being advertised as being more daring than other stunt performers. Everything that comes next will fall into place as to why it was the former. There was a VHS copy of a workprint that originated from Michael Doven – one of the producers. There was a party at his house in Bel Air and it was stolen from his screening room. Other VHS copies helped spread the word about a comedy classic.
The director’s cut begins with Cruise climbing because it established the comedic tone. Ethan catches and pockets a lizard which he accidentally dislodged from its position as he was trying to transition from climbing horizontally to vertically. When he reaches the summit, he lets it go free but it reacts in a hostile manner which prompts him to sarcastically acknowledge its gratitude. The workprint then continues with what was the official opening of the screenplay’s draft that was revised a week before filming began on April 18 in 1999. Without the Sydney, Australia establishing shot and the laboratory scene which was used to set the futuristic tone in the cinema cut, it begins with an airport security scene that might help quash the naysayers who claimed that the movie didn’t have enough suspense. Nekhorvich, one of the Russian scientists, lies to the guard about an urn containing a colleagues’s ashes when it actually contains the Chimera virus. It’s the best sight gag in the entire movie.
It would appear that the voiceover that we hear in the released cut’s intro is taken from halfway through the film when Nekhorvich has a video for Cruise to watch. That’s as good as the editing gets as far as Stuart Baird goes with his so-called salvage job. His editing (which went uncredited) doesn’t do justice to Robert Towne’s screenplay, which got trashed by most critics but was spared by some who thought that Woo was the one to blame. Woo gets blamed for envisioning the project as an American James Bond, but that was the choice of the producers and more specificially Cruise (who is a fan of Wong Jing as proven by the romantic car chase being inspired by the one in The Big Score). You can put the blame on Woo as much as you like, but he was merely complying with Cruise’s vision. Try blaming Stuart, whose lack of funny bone led to the removal of Nekhorvich’s one-liner on the plane trip: “Left to my own devices, I’m an old fart – too inept to read a railroad timetable!”
Stuart didn’t have the foresight (along with the hindsight) to realize that the aforementioned gay sex symbolism was foreshadowed in the plane by Ambrose telling Stamp to not go too far ahead of him, before being told by Stamp that it wasn’t possible. The only thing that is an improvement of the first reel in the theatrical cut is the transition from the plane crashing in the mountain to the canyon that Hunt is climbing. It still doesn’t excuse Stuart’s attempt to subvert the comedy. When Hunt and Nyah are hiding from the singing Latino, Nyah says “Oh god; a bloody baritone!” before Hunt assumes that she prefers tenors. Just when you thought that it couldn’t get any funnier, think again. When he tells her about his desire to work with her, she insults him by saying “You look like a gigolo, you sound like a thief, you act like a cop – what the bloody Hell do you have in mind?” before he responds in a Bond-like manner: “Working under adverse conditions. Highly adverse conditions.”
After apologizing for triggering the alarm, there’s a close-up shot of Thandie Newton where you can see Tom talking but there’s no sound (the missing dialogue was “Hey, the Bulgari job last week was flawless; and I’ve always been partial to pale yellows”). Another example of mimed dialogue is when Tom is on top of Thandie in the bedroom. You can see him mime “Of what?” after she was supposed to ask him if he was afraid. Following his miming, she wise-cracks (“Ask a question, you get an answer”). When they’re in bed, his beauty compliment is followed by her cynical rebuttal (“That’s because I’m on my back”). He quickly reverses the position so that he can issue a retort (“I don’t think so”). By the time that we’re introduced to Anthony Hopkins, I’m sure that there are many fans who wonder why he wasn’t named after the TV show’s first team leader (i.e. Dan Briggs) since the last movie had Jon Voight named after the show’s second leader (i.e. Jim Phelps). It would have added yet another subversive twist (a foiled expectation).
Stuart removed one of Anthony’s one-liners for a reason that can only be justified if there was a DVD (or Blu-ray) release of the director’s cut. When Swanbeck is talking about his experience with the festival, he made a jokey observation (“As if I haven’t been burned enough today”) that ties in with the fire theme of the poster. When Swanbeck shows the DVD of Nekhorvich to Ethan, the scientist pauses after his pleasantry as if waiting for a reply. Ethan smiles, says he’s fine and asks Nekhorvich how he is. The scientist reminisces how himself, his colleague and Ethan share an appreciation for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. This would have made for a fabulous in-joke given the last film that audiences saw Cruise in. It’s a shame that Anthony went uncredited, although this fits in with the previous film which saw Emilio Estevez go uncredited. I feel sorry for Anthony because the opposing running times of M:I-2 signify the subtle difference between a glorified cameo and an extended cameo.
M:I-2 would have appealed more to the older demographic if Anthony’s time hadn’t been lopped off more mercilessly than the finger of Ulrich, who was named after the drummer of a band (Metallica) who contributed to the soundtrack. Tony’s second scene shouldn’t have been removed because it was subversing the trope of the Tom Cruise formula – a man has a crisis of conscience until a woman encourages him to be the best in his field. There is no cultural (other than scenic) reason for M:I 2 to take place in Australia. With the exception of Ethan’s pilot, none of the antagonists are Australian except one in real life – Richard Roxburgh. His South African accent was a nod to Arnold Vosloo in Woo’s Hard Target. The producers may have thought that having a bad guy speak in an Australian accent would sound corny and render the Australian portion of the plot to be predictable. Upon Nyah leaving the prison (after pretending to be a prisoner), she has a conversation with Hunt.
She asks him when he will be in Australia. He says before she will be, and she questions this. He tells her that she doesn’t trust him and she responds in a rather witty way (“Oh, I do; but as we know – I’m a very poor judge of character”). After she completes her mission, she is on the balcony of Ambrose’s house where he enters with two glasses of champagne. He makes a toast that made me realize why it was important for M:I-2 to be mostly set in Australia (“To Australia. It’s made so many convicts feel at home. Here’s hoping it does the same for you”). Skipping further ahead, people who complain that there wasn’t enough suspense can seek solace in the fact that the scene where Nyah is seemingly alone in Ambrose’s house was longer. Woo is an underrated director in that regard. The criticism of M:I-2 as Tom’s vanity project is evident in the cut from McCloy’s bed scene to Nyah’s scene. It seems that there was a rule that the movie couldn’t go any longer than three minutes without a glimpse of Cruise.
Even though an ample amount of Cruise footage was taken out, there were scenes which were intercut because it was apparently his face (and not the story or action) which people paid to see. The recutting of the movie’s structure makes it all the more obvious that the team aspect has been devalued. At least in the first movie, it served as a nice twist that the team aspect was dispensed with. In all fairness to Tom, the canyon climbing scene (for all of its inglorious show-boating) is meant to be the Chekhov’s gun which foreshadows the finale. Speaking of, many criticize how the end justifies the means. My take on it is that the virus was created for blackmailing purposes as well as to make money from the cure. The plot isn’t as generic as Woo detractors make it out to be. As for the star of the show, he had to prove how literally self-effacing that he was by playing a scarred man in Vanilla Sky.
After Ethan succeeds in making his way into Biocyte (that high-tech building), Luther sets off an alarm so as to divert attention in the cosmetics section. A guard on the phone calls the guard who almost saw Hunt on the hunt. The calling guard informs him about paying attention to that particular section of the building, but the receiving guard sarcastically tells him that he’ll have to go see who’s pinching eyeliner. Despite his sarcasm, he still has to venture off. After my least favourite action scene in the movie (due to the censorship being worse than Hard Target being truncated from NC-17 to R), there is a subtle parody of the scene in The Last of the Mohicans where Hawkeye jumps down a waterfall after telling his love interest to keep in touch. A lesson can be learned from M:I-2 about smoothly segueing from comedy to drama if the humour is subtle. Hours after failing to rescue Nyah, there was a scene between Tony and Tommy in a museum that should have been left in.
Swanbeck reads some of the painting titles – one of which is partially inscribed: dreaming of birds. Woo’s love affair with birds really comes to the forefront here (the swan in Swanbeck). When Ethan and Swanbeck meet again in the museum for a debriefing, there is a self-knowing joke about the star hogging the spotlight away from the team (“You’ve done just about everything else on this operation”). Another insider joke via Swanbeck (about CNN) refers to the cast’s dry comedy approach (“What they’ll swallow, or what they’ll broadcast with a straight face”). The supposed hilarity of the Austin Powers franchise has nothing on this spook spoof. Say what you like, but M:I-2 grossed more money than the first movie and the threequel, because it has a non-stop summer vibe (Spanish music before the story moves to Spain and after it moves to Australia). Thandie and Tony were reunited for the TV version of Westworld because M:I-2 is the most domestically profitable entry of the franchise.
The producers weren’t content with just having British, Russian, South African, Australian and American characters! There are no Asian characters because John Woo as a big name director would cover that side of the marketing. Still, it’s a much better PG-13 spy comedy than Spy Hard, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Get Smart, This Means War, the Johnny English trilogy or even Knight and Day – another Cruise movie. Woo was lucky, since Mission: Impossible III had more pressure but less profit because there had already been two Bourne films. Ironically, there has been a conscious attempt by the Bourne producers to not release them in the same year as the Hunt ones. The Bourne Identity was enough to make Die Another Day be known as the last Pierce Bronson 007 movie, hence the need for a grittier Bond. 007 movies are usually not released in the summer anyway, but the M:I producers were probably still relieved with Casino Royale not clashing with the Abrams threequel (along with Rogue Nation not being undermined by Spectre).