It's an action film, but it's not. It's built around its action sequences, but it also doesn't have that many of them and it's certainly nowhere near the action quotient of, say, a James Bond film.
However it's also directed by John Woo, so the action it does have is incredible and we know in addition that it had to lose lots of insanity and violence to get trimmed down from an 'R' certificate to a 'PG-13'. I kind of enjoyed it. It's not particularly good and I didn't like most of the characters, but it's diverting enough.
I don't have any history with Mission Impossible. I saw the first film in the cinemas, but that's it. I never watched the TV series and this is the first time I've seen of any of the sequels. All I know is the iconic stuff like "this message will self-destruct in fifteen seconds" and of course for having one of the greatest theme tunes on the planet. It's up there with the Norman/Barry 007 theme for instantly making any scene 10000 times cooler and this film needed to use it way more than it does. It's had four movies to date, all starring Tom Cruise (and less noticeably Ving Rhames) and to my surprise wikipedia informs me that this is the twelfth highest-grossing film series of all time.
Nevertheless to me it's always come across as an accidental franchise. Every so often a Mission Impossible film will pop into existence and I'll be slightly surprised. New ones have come out in 1996, 2000, 2006 and 2011, which is hardly non-stop. What's impressive about it though is its line-up of directors. Brian De Palma, John Woo, J. J. Abrams and Brad Bird. Holy flaming Moses. It's also unusual in that each of its films, by and large, has tended to be better-received than its predecessor, with as far as I can see Brad Bird's being practically worshipped. The nearest exception to this rule is actually the one I'm talking about today, since the De Palma film is clearly less dumb and more involving than this sequel, even if it was also hated by fans of the TV series and got called incomprehensible.
It's also my first John Woo film, although obviously I know of his reputation. He's the director of many Hong Kong action films that I've heard described as jaw-dropping (A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Hard Boiled) and some Hollywood films in which we're only getting the half-Woo. Here he's doing a PG-13 film, but his first English-language film (Hard Target with Jean-Claude Van Damme) got taken off him by the studio when he couldn't even get it down to an 'R'. The studio said they were simply making a version "suitable for American audiences." He fared little better with his second English-language film, Broken Arrow, but he had a hit in 1997 with Face/Off. Mission Impossible II was then the highest-grossing film of 2000, but more recently he's returned to Asian cinema with the two-part war movie epic Red Cliff (2008).
This makes me reluctant to be too hard on this film. It's clearly not the movie John Woo had had in mind, although that said his original cut was three-and-a-half hours long as well as going way too far for the desired PG-13 certificate. The action quotient is paradoxically unforgettable and underpowered. Robert Towne, the scriptwriter, was told to write his film around John Woo's already-planned action scenes... although that said, the other two names credited on the screenplay are Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, whose idea of an action movie is supposedly Star Trek: First Contact
Nevertheless there are amazing sequences. John Woo blew me away with his car chases, which I tend to find a rather dull and hackneyed action formula. I'd been thinking the action finale was underwhelming until Tom Cruise rode his motorbike through an exploding van. Also the rock-climbing at the beginning is... wow. It's a bit like the opening of Star Trek V, but on mega-steroids.
Then there's Tom Cruise. I must admit, I have no interest in Cruise and it tends to mystify me that he's regarded as an A-list star... but this is unfair and silly of me, because every time I see one of his movies, he's very good in it. He annihilated all our expectations of him in Interview with a Vampire. He's been a go-to guy for Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The worst I can say of him is that he comes across as a bit earnest and vanilla, but reading about the making of this movie makes him sound like a complete psycho. But in a good way. He's passionate about his vision of the character as someone who loves risking his neck and he apparently terrified the studio and his director by how many of his stunts he did himself. To quote Towne... "And then I saw the stunt: he runs dead at the camera, does a flip in the air unaided by CGI or wires or anything else, fires three blanks while he's upside-down at the camera and then lands on his back. No CGI, no wires, just this kid. And he does this 20 times. I think the audience senses his sheer love of doing it - I think the audience knows this thing is really happening."
To be negative for a moment, though, I don't think the characters work.
Thandie Newton's character doesn't work. She's a professional thief, which immediately made me not care about her. In fairness late in the film she does something altruistic and terrifying that's essentially suicide, but given her background for me that merely got her up to zero.
Meanwhile the villains don't work. Oh, they're okay. Dougray Scott was in line to play Wolverine until this film overran and the role ended up going to Hugh Jackman, while the cigar-chopper scene is scary. However they're kind of generic and their plan is the usual action movie placeholder nonsense. We're talking about a finale of electronic transfers and stock options. They're not memorable.
These two factors torpedo the potentially interesting bit of the film, involving a triangle between Cruise, Newton and Scott and is harking back to Hitchcock's Notorious. There's even a racecourse! This is material that could have been electrifying had it been what the movie was all about, but unfortunately in fact it's a sort-of spy film that's not really about spying and it's built around hacked-back action scenes.
Of the supporting cast, Brendan Gleeson seems almost underpowered compared with what I'd have expected of him, but it's always fun to see the great Anthony Hopkins, even in his limited screen time. All the British Isles is represented here, for what it's worth. Gleeson's Irish, Hopkins is Welsh, Newton's English and Scott is Scottish. The international cast also includes Americans, Australians (it was filmed and set there) and a Croatian.
I thought this was okay, but I'm not applying particularly high standards in saying that. A lot of people hated it and I can see why, since it's essentially a story of uninteresting people playing head games with each other in what's only sometimes an action film. Basically it's mediocre, but it's also watchable if you like watching Tom Cruise exceed expectations (e.g. the early scene on the plane) and having John Woo occasionally blow your mind. "Knife + eye" is always a killer combination, for instance. Just ask Fulci. This morning I had no interest whatsoever in this franchise, but now I wouldn't mind watching the third film and I'm even mildly curious about the fourth. It wasn't as good as a James Bond film, though.
"To go to bed with a man and lie to him? She's a woman. She's got all the training she needs."