'Mission: Impossible 2' Tried, and Failed, to Turn Tom Cruise Into an American James Bond

(Welcome to Man on a Mission, a monthly series where we revisit the films of the Mission: Impossible franchise as we sprint toward the release of the seventh film in the franchise.)

The first Mission: Impossible pulled off a critical achievement of Tom Cruise’s career: it turned him into as close to an Americanized James Bond as possible. The 1996 origin story of IMF agent Ethan Hunt was massively successful, grossing nearly $180 million at the box office at a time when such figure were rarely reached by blockbusters. But while Mission: Impossible covered many of the bases of a Bondian spy thriller – seemingly death-defying action setpieces, a globe-trotting story, and strange little gadgets that come in handy at key moments of suspense – there was one area in which the first film failed to gain much traction. James Bond is a suave action hero, yes, but he’s also as successful in bedding women as he is with taking down bad guys.

If Ethan Hunt wanted to be a true James Bond, then, he’d have to have his own kind of Bond girl. And so we arrive at the operatic world of Mission: Impossible 2.

A Walk In the Park

Mission: Impossible 2 wastes very little time making clear that it’s very different stylistically and tonally from its Brian De Palma-directed predecessor. Yes, Cruise has returned as Ethan Hunt, but the opening scene immediately challenges our perception of Cruise and introduces the first of many villainous figures in the franchise who’s villainous simply by representing the antithesis of our hero and the agency he represents. Ethan’s first apparently seen on a plane from Sydney, accompanying a Russian scientist (Rade Sherbedgia) to the States under an alias. As the scientist refreshes his old pal’s memory (or just delivers helpful exposition to the audience), we learn that he’s created both a deadly biological weapon, Chimera, and its only cure, Bellerophon, so ordered by a powerful biochemical company to rake in profits by using the cure to withstand the weapon.

But it soon becomes clear that Ethan isn’t really Ethan. Instead, he’s IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), intended to double as Ethan to get the scientist to safety…until Ambrose is revealed to have gone rogue, killing the scientist and causing the plane to crash after escaping to safety. Ethan’s brought in by his mission commander (Anthony Hopkins), with the mission of using Ambrose’s old flame Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandiwe Newton) to get close to the rogue agent and stop him from unleashing the biological weapon upon the world. To do so, Ethan will need a small team of his own (including his old friend Luther Stickell) while also wooing and falling for Nyah even as he sends her off to play a double-dealing diva.

Mission: Impossible 2 represents the limits of what Tom Cruise can do as Ethan Hunt in this franchise. When we first meet the real Ethan, we see him push himself to his physical limits, as he free-climbs the side of a cliff face as part of a strange excuse for a vacation. But the first film – and subsequent entries – show that Cruise can do just about anything physically, or at least that he’s willing to do so even if he gets hurt in the process. What Mission: Impossible 2 tries, and fails at, is turning Ethan into as much of a suave romantic lead as Agent 007 is. On the surface, it should work perfectly. Cruise and Newton are both very attractive people, and director John Woo’s camera never fails to emphasize their physical attributes. Just looking at them, it makes sense that Ethan and Nyah would meet cute at a party where he catches her trying to steal a precious jewel, before having their first love scene while in a car that dangles off the side of a cliff.

A Film Of Extremes

Mission: Impossible 2 is best appreciated as a film of extremes. Not that subsequent entries in the franchise don’t push Ethan Hunt (and the audience) to levels never thought before possible, but the emotional highs of this film are vastly different from the 1996 predecessor. Screenwriter Robert Towne – who acknowledged that when he was brought onto the film, the action scenes were mapped out, leaving him to build a story around those scenes – pays homage in the action film’s love triangle to one of the great Alfred Hitchcock films, Notorious. In that 1946 noir, a beautiful woman (Ingrid Bergman) is used by a government agent (Cary Grant) to romance a Nazi (Claude Rains) in a post-WWII landscape to find out the details of a nefarious plot he’s trying to enact, while also falling for the government agent.

It’s not that Notorious is a bad film from which to take inspiration – the noir is arguably among the two or three best of the genre, as well as one of Hitchcock’s very best films. But the heat generated by Bergman and Grant is off the charts, even 75 years later. (Released during the more restrictive era of the Hays Code, pre-MPAA, Notorious famously features a three-minute scene where the two stars switch between kissing each other and talking, largely to skirt the rules about time limits on kisses in Hollywood movies of the period.) As physically beautiful as Cruise and Newton are, they simply don’t have the right amount of chemistry to sell the presumably intense attraction they feel that transcends how good-looking they are. Newton, for her own part, spoke last year about some on-set issues with Cruise: “He just wanted this alpha bitch. And I did as best as I could. It’s not the best way to get the best work out of someone.” And Newton isn’t wrong to point out that a specifically tough scene to film with Cruise, in which Nyah realizes the extent to which she’s being used by Ethan and the IMF for the mission, gave her “the shittiest lines.”

In their earliest scenes, Ethan and Nyah strike a flirtatious tone, in part because these are two extremely attractive people. But it’s also because there’s a strange playfulness to their rapport; Ethan first catches Nyah trying to steal a precious gem in Seville, and after he fails to recruit her then, he chases her down so they can have a meet cute of sorts: driving sports cars through hairpin turns on a cliffside road, before dangling off the side of one of those cliffs and making out intensely. Like basically every John Woo movie, this film’s twists and turns are all or nothing.

But the idea of extremes, and how there’s a limit to which that sensibility can work in a romantic setting, is best typified on screen in one of the film’s many intensely pitched action sequences. By the halfway point, Ambrose has realized what Ethan and Nyah are up to, and after playing along for a bit, he’s caught Ethan in the middle of an attempt to break into a highly secured lab to grab Chimera, and a shootout has commenced. In the middle of this, Nyah has been placed as a damsel-in-distress type with a killer twist: she injects herself with the last remaining vial of Chimera, leaving her just 20 hours to receive a shot of Bellerophon before she bites the big one.

The plot contrivances are such that Ethan has to leave on his own, with Nyah staying behind with Ambrose, but he’s able to promise her – as much as he can – that she’ll be fine and he’ll save her before time runs out. “Just stay alive – I’m not going to lose you.” That’s the dialogue. But over the cacophony of the shootout, and because Cruise is the living embodiment of the word “intense,” he shouts each word, so forcefully that Ethan sounds pissed off to even have to comfort or reassure Nyah. What should be intensely, tragically romantic instead reads as furious.

Grinning Like an Idiot

But dialogue isn’t meant to be a strong suit of Mission: Impossible 2. For better or worse, the film is about reaching those operatic highs and lows of action and intensity. Newton’s recollection of the experience speaks to it from the very top: “John [Woo] had made a decision at the beginning of the movie, unbeknownst certainly to me, that he didn’t speak English. Which I think was very helpful to him, but it was extremely unhelpful to the rest of us.” Though some of the ingredients that we think of when we think of Mission: Impossible are present here – even that opening-credits stunt of Cruise free-climbing feels like a harbinger of him climbing up the Burj Khalifa a decade later in the series – the wit and humor that’s marked the subsequent entries is mostly absent.

The touches with Ambrose are as close to cleverness as the film gets, as well as adding in a hint of metatextual humor. During a brief lull in the action of the aforementioned shootout, Ambrose says, “You know, that was the hardest part of having to portray you: grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes.” That, along with the way in which Ambrose is able to stop Hunt in his tracks in the attempted theft leading up to the shootout – he knows exactly how Hunt will try to evade capture, both because the character has known Hunt for years, and because it’s the filmmakers all but directly nodding to the Langley break-in from the first film – is as sly as the film gets.

The other unspoken element with Ambrose is in the homoerotic tension represented by him and his right-hand man Stamp (Richard Roxburgh). As much as Ethan grows increasingly jealous, watching Nyah reuniting with her old boyfriend Ambrose under the guise of being romantically interested, Stamp’s own doubt about Nyah’s motivations seems less driven by concern for his boss, and similar romantic jealousy. The way in which Stamp is dispatched in the finale is operatically cruel in and of itself. In one of many, many mask-driven reversals, we see that Stamp has been gagged and had a mask of Ethan placed over him by Ethan himself, who in turn is masked up as Stamp. (There’s lots and lots of masks in this movie, and it’s best to not wonder how they’re just ready at hand whenever someone needs them.) When Ambrose realizes what’s happened, ripping off the mask to see his compatriot, Dougray Scott lets loose an anguished howl that implies the attraction may well have been mutual.

Mission: Difficult

But you can see the streak of homoeroticism – whether it’s intentional or not, though some of it feels too blunt to be accidental – all the way through the big finale. Upon realizing Hunt’s latest trick, Ambrose and his team give chase, leading eventually to a showdown between the two men on their motorcycles. They play a game of chicken, then, driving their motorcycles at each other at full speed, jumping off in unison at the nick of time to get into a hand-to-hand brawl while their vehicles crash into each other in an orgiastic explosion. Ahem.

Mission: Impossible 2 is not without its charms. The uncredited Hopkins looks perhaps more delighted than anyone ever has in one of these movies, getting to rattle off lines like “This isn’t Mission: Difficult, Mr. Hunt. It’s Mission: Impossible. Mission: Difficult ought to be a walk in the park for you.” And Woo’s strength in staging action sequences remains unparalleled, in part because the editing and cinematography in these setpieces is so distinctive and unlike the way the action in other films in the series is handled.

But that singular style extends to the film around the setpieces – the story tying these sequences together is thinner and more uninvolving than anything else in the franchise. This film spends its entire runtime trying to paint Ethan Hunt as a swaggering lothario of an agent who can get with any woman, but by the end, his connection with Nyah feels as forced as ever. That doesn’t mean the film was a failure in full – though more than two decades later, the conventional wisdom is that this is the weakest film in the series, it was the highest-grossing film of 2000 worldwide, and the highest-grossing film of the series domestically until the 2018 entry. (And only just – Fallout outgrossed this film by $5 million in the States.)

But it would take a few more years for Ethan Hunt to believably connect with a beautiful woman. It would take him embracing perhaps his most terrifying mission of all: domesticity.

Next Time: Ethan Hunt tries his best to settle down.

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