This Movie Will Self-Destruct …

Mission: Impossible 2 is drunk on self-love; Shanghai Noon is fun but chopped to hell.

Mission: Impossible 2
Directed by
John Woo
Paramount Pictures

Shanghai Noon
Directed by
Tony Dey
Touchstone Pictures

Look out: American movie stars are lining up to play Chow Yun Fat. They’ve eyeballed all those John Woo Hong Kong action flicks like A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and Hard-Boiled (1992), and they, too, want to be the embodiment of cool amid chaos—to flip on a pair of sunglasses and dive sideways through the air in slow motion firing round after round into hordes of anonymous baddies.

In Mission: Impossible 2, it’s Tom Cruise’s turn to, you might say, Chow down. Cruise strides through flames in slow motion, his shoulders swollen, his arms rippling. (Nice lats, Tom.) While bullets explode all around him, he takes a beat to don his shades and taunt the Über-villain with his stylishness. We might be watching the wet dream of the muscular blowhard Cruise played in Magnolia (1999). But this time he’s a lover of women—in particular, of a dishy thief (Thandie Newton) he’s ordered to recruit for his Impossible Mission team. So he’s hot. But he’s cool. He’s pumped. But he’s caring. Above all, he’s money. Cruise is the film’s co-producer, which means the hero-worship gets laid on thick even by Woo’s woo-woo standards. The egomania is positively mythic.

So is the movie a tacky hoot? Yes, but until the godawful last half-hour it’s a surprisingly fun tacky hoot. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt receives his mission from a pair of sunglasses on top of a mountain in Utah. He throws them away and they self-destruct. The title appears and then it self-destructs. Cruise’s high-priced house-screenwriter Robert Towne (working from a story by a couple of Star Trek writers, Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga) borrows the emotional hook of Notorious (1946): the part where the agent has to send the bad-but-vulnerable girl he loves into the villain’s lair to bed him and report back. Towne gets off some good lines: a misogynistic zinger by Ethan’s superior (a sleek, saturnine cameo by Anthony Hopkins); an in-joke joke on Cruise’s too-ready smile. You gotta love such overripe dialogue as: “We just rolled up a snowball and tossed it into hell. Now let’s see what chance it has.” Towne has turned the rubber-mask shtick—characters peel off absurdly lifelike visages of one another—into a comedy routine. You never know which characters will whip off their faces and go, “Gotcha!”

The larger plot, which has something to do with a monster virus and its anti-virus in the hands of a renegade agent (Dougray Scott), is hardly a model of transparency, but it’s “Dick and Jane” next to its grimly unfathomable 1996 predecessor. (That one was finished by dueling million-dollar screenwriters—Towne and director Brian De Palma’s own high-priced house scribe, David Koepp—in separate hotel suites trying feverishly to make sense of the narrative. Talk about an impossible mission!) The sequel—set in Sydney, Australia, instead of some imposing European capital—has a freer sense of humor and more swank exoticism. It does Hitchcock, it does Bond, and it has a pert little number in Thandie Newton. I was mysteriously immune to Newton in those art movies Beloved (1998) and Besieged (1999), but they sex-kittened her up for this one, and now I’m a goner. Packed into a lacy black dress—big eyes, caramel skin, a sheet of hair—she’s both skinny and sultry, with a prickly wit, and if she hadn’t been turned into a lachrymose damsel-in-distress in the last half-hour, she might have slithered off with the movie.

There’s good stuff here—but we’re still grading on the corporate-star-vehicle curve. The most fascinating part of Notorious is when Cary Grant starts treating Ingrid Bergman like a prostitute and when she buys into his contempt and gets eaten away by both poison and her own masochism. You don’t—no surprise—get that here. Instead, you get dreamboat Cruise standing watery-eyed, his manly arms folded across his pecs. Ethan has no quirks, no character details of any kind: He might as well be named “Hero.” The old TV series could be coma-inducing, but at least it had a distinctive high concept: that no mission is impossible for a crack team of pros working with hair’s-breadth precision. In Mission: Impossible 2, the Australian actor John Polson gets a fleeting few seconds to establish his wit, and Ving Rhames gets to hover over a control panel saying things like, “Remember, the louvers are up for only 40 seconds.” Otherwise, it’s all Cruise, all the time. The concept has become: No mission is impossible for a $20 million-a-picture superstar with a team of personal trainers.

The movie self-destructs in 90 minutes. That’s when the climax begins, and it’s one of those garishly protracted chases that end with guns, knives, martial-arts, pro-wrestling, and a villain who just won’t give up the ghost. (“You should have killed me when you had the chance!”) It’s not just that there’s too much of it. It’s that it’s nutty—the work of filmmakers drunk on self-love. Woo has a reputation as a “stylist,” but his vulgarity can be breathtaking. At his best he’s too promiscuous with the slow motion; and once those doves start fluttering in he enters a new dimension in self-parody. Waves pummel cliffs, Cruise and the bad guy pummel each other, and Hans Zimmer’s whooshy, techno-sludge music pummels your head. At my screening, when the villain plunged his knife to within a millimeter of Cruise’s eye and Woo slowed the action and hyperbolically lingered on it, a guy near me yelled, “John Woo!” That was meant to be admiring, but there was a tinge of mockery. When someone hollers a director’s name after a flashy shot, you’re in Rocky Horror Picture Show territory.

W hen I saw my first Hong Kong action pictures in the mid-’80s, I was dazzled—along with everyone else—by the same hyperbolic excess that I now make fun of. I thought, “These movies are just as stupid as their American counterparts, but they’re giddier and crazier, and those stunt guys are superhuman! Why can’t our films be like that?” Well, now they are, except without the Hong Kong acrobats—the performers, among them stars like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung—who trained at places like the Beijing Opera and brought a balletic exuberance to their battles. The miracle of those films is their fluidity. The action isn’t chopped up and scrambled and pieced together in the editing room: It’s shot simply, like a Fred Astaire dance sequence.

The new American Jackie Chan buddy picture, Shanghai Noon, has a couple of excellent fights and is mostly easy to take, but it isn’t a patch on Chan’s best Hong Kong work. It’s all chopped to hell. Jackie plays a guard at the emperor’s palace in China who ends up in the Wild Wild West when the princess (Lucy Liu) gets, er, shanghaied. (What do we call the reverse? Amerikied?) That’s a great setting for him, and it’s fun to see Chan fighting nasty Indians with tree limbs and tomahawks and getting goofily stoned on a peace pipe with the friendly ones. It’s fun to see him throwing back whiskey shots, clumsily twirling a pistol, falling off a horse, and battling his way out of a saloon with a pair of antlers plucked from the wall. Jackie joins up with an inept outlaw—blond, crooked-nosed Owen Wilson, whose surfer-boy spaciness is often hilarious. The movie shows a world that few westerns glimpse: the quasi-slave camps of Chinese immigrants. The ingredients are so sensational that I wanted to throttle the director, Tony Dey, and yell, “Slow down! Stop editing the sh— out of this thing!” But he’d probably have laughed and said something about Americans and attention-deficit disorder. Dey cuts so strenuously back and forth between two climactic face-offs—one Hong Kong-style, the other classic western—that neither comes off. What sends the crowd home happy are the outtakes at the end, which are relaxed and spontaneous and almost joyful in their pacing. What does it say that the best entertainment of this pre-holiday, blockbuster weekend is two minutes of outtakes?