Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation continues the unexpected late flowering of a TV-derived spy franchise into its best self. And now, may I present its worst self.

There's nothing new in the observation that anybody with in any interest in the matter already made between 1993's Hard Target and 2003's Paycheck: for an unqualified genius of an action movie director, with two different candidates for Best Action Film Ever Made in his career in the form of The Killer and Hard Boiled, John Woo surely could not put a single foot right during his layover in Hollywood. Out of his six American features, the absolute best is surely 1997's Face/Off, and even that film is closer to "good enough" than "all-time genre classic". We can't just blame the language barrier: even the most culturally non-specific elements of action filmmaking are deeply compromised.

I bring this up in connection to Mission: Impossible II from the summer of 2000, both because it is possibly my least favorite of Woo's American films (though that is a competitive race), and because it so beautifully typifies how badly he was fumbling the basic skills that he had so recently used better than just about anyone else living. M:i:II (I had forgotten how beastly the abbreviations of the titles for this and Mission: Impossible III looked) was a movie literally conceived around its action setpieces; this was not merely something the filmmakers weren't ashamed of, they broadcast it, like it was a proof of how focused they were on a great action experience. Now that it's standard operating procedure for the Mission: Impossibles to construct their narratives exactly this way, it's easy to lose track of how thoroughly dangerous a strategy this is, because there is a very strong possibility that you end up with a story exactly like the one M:i:II suffers from, but my present concern isn't the film's storytelling woes. The thing is, if you make a point of coming up with action sequences along which to strong a narrative, rather than the other way around, it stands to reason that the action will be pretty fucking terrific, right? And M:i:II can't even get that right.

It has one gunfight scene that is, so far as you can make it out through the choppy editing, solid middle-tier Woo, and the climax involves one very impressive knife fight stunt and some fantastical wire work that, is, so far as you can make it out through the outright incoherent editing, daunting and impressive and poetic. But that's pretty much it, unless you count the early rock climbing scene that's more of an amuse bouche than an action sequence proper. There's a ghastly car chase sort of sequence that doubles as the two main characters flirting, and it is utterly dumb and plagued with slow motion (the film as a whole is plagued with slow motion, like Woo decided it was his "thing" and never stopped to wonder if it belonged in this shot or that shot particularly), and there's a scene that tries much too hard to remind us of the exquisite "suspended in the computer room" scene from the 1996 Mission: Impossible, undone by familiarity and the worst visual effects of the whole movie. And when all is said and done, none of these things represent nearly a large enough percentage of the 123-minute running time - itself cut down savagely from Woo's mythological intended cut of some three and a half hours - which is largely devoted to inching through a bare bones plot. Even that's being polite: the first 33 minutes of the film aren't "inching". They're just fucking stopped there, staring earnestly as the characters repeat the exact same beat for 20 minutes.

The plot this time: Russian scientist Dr. Vladimir Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija) has a cutesy-named bioweapon "Chimera", and its even more cutesy cure, "Bellerophon", and he's taking them to the United States and the Impossible Missions Force, owing to his trust and friendship with IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Unfortunately, ex-IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), wearing an Ethan Mask and a little electronic patch that allows him to speak in Ethan's voice, confronts Nekhorvich on a plane and steals the chemicals, before forcing the plane to crash. Naturally enough, Ethan himself is assigned by IMF executive Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins, somnambulant) to track down Ambrose, with one curious point of insistence: Ethan can pick whatever two IMF agents he wants, but he absolutely must also recruit the civilian con artist and thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton).

And here the film walks out of the room, right in the middle of a sentence, leaving us all baffled as to whether we should, like, follow it? Or just wait there for it to come back? Anyway, it is pure cinematic death as we watch in what feels like real time for the days that it takes Ethan to persuade Nyah - whose special skill, it turns out, is not thievery, but being Ambrose's ex-girlfriend, which easily makes this the most condescending of all the female roles in this enormously sausage-festy franchise - to join his team. At a certain point, that highly elaborate car flirtation happens, to augment the implausibly fast and thorough physical flirtation they've already launched into, and it is hard to completely hate it, because of how elaborately and well-executed it is, but it's also hard to love it, because it is the silliest goddamn thing.

Eventually, the movie starts to move again, though not with any particular urgency. What happens in the remaining three-quarters of the film is frankly a bit unfocused: we know all along that Ethan wants to stop Ambrose from using an apocalyptic bioweapon, but not always how this or that particular scene is going to aid him in that goal. On paper, this is all marvelous: Woo and screenwriter Robert Towne, working from a story originally by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga, are more interested with lingering on moments and characters, and allowing production designer Tom Sanders and cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball to stage beautiful collages of color and light and kinetic movement. It's a massive tentpole action movie that wants to attend to small poetic moments in the background, and allow the characters to inhabit moments, and what's not interesting about that? In practice, everything. Part of it, surely, is that the film was cut down so dramatically, suggesting that what's left is connective tissue more than narrative movie. But part of it is just plain ol' rocky, confused filmmaking.

Certainly, the film's editing (by Steven Kemper and Christian Wagner) is as conspicuously lousy as it could possibly manage to be. From the moment during Ethan's re-introduction on Utah mountaintops that the scene cuts between four different angles of his hands slipping in less than a second, the movie throws its lot in with hectic, clarity-demolishing over-editing, sometimes so giddy that it's almost fun in a bad way (the explosive cut to the Utah scene, a dancer spinning across the screen to create the gaudiest wipe I have ever seen in a professional motion picture). Hans Zimmer's score, I suspect at Woo's urging, also trips near to "so bad it's good" territory, with its soaring use of a wordless female voice doing more than all the slow motion and all the doves in the world ever could to render Woo's aesthetic as a self-parody. The performances are all over the map: Cruise plays his cocky charming shtick with an unusual layer of uncertainty and inauthenticity, and Newton is astonishingly, uncharacteristically leaden, though with a role like that, how could she be otherwise? Scott is the most blank villain in a franchise that has had a fairly consistent villain problem, and the best thing about his presence here is that it prevented him from playing Wolverine in X-Men. And those are basically the only actors that the film cares about in the slightest.

As for what it does care about? I cannot say. Woo's best films are all about movement of people relative to the camera and the violence happening around him, but M:i:II is almost exactly the opposite of that: it is inert, subdivided into tiny little static moments cut together fast enough to synthesise kineticism. Visually, the film is soothing, not exciting: exactly the wrong thing for an action movie of any sort to be, or a sequel to a film noted for its intense thriller sequences, or a movie whose character beats are so generic that we just need to be distracted from them. Oh, it's pretty in its gauzy way: the polish is there, but it's all in service to nonsense.

Reviews in this series
Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996)
Mission: Impossible II (Woo, 2000)
Mission: Impossible III (Abrams, 2006)
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Bird, 2011)
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (McQuarrie, 2015)
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (McQuarrie, 2018)