John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2 , from a screenplay by Robert Towne, and a story by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller, asks even less of Tom Cruise than the old James Bond movies asked of Sean Connery. This is one reason he should immediately squelch all the alarming rumors of Mission: Impossible 3 , whatever the franchise brings in this time.
As far as box-office bonanzas go, M:I-2 is more romantic, and certainly more chivalric than Brian De Palma’s confusingly paranoid Mission: Impossible (1996), in which Mr. Cruise’s hero is cast adrift in a treacherous world of double agents and multiple betrayals. In the sequel, loyalties are firmly established at the outset, and the hero is backed up by unwavering support from old reliables, played with authority by Anthony Hopkins and Ving Rhames. More important, Mr. Cruise enjoys smooth chemistry with the love interest provided by the stunningly charismatic Thandie Newton, without a bone of betrayal in her whole body. Even so, Mr. Woo fumbles the mechanics of the “pardon-my-body-on-yours” introduction of hero and heroine in an empty bathtub (a faint echo of a strikingly similar maneuver of forced intimacy in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998), a movie 10 times better than M:I-2 , but perversely one-twentieth as popular at the box office as Mr. Cruise’s missile is projected to be).
Still, Mr. Cruise’s hero gains in humanity what he discards in narcissism by his admirably unconditional concern for Ms. Newton’s perpetually menaced heroine. The screenplay juices up the romance with breathtaking borrowings from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious (the loved one sent to the villain’s bed as a spy by her conflicted lover) and his 1959 North by Northwest (the rocky, hilly terrain of the villain’s lair). Not that Dougray Scott as the villain here is endowed with the civilized complexity of such vintage Hitchcock villains as those played by Claude Rains in Notorious and James Mason in North by Northwest . By comparison, Mr. Scott’s Sean Ambrose is descended from the nastier and more megalomaniacal villains of the Bond and Die Hard series.
The filmmakers here hold our attention, however, by making monstrous viruses the means of global terrorist blackmail. The current climate of malignant cancer cells on the march in our media transports the mumbo-jumbo medical terminology of M:I-2 from the realm of the preposterous onto the evening news.
Having literally unmasked the villain at the outset, Mr. Woo and his army of stunt and special effects mercenaries are free to exploit the savage Australian landscape for deafening and seemingly endless gunfights, car and motorcycle chases and kick-boxing exhibitions. These are exhausting even by Asian standards, at least for comparatively sedentary spectators like us.
Indeed, at times it seems that Mr. Woo prolongs the action in line with a precisely calibrated formula: X minutes of mayhem equaling millions in macho male admissions.
Mr. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Mr. Scott’s Sean Ambrose reach a ridiculous stage in their climactic duel to the death when they begin to look more like partners in a well-rehearsed circus routine than like the implacable antagonists the genre demands. Hunt and Ambrose are both adept at disguising their own identities, reminiscent of Mr. Woo’s Face/Off (1997). But these and other stabs at subtexts are merely a tease to mark time while the stunt men are preparing their next marvel.
Curiously, for all my profound reservations about the whole project, I wound up liking it more, or, at least disliking it less, than I had anticipated. Thandie Newton is the biggest reason. Australia as a setting for the wildest adventures runs a close second. There is something lyrically end-of-the-world about its splendid isolation from other land masses. And Mr. Cruise certainly had a good excuse to go there.
Oedipus on the Road
Bette Gordon’s Luminous Motion , from a screenplay by Robert Roth and Scott Bradfield, based on Mr. Bradfield’s novel, The History of Luminous Motion , has been attacked by some reviewers for being too literary, which it certainly is. But since the characters play fast and loose with fantasy and reality in a manner that is unsettling and ultimately bewildering, the hyperarticulated voice-over narration and onscreen dialogue even from the troubled mind of 10-year-old Phillip (Eric Lloyd) turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If we didn’t get all the words, the images would be left in limbo, and we would be clueless.
The basic premise of the film is the uncut umbilical cord linking Phillip to his curiously fatalistic and casually promiscuous Mom (Deborah Kara Unger) as they ride around the country in a beat-up car from motel to motel, from credit card heist to credit card cancellation until they finally come to rest with unaccountably disastrous consequences.
Ms. Unger has been coming on like gangbusters in secondary roles ever since she first caught our attention in David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) with a distracted air of unfocused sensuality. Here, in Luminous Motion , she is the exquisitely enigmatic subject of her precocious son’s poetic speculations on the luminosity of motion as it applies to his own and his mom’s sensations on the road. When in motion, Mom and Phillip seem at least minimally functional even though the boy always sits in the back whether or not his mother’s latest lover-client-john-victim is in the passenger’s seat. Phillip takes each and every one of his mother’s friends in stride until a bizarre auto accident caused by his own foolhardy speeding while at the wheel during Mom’s drunken incapacity.
After the accident, Phillip finds himself spiritually immobilized by a domestic arrangement in which Mom has decided to “settle down” with an eerily kindly carpenter named Pedro. At this juncture things turn Oedipal, as an apparition of his long-gone father exhorts Phillip to murder Pedro, which he does in an unseen gruesome manner. Phillip is once more in exhilarating flight with his mother from the consequences of his action, which Mom accepts, grotesquely, as the result of her not fully understanding her child’s emotional needs, though what these are exactly is anybody’s guess.
Between Phillip’s increasingly obtrusive hallucinations-in which he now sees both his dad (Jamey Sheridan) and the grudgeless ghost of Pedro (Terry Kinney)-and his mom’s total loss of energy, mobility and willpower, the line between reality and fantasy virtually disappears with no clarifying resolution anywhere in sight. And yet Luminous Motion is never bleak or dismal because Phillip’s fertile if deranged imagination never fails to conjure up startling encounters with the increasingly insistent human obstacles to his single-minded attachment to his mother.
Ms. Gordon’s greatest achievement is sustaining the momentum of her narrative while juggling conflicting elements of the real and the surreal in her path. There is the merest suggestion of the police crashing in to terminate Mom’s marginally criminal motel capers, but in Phillip’s accommodating psyche Mom and Dad will always be hanging around with their divergent concerns for his well-being, and he will spend the rest of his life straining to stay in motion in the back seat of his mother’s driving love. The persuasive acting of the seamless ensemble is every director’s dream. In the end we are left with a poetic reminder of the eternal mysteries of mothers and sons.
A Fellini Fan Misses the Mark
Peter Greenaway’s Women seems curiously desiccated and lifeless in the context of his 35-year avant-garde career on the velvet fringe of filmmaking, the fine arts and multimedia installations. His very name connotes an impudently elitist disdain for the masses, the mainstream, the bottom line and the popcorn gallery. “All the best art in the whole history of the world has been elitist,” Mr. Greenaway insists. “Public Art, Soviet Realism, Chinese Realism, Hollywood, all debase and debunk by aiming for the common denominator. It is a form of inverse snobbism to suggest that good art can be egalitarian.”
In the past, such Greenaway feature films as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) and The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) have broken through the esoteric barrier for this comparatively egalitarian reviewer who still likes to argue about movies with people in the street. This is to say that I respect Mr. Greenaway’s work enough to deal with it on a case-by-case basis, but I can’t accept his premise that its aesthetic value is guaranteed by its inaccessibility to the unwashed multitudes it chooses to ignore.
For myself, I found a recent screening of Women singularly dispiriting. Mr. Greenaway’s professed “modest” homage to Fellini’s is less than modest; it is timidly tentative. Through his father-son mouthpiece characters, Philip Emmenthal (John Standing) and Storey Emmenthal (Matthew Delamere), Mr. Greenaway asks all the wrong questions about the Fellini movie. Instead of asking whether Fellini or his alter ego, Marcello Mastroianni, actually slept with the “wonderful” women on the screen, Mr. Greenaway should have asked instead why Fellini treated women as part of a freak show for his own amusement.
The director is on more familiar ground from his past works in flaunting the male phallus in our face as a corrective to a long-standing taboo against male frontal nudity even in situations in which female frontal nudity and nakedness is tolerated. Like many angry proponents of nudity and nakedness in mainstream movies, Mr. Greenaway seems more determined to punish his audience for its presumed prudery, rather than seduce it with a pleasurably erotic escalation of the medium’s dream and fantasy propensities. He would undoubtedly denounce the latter course of action as pandering.
That’s all well and good if one can deliver on the implied promise of an intellectually stimulating experience. Unfortunately, Women displays a distressing banality in its contemplation of sex from the point of view of the male. Perhaps a more blatantly frontal approach to sex, either literally or figuratively, is, more often than not, artistically unprofitable.