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NewCityNet Kung Flu

By Ray Pride

MAY 29, 2000:  "Prada."

Like the autistic child's nocturnal murmuring in Don DeLillo's "White Noise," a full-screen appears in the end titles of "Mission: Impossible 2" bearing only that single oath: "Prada."

Rock-'em, sock-'em loud, the Tom Cruise production of this John Woo film offers ample opportunities to talk to a companion without disturbing others, and my date was vocal in her fondness for a decontamination suit worn by the star late in the game. "Prada," she murmured, of the snazzy, if convoluted, garb.

So what's Woo, the great Chinese-Christian romantic master of the bullet ballet, doing in bed with Cruise? (And Prada?) Things look auspicious at first. Robert Towne, esteemed craftsman of such scripts as "Chinatown" seems, in the first sequence, to establish a classical, ping-pongy dialogue style that is efficient and supple. Ah! This won't be a money job, I still think after Cruise's first meeting with boss Anthony Hopkins. (Good: it won't be "Days of Thunder" all over again, to note but one pairing of Towne and Cruise.) Could this be the megadecamillion-dollar apotheosis of Hong Kong sentimentality and on-the-noseness? Masterful, caffeinated, keenly calibrated balderdash?

There are moments where Woo makes space as febrile as flickering flame: when Cruise first lays eyes on avowed master-thief Thandie Newton, it is in Seville, Spain, the red tendrils of a flamenco dancer's dress purling between their slow-motion dance of eyes. Once they join forces, after some off-screen sheet-play, the inspiration seems the films of Howard Hawks, such as "Only Angels Have Wings." But Cruise's iteration of "Damn, you're beautiful" to the yes-damn-beautiful Newton doesn't have the cursive playfulness of a Hawks player, like, say, Cary Grant.

Cruise is more plastic; that is, in the sculptural, synthetic sense. As a performer, he is more about indicating than inhabiting. Take the first opening. Embracing a sheer rock face with his fingertips, Cruise is seen to flip and fly and oscillate implausibly, thrillingly, against gravity itself. How does he gain his momentum when all seems lost? Facing outwards. Holding two outcroppings with outstretched arms. Christ-like, surveying the barrenness of a truly grand canyon. There is pleased laughter throughout the room: with the wires and cables digitally erased, all bets are on: Woo's emotional and physical histrionics will perhaps rise above Cruise's earnest will to win. Perhaps we'll even be able to talk about characters rather than dwelling on the craft, speaking afterwards of romance and laughter instead of cooly considering Woo's impeccable command of the horizon line no matter what improbable gyrations his whirling figures contort into through gunplay and kickfight.

But Woo's dervishes are djinn rummy here: this is that rare movie where I've scratched my head and asked, what precisely are the moral stakes? What the hell is this robust jackanapes with the pulpish name of Ethan Hunt fighting for? Yes, of course, to save the world from extermination by a potent influenza strain dubbed "Chimera" by its mad masters. (Good one!) But there is a near-total lack of characterization and conflict beyond some essential male sexual jealousy. There are flickers of self-mockery in the script, as Cruise's reliance on his toothy grin is sent up by his adversary (bloom-lipped, wavy-haired Dougray Scott, looking more peeved than pernicious). Yet caution seems to be the watchword. Balls-out nuttiness, which seems conceivable at any given turn, never flowers. Everything is just... careful. The thrills are just... OK. (The nerviest element is in Hans Zimmer's score, with a motif discomfitingly close to that of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," which is not credited.)

Even the oft-marvelous effects stop a few frames shy of bliss. Instants where you want all to cut loose like the mid-air detonation in "Fight Club," "Mission: Impossible 2" is more about sleek rhythm than mad bursts. My favorite set-up is perhaps a scene that delineates a square of escape hatch through which bad guys parachute down before a jetliner is catapulted into the side of a mountain. The widescreen frame is formally ideal, several figures in a dynamic rectangular composition clustered around this cold, bright block, before being sucked one-by-one into a crabbed panorama of brilliant snow and stone and sky. It's almost too easy a metaphor for the work that Towne and Woo do throughout, rigorously fashioned, endlessly adept, guilefully arbitrary as the tale progresses, never earning a recognizable human emotion.

To turn to DeLillo's muse once more, here is the designer detritus of "Mission: Impossible 2," brand names we are meant to embrace, inhabit, murmur in our dream-digestion after the movie is done: Audi. Gucci. Motorola. Bellini. Avis. Porsche. PowerBook. Kodak Digital Camera. Prada.

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