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By Chris Herrington

JUNE 19, 2000:  Summer may not be officially under way, but already the year's two biggest Hollywood action blockbusters are squaring off in theaters around the country. Ridley Scott's Gladiator has grossed more than $100 million and is rolling toward two; the Tom Cruise-produced Mission: Impossible 2 -- the latest installment in a new megafranchise -- nearly hit the nine-figure magic number during its opening weekend alone. But the way these two films have been perceived -- and labeled -- says more about the way we watch movies than it does about their relative merits.

The mainstream press has assigned Gladiator the role of Oscar-worthy "important film" -- a work that, apparently, is both first-rate popular entertainment and the finest in quality Hollywood filmmaking. Meanwhile, M:I-2 has been dismissed as merely a sleek popcorn movie (which is pretty much what it is). But while Gladiator is, indeed, the kind of self-serious (and self-serving) middlebrow audience-stroker that is rewarded come Oscar time, M:I-2 is actually both superior entertainment and superior art.

Helmed by Hong Kong action auteur John Woo (a more consistent filmmaker than Gladiator's Scott), M:I-2 is a surprisingly exciting diversion. With its refreshing refusal to rely on now-ubiquitous computer-generated images, it makes a much more visually striking action flick than the muddled Gladiator. M:I-2's much-talked-about credit sequence, with Cruise performing seemingly death-defying flips on the side of a cliff, is as undeniably thrilling as it is shamelessly vain. Audiences have become so accustomed to computer-generated vistas and stunts that we are awed by the physicality of the scene. THAT'S REALLY TOM CRUISE! AND HE'S REALLY ON THAT CLIFF! we think.

And, most importantly, M:I-2 is the more honest film, more comfortable in its own skin. Part of what's so contemptible about Gladiator is its combination of extreme violence and grim sanctimony. Scott's film flaunts its disdain for the bloodthirsty Coliseum crowd, thus assuring the viewer that he is superior to those at gladiator games. But the film choreographs its carnage in a way that encourages filmgoers to become exactly what the film has assured them they are not. And in Russell Crowe's Maximus, the film posits the kind of reluctant warrior hero who is morally above the film's violence yet is portrayed as a better man precisely because of his skill and ferocity in combat.

What makes M:I-2 such kicky fun by comparison is its termite-like interest in making the most of its shopworn genre tropes. Director Woo is too busy filming the hell out of his chaotic action sequences or working overtime to weave his trademark visual flourishes to stop and have his film pat itself on the back. By being less ambitious in scope, yet more cinematically accomplished than its competitor, M:I-2 is the rare summer blockbuster that is actually better than advertised.

Woo is the most original and important action director since Sam Peckinpah. But perhaps even more than his balletic choreography, gutsy settings (hospital shoot-out in Hard-Boiled, church shoot-out in The Killer), or trademark double-pistol-toting characters, Woo's greatest contribution to the genre is his operatic style. Emerging from the East at a time when Stallone and Schwarzenegger were dominating the American action scene, Woo brought a uniquely melodramatic (The Killer borrows freely from Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession) emotional tone to the shoot-'em-up flick that, as much as his gun-blazing pyrotechnics, made him a cult figure in the States long before he ever made a film here.

Woo's Hong Kong style was finally in full-flower for his last American film, 1997's Face/Off. Here, the battle between the John Woo style and the limitations of the impersonal Hollywood blockbuster is closer to a draw. The screenplay for the film is credited to Robert Towne (still living off a reputation made for writing Chinatown). But given the way Woo's Hong Kong films purposely echoed Hollywood classics (in addition to the Magnificent Obsession/The Killer connection, Woo's stunning Bullet in the Head was a combination of The Deer Hunter and Treasure of the Sierra Madre), it's hard not to credit the director for M:I-2's homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious.

In Notorious, Cary Grant plays a CIA agent who falls in love with a German woman played by Ingrid Bergman. But Grant is forced to send her to seduce an exiled Nazi and family friend (Claude Rains) in order to find out where he is hiding uranium. In M:I-2, a deadly virus is substituted for the uranium, but the plot is essentially the same. Agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) recruits Nyah Hall (British actress Thandie Newton, a tougher and more luscious spy babe than anything James Bond has laid eyes on), the ex-girlfriend of the rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who has purloined the virus. Nyah is instructed to seduce Ambrose in order to gather information. But, of course, Hunt falls in love with Nyah before having to send her back into the arms of her evil ex-lover. At first it seems that the Notorious connection might be coincidental, but a horse track scene that directly mirrors a nearly identical scene in the Hitchcock film is the tip-off.

Notorious gives M:I-2 a narrative backbone conducive to the kind of emotional strain that Woo likes to lend his films. However, a sign of the compromise that this project makes (and the film's greatest weakness) is that it backs off from the demands of its model. While Woo's Hong Kong films were always more extreme than their American templates, M:I-2 refuses to match Notorious' emotional brutality, its romantic sadomasochism.

Cruise's and Newton's meet-cute courtship is too brief and too shallow (and the on-screen chemistry too willful) to support the emotional framework that Woo constructs his exhilarating action sequences around. Likewise, producer Cruise seems to limit how far Woo can push star Cruise into the story's darker impulses. With its two arch-rivals both battling over the same woman and sharing different facets of the same personality, M:I-2 seems as much a sequel to Face/Off as to Brian De Palma's impersonal, first Mission: Impossible film -- and it's as far behind the former as it is ahead of the latter. It's not great by Woo's standards, but as an installment in a Hollywood summer action franchise, M:I-2 is a more worthwhile experience than you might expect.

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