John Woo explains the extraordinary process behind his bone-crushing action shots -- but where the hell is Tom Cruise's wire?

By Bill Wyman

Published December 1, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Directed by John Woo
Starring Tom Cruise, Thandie Newton, Dougray Scott, Ving Rhames
Paramount; widescreen (1.85:1 screen aspect ratio)
Extras: Director's commentary; several special-effects and stunt documentaries; Metallica video; MTV Movie Awards spoof featurette; lots more

Brian De Palma's original "Mission: Impossible" has not aged well; take away the undeniably crisp mise-en-scène and a single showcase sequence (the one in which Tom Cruise hangs from the ceiling inside the CIA) and you're left with a typically slovenly plotted and credulity-straining thriller. "M:I-2," designed by franchise holder Cruise as the first in a series of diverse, unrelated films, is in this context a rarity -- a sequel that blows away the original. The film carries marks of both director John Woo's various whimsical interests and a bevy of action romances of the past -- "Notorious" and "How to Steal a Million" among them. But its heart is three distinctive and memorable action sequences.

The first is Tom Cruise's rock-climbing opening. Stark and thrilling, its money shot is a grinning Cruise hanging off a cliff as if it were a crucifix, his biceps bulging -- surely this is an iconic action image for the 21st century. The second is a midmovie assault on a Sydney, Australia, office building, ending with Cruise blowing out a wall and free-falling into space. The third is a breathtaking, earsplitting motorcycle chase, culminating in a series of "nose wheelies" (i.e., with the back wheel of the cycle up in the air) and an almost medieval joust ending with Cruise and villain Dougray Scott leaping off their cycles and meeting in midair.

The "M:I-2" DVD is the very model of an action-movie disc. Woo's commentary is a good example of the limitations of the form: He's articulate, but his somewhat rough English and exaggerated courtesy make for only intermittent insight. (Everyone's a great person, a hard worker and wonderful to work with.) But he does get to explain his various camera speeds and expound on his humanist philosophy, and he also finally cops to the movie's biggest structural flaw: that the chase sequences were decided on before Robert Towne actually wrote the script.

The documentary extras are exhilarating, but they cheat a little. The analysis of the spectacular intro sequence in Moab, Utah, for example, doesn't show any scenes with Cruise on safety wires and doesn't make it clear how some of the shots were done. But you do get a sense throughout of how most of the scenes were constructed, with attention paid to the little things -- like the unusual, counterprogrammed music beneath several key shots. You also get a pretty funny extended version of Ben Stiller's Cruise parody from the MTV Movie Awards, a Metallica video and an alternate title sequence. But you keep going back to the shot dissections and documentaries, which really do help you appreciate the extraordinary lengths Woo and his crew went to get shots that in many cases last just a second or two -- like the bone-crushing Scott-Cruise midair collision. "It's insane," says Woo's stunt master, "how much effort and work went into the shot. It's a John Woo kind of thing that no one else would think of."

Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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