Mission: Impossible 2 On DVD

Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Richard Roxburgh, John Polson, Brendon Gleeson, Rade Serbedzija, Ving Rhames. Directed by John Woo. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby 2.0 (French). 123 minutes. 2000. Paramount Home Video 33487. PG-13. $29.99.

I suspect even the youngest fans of the two (to date) Mission: Impossible movies know that they're based on a popular TV series of the 1960s. The TV show was a strong ensemble piece, but the ground rules have changed since then: The film versions are star vehicles for Tom Cruise.

That's not entirely a bad thing; Cruise could hardly be bettered in the role. But short of the preoccupation with disguises, there's now little left of the original concept. And speaking of disguises, the ripping-off-the-face-mask bit from the first film is repeated here more than once—including one switch that would have been beyond the skills of even the world's best makeup artist, much less an action hero responding to real-time events. But then, as Anthony Hopkins says in an uncredited cameo, this is Mission: Impossible, not Mission: Difficult.

The plot, such as it is, was apparently easier for audiences and critics to follow than the convoluted (but more interesting) narrative of the first M:I film. In this one, superagent Ethan Hunt is in a race to track down a nasty virus that could wipe out mankind. The scientist who developed the bug is killed, the goods ultimately fall into the wrong hands, and the villains plan to sell the virus—and the antidote—to the highest bidder. Along the way, Hunt falls for the woman he recruits to help in the mission, and ultimately her fate, too, hangs in the balance. But plot is not the point; M:I-2 is simply a series of action set pieces.

But what set pieces! They pile up one after another like real jewels set in plastic. Director John Woo outdoes himself with all his signature touches—gunfights, car chases, pigeons (!), slow motion—lots of slow motion, which gives the action the look of a ballet while hiding choreography that would look silly at normal speed. As, for example, in the mano a mano finale: If you watch carefully, you see each protagonist giving the other more than enough time to take his best shot. In real time, this would be the equivalent of the villain who talks too much instead of simply shooting the hero at the first opportunity.

I saw M:I-2 in a top first-run theater, and it didn't look all that special. It looks distinctly better in this superb video transfer—clean, crisp, and grain-free. This enhanced DVD has a degree of three-dimensionality that the rather flat-looking film did not.

The sound is also first-class. While the deep bass is not as extended as in several recent films (U-571 and Titan A.E. come immediately to mind), it nevertheless provides a powerful foundation. The mix is dynamic when it needs to be, and quietly atmospheric where appropriate. For example, during the break-in to destroy the virus (chapter 10), a not-so-subtle variation on the CIA break-in from the first film, hushed ambience and small sonic details demonstrate clearly that the value of multichannel film sound extends way beyond explosions and firefights.

There are a number of interesting extras on this disc, but I found the behind-the-scenes featurettes disappointing. The cast and crew interviews were too much fluff and too little meat—the all-too-common "He/she really knew his/her stuff and was great to work with, blah blah blah." And a feature purporting to show how many of the stunts were shot does no such thing. For example, in the opening sequence, Hunt is shown rock-climbing high in the mountains in a manner that can be described only as suicidal: leaping, sliding, grabbing, and dangling without any sort of safety device. To hear the explanation offered here, you might imagine that all of this was done just as it appears on film: 2000 feet above the terrain, in multiple takes, by Tom Cruise himself. This is ludicrous to anyone who knows that stars are always insured against accidents during filming to protect the money that has been sunk into the project. I still don't know how they did the stunts, but they could never have obtained such insurance without taking some serious safety precautions—I suspect, at a minimum, safety lines, which can easily be digitally erased in post-production. The same goes for the other "impossible" shots depicted.

But my reservations have little to do with the entertainment value of M:I-2. It's a fun movie and an outstanding DVD transfer.