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Pulp Culture
Hong Kong filmmakers
take on summer box office


June 1, 2000
By Franklin Harris

"Pulp Fiction" director Quentin Tarantino once said of John Woo, "Yeah, he can direct an action scene, and Michelangelo could paint a ceiling."

John Woo
John Woo
Woo made his name in Hong Kong directing two-fisted action films like "A Better Tomorrow" (starring Chow Yun Fat) and "Bullet in the Head." Since coming to the United States in the early 1990s, Woo has directed "Broken Arrow" (1996) and "Face/Off" (1997), both starring John Travolta.

If you've seen any of Woo's earlier films, you notice quickly that his latest, "Mission: Impossible 2," bears all his signature tricks. It's more a John Woo film than it is a "Mission: Impossible" film. About the only thing it owes to the 1960s television series is its name and its theme music, although the latter is almost unrecognizable at times.

Back for this outing is Tom Cruise as super spy Ethan Hunt, the hero of the 1996 "Mission: Impossible" movie directed by Brian DePalma. He is joined by technical expert Luther Strickwell (Ving Rhames), the only other holdover from the first film.

While many critics thought the first movie's plot was impossible to follow, this one's is straightforward: Evil spy Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) steals a super-virus capable of killing millions. Hunt and crew are dispatched to retrieve the virus and eliminate Ambrose. In order to get at Ambrose, Hunt enlists the aid of Ambrose's ex-girlfriend and professional thief, Nyah (Thandie Newton), who worms her way back into Ambrose's affections and his hideout.

Oh, and Hunt and Nyah fall in love at first sight, which, of course complicates matters a bit.

As both Hunt and Ambrose are established masters of disguise (think Martin Landau's character, Rollin Hand, from the "Mission: Impossible" TV show), the plot devolves into one case of mistaken identity after another and then to one huge explosion after another.

I may be the only one, but while I found "Mission: Impossible 2" an enjoyable ride, I didn't find it as satisfying as the first one. But then I didn't have any problem following the first film's plot, either.

First, put out of your mind that this movie has anything to do with "Mission: Impossible." A more accurate title would be "Ethan Hunt: Superman."

Tom Cruise reprises the role of secret agent Ethan Hunt in ''Mission: Impossible 2.''
Photo Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Tom Cruise reprises the role of secret agent Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible 2."
While Hunt does have an Impossible Mission Force team backing him up, they are more sidekicks than partners. This movie never lets you forget that Tom Cruise is its star -- not when he's dodging bullets, not when he's performing unbelievable stunts in slow motion and certainly not when he's getting the girl.

The only thing that makes it all work is Woo's direction, which is typically over-the-top.

Woo gives us slow-mo gun battles, slow-mo seduction scenes and slow-mo images of doves flying past just as some act of incredible violence is about to happen. True, when it comes to John Woo movies, image is (almost) everything, but when violence is this poetic, who cares.

Don't expect to come away from "Mission: Impossible 2" with any great insights or epiphanies. Woo doesn't play that.

But you'll probably come away from it saying, "Man, that was cool!"

And that's as good a way to start a summer movie season as you could want.

Meanwhile, Woo's fellow Hong Kong expatriate, Jackie Chan, is also back with a new American-produced film.

This time Chan is following up his surprise 1998 hit, "Rush Hour," with an action/comedy/western, "Shanghai Noon," and he's traded in hyperactive sidekick Chris Tucker for the decidedly more laid back Owen Wilson, who plays a train robber named Roy O'Bannon.

Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson team for ''Shanghai Noon.''
Photo Courtesy Touchstone Pictures
Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson team for "Shanghai Noon."
Chan plays Chon Wang (sounds like "John Wayne," get it?), a member of the Chinese emperor's royal guard sent to the American West to rescue the kidnapped Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu of "Ally McBeal" fame). Along the way, Wang runs into friendly Indians (and, in a bizarre twist, picks up an Indian bride) and eventually joins forces with O'Bannon to rescue the princess -- and, of more interest to O'Bannon, her ransom.

But the plot is all formality. It's just the excuse we have for watching Chan go about his martial arts routine with Fred Astaire-like grace.

That should be enough, but "Shanghai Noon" is also surprisingly funny, proving Chan's comic timing is almost as accurate as his fighting moves. And Wilson, whose talents are far more evident here than they were in last year's dreadful remake of "The Haunting," often upstages Chan himself

"Mission: Impossible 2" may be getting all the attention, but "Shanghai Noon" is the better movie, although you won't go wrong seeing either.

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