The story is a straightforward biotech thriller--the millennial equivalent of the Cold War thriller--that finds Ethan Hunt (Cruise) called in to track down a former colleague-gone-bad: a brogue-sporting baddy named Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott in sneer mode) who is believed to have stolen a genetically engineered supervirus and its antidote. Hunt is given only one prerequisite for assembling his team--that it include a civilian thief named Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton), whom he promptly recruits and just as quickly seduces. It's only then that Hunt is made to understand that Hall's value to the team has less to do with her skills as a thief than her onetime relationship with Ambrose.
Struggling to keep his feelings from interfering with the mission, Hunt calls on another veteran from the previous film, trusty tech-expert Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), as well as a peppy, slightly nutty Australian helicopter pilot named Billy Baird (John Polson). The ensuing chess match between Ambrose and Hunt makes full use of the genre toolkit--elaborate disguises, daring break-ins and escapes, double- and triple-crosses and space age satellite tracking to name only a few--while adding enough of Woo's elaborately choreographed car chases, gun battles and martial arts fight sequences to please a wide spectrum of fans.
It's all very calculated stuff, alternately predictable and preposterous, designed to provide audiences with only the most visceral, superficial thrills imaginable. What sets Woo's approach apart is the artistry with which he approaches his craft. For Woo sees action as an art unto itself, an opportunity to thrill an audience while adding his own indelible, stylistic signature. Bodies, bullets and cars all play a part in the pyrotechnic ballet, reinvigorating a variety of tired conventions with dazzling technique. Even the "countdown clock" cliché has been resurrected and multiplied, with no fewer than a half-dozen such sequences layered into the script, often overlapping one another.
In the hands of any other director, such profusion as Woo wallows in here would be labeled self-indulgent. But with Woo, the excess is part of the fun, a rare chance to see a master director unhinged and unleashed at the peak of his creative powers. That much of it makes little or no sense, even stretching logic to the breaking point, is beside the point.
Woo's love affair with the camera has flesh-and-blood beneficiaries as well, channeling enough sensuality and sex appeal through Cruise and Newton to steam the projector lens. For Newton, it is arguably the long sought-after breakthrough performance that should finally lay groundwork for her emergence as a major leading lady. For Cruise, it's yet another confirmation that he is, unquestionably, the most magnetic, charismatic actor working in films today.
As for detractors unswayed by the notion that the unrestrained exhibition of "cool" is justification enough for a $100 million movie, yet another stale, conventional James Bond film should be just around the corner. Starring Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Ving Rhames, Radé Sherbedgia, Brendan Gleeson and Anthony Hopkins. Directed by John Woo. Written by Robert Towne. Produced by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. A Paramount release. Action-Thriller. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action and some sensuality. Running time: 123 min