Muffed Mission

The first time Tom Cruise rips off his latex mask and turns out to be someone else, it's cool. The next time someone else rips off his face and turns out to be Tom Cruise, it's still a kick. By the third and fourth time this ploy is used, you're not only miles ahead of the trick, you are beginning to resent it. What is this, "Face/Off-2"?

If only it were. Now, that was a real John Woo movie, both exhilaratingly ridiculous and ridiculously exhilarating. "M:I-2," as the new "Mission: Impossible" is tagged, is a slick, expensive, bullet-ridden thriller that is oddly dull -- the last thing you'd expect from Hong Kong action maestro Woo. It makes one nostalgic for Brian De Palma's first M:I. The plot may have been incomprehensible, but while you were lost in its seductive hall of mirrors, it didn't seem to matter.

The plot of "M:I-2" is simple enough: there's a very bad virus that could wreak worldwide havoc, and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has to get it out of the hands of the villains. This time he needs the help of a woman he has inconveniently fallen for (Thandie Newton). She was once the girlfriend of the chief bad guy (Dougray Scott), and Ethan has to ask her to sacrifice her virtue for the good of the cause. This gives Cruise many opportunities to furrow his brow and look agonized, but for all the gnashing of shiny teeth, his concern never becomes ours. (Someone should have studied the similar dynamic between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious" for a lesson in the power of understatement.)

Woo's movie bursts out of the gate with James Bondish raffishness. But the tongue-in-cheek style suits neither Cruise's earnest, muscular emoting nor Woo's supercharged balletic carnage, and is quickly dropped. Many car and motorcycle chases ensue. Since these are rather shopworn thrills in the post-"Matrix" era, Ethan Hunt suddenly acquires an acrobatic gift for leaping into the air and thrashing his foes with his legs and feet. Strange: here is Mr. Woo imitating the two white brothers who directed "The Matrix" who were imitating the Hong Kong action style at which Woo was once peerless. But the poetic urgency behind Woo's best work is missing here. In "M:I-2" everyone seems to be going through the motions.