Imagine, for a moment, that you're the hero of an extravagant action-ride spectacle. You're hanging from the side of a zooming motorcycle, or whirling through the air as you fire twin handguns, or plunging down the high-tech canyon at the center of a corporate skyscraper, suspended by a mere bungee cord. Now imagine, at the same time, that you're somehow standing outside of yourself, watching the action unfold, with the vicarious slow-mo precision of a dream, as you perform these absurdly courageous feats of balletic excess. That's the slightly off-balance sensation that director John Woo achieves in Mission: Impossible 2. This big-budget espionage fantasy may be a sequel to Brian De Palma's diverting, if rather convoluted Mission: Impossible (1996), but it's really a high-wire act of summer-season decadence, with an escalating overkill all its own.
The movie is speedy yet languorous, like a James Bond thriller fashioned with Steven Spielberg's gliding camera moves. It's eye candy that detonates.
At the beginning, the film zooms in on Tom Cruise, who is hanging, in spiderlike defiance of gravity, from a smooth vertical rock face, with several thousand feet of empty space below him. Look, Ma, no scaffolding! We've seen this gimmick before a movie star is suspended from a dizzying height, only to have the filmmakers cut to an obvious stunt double. Woo, however, ups the ante: He keeps the camera fixed on Cruise, as the actor slithers by knee and fingertip over the stony surface and then up, in no-sweat triumph, onto the cliff's peak, at which point we're practically in a daze of sympathetic vertigo.
M:I-2 may be knowingly preposterous, but shot for shot it's something all too rare: a believe-your-eyes thriller. Woo, like De Palma, is a grandiose visual wizard. It's not clear that he's drawn to anything in filmmaking aside from the creation of scenes as voluptuous engineering feats violent arias of time and space. De Palma, however, staged Mission: Impossible as if it were a live-action diagram. Woo, as he proved in the overly frenzied Face/Off, favors characters who are driven by florid, overheated aggressions. In M:I-2, he sets up a meaty rivalry between Cruise's IMF superagent, Ethan Hunt, and the movie's villain, a snarling Scot named Sean Ambrose, who wants to steal and leak a deadly biological virus so that he can corner the market on the antidote. The baddie is played by Dougray Scott, a competent, nondescript actor who connotes evil by looking like he's trying to suck his eyes up into his forehead.
The fate of continents may be at stake, but the film's underlying turbulence arises from the way that Hunt and Ambrose go to war over the sexy charms of Nyah Hall, an international jewel thief recruited by the IMF to infiltrate Ambrose's lair. She's played by Thandie Newton, who, more than just a ''spy babe,'' fully inhabits the role of an ultimate object of desire. Her face is gorgeously expressive, with a curvy-lipped pout poised between come hither and do you dare? Nyah, it seems, used to sleep with Ambrose, and must now resume their intimacy so that the IMF surveillance team, led by Ving Rhames' computer genius, can trace Ambrose's movements through a microchip tracker implanted under her ankle tattoo.
The first hour of M:I-2 is a volatile pulp variation on Hitchcock's Notorious, with Hunt, who has already landed in bed with Nyah, trying not to let his jealousy get in the way of his mission. The movie takes its time setting up its layered deceptions; Woo holds you by directing conversational entanglements as if they were the psychological equivalent of action collisions. Newton, locking eyes with Cruise, makes a smoldering flirt, and as Nyah struggles to conceal her loyalties, pickpocketing a digital memory card from Ambrose at a racetrack and then making the mistake of facing Hunt directly as she passes it off to him, her sleek features take on a heightened shimmer of anxiety. Working from Robert Towne's tersely clever screenplay, Woo has even figured out a way to give those irresistible latex-mask disguises face/offs? a humanistic spin. Digital technology renders them more convincing than ever, but this time they're used, and not just by the heroes, to tease out people's secrets.
Cruise, whose aquiline handsomeness grows sleeker each year, has become the most forcefully athletic of our action demigods. He has even learned to rib himself (there's a good running gag at the expense of his gleaming grin), and he acts with his body as much as his face; he holds the screen, from that pressure-drop opening on, with the lean eloquence of his physical alacrity. M:I-2 inevitably gives way to a bombardment of high-velocity action fireworks, which Woo unspools in a stylized jump-cut swirl, with cars and motorcycles not so much racing as flying, and fists and feet transformed into ninja weapons. The love triangle gets a bit misplaced, but there's a genuine pop artistry to Woo's popcorn. Throwaway pleasure that it is, M:I-2 has what the Bond films have long lost: the ability to surprise. B+