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Mission: Familiar

The blockbuster 'M:I-2' takes more than inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock's classic 'Notorious.' A comparison of the two, if you choose to accept it, leaves today's film coming up short.

May 31, 2000|STEPHEN FARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most critics slammed the first "Mission: Impossible" for being overly convoluted and mechanical. To remedy that problem, the filmmakers behind the sequel set out to reclaim a more human focus.

"This movie is different from the first 'Mission: Impossible,' " co-producer Paula Wagner announced. "This is a more personal story." In pursuit of this new agenda, screenwriter Robert Towne looked for inspiration to one of the greatest romantic thrillers of all time, Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious."

Of course there are other elements to "M:I-2"--a plot about a deadly virus and the search for an antidote, a medley of elaborate disguises, dizzying car chases and flameouts staged by director John Woo. But grafted on to all that slam-bang action is a romantic triangle lifted directly from Hitchcock's 1946 movie.

The problem with invoking a classic story is that anyone who knows both versions will feel impelled to make comparisons, and in every important way, the new movie falls pitifully short of the original. And the fact that "M:I-2" isn't up to the standards of "Notorious" says a lot about what's happened to big-budget Hollywood films, where any rougher edges have to be smoothed away in fear of alienating the audience.

To refresh your memory, in "Notorious," Cary Grant played a spy who recruits bad girl Ingrid Bergman for a mission that depends on her prior relationship with a Nazi tycoon played by Claude Rains. Bergman's assignment is to rekindle her romance with Rains in order to infiltrate his home and discover the nature of the nefarious plot he's cooking up with a band of German exiles living in Rio.

In "M:I-2" superspy Tom Cruise falls for bad girl Thandie Newton and then learns about her prior relationship with archvillain Dougray Scott. Cruise sends Newton into Scott's lair so that she can seduce him and secure crucial information about the diabolical conspiracy he's hatching.

Many details within the two movies are absolutely identical. The scene in which Cruise's boss, Anthony Hopkins, dismisses Cruise's qualms about the mission is exactly like a confrontation between Grant and his superior, Louis Calhern, in "Notorious." And there's a racetrack scene in both films, where the heroine slips away from her villainous lover for a rendezvous with the hero in order to transmit the information she's gathered.

In "Notorious," Rains' domineering mother is initially suspicious of Bergman and sounds the alarm about her true motive. In "M:I-2" Scott has no mother, but he does have a slightly fey henchman (reminiscent of the Martin Landau character in another Hitchcock classic, "North by Northwest") who serves the same plot function.

A touch of plagiarism might be forgiven if the pilfered ingredients were put to good use. Sadly, however, the creators of "M:I-2" have borrowed the basic plot mechanism of "Notorious" without reproducing the fascinating psychological dynamic that made that movie so memorable. The genius of Hitchcock--and of his brilliant screenwriter, Ben Hecht--was in adding layers of complexity and perversity to all three characters in the romantic triangle. Grant's government agent, Devlin, was far from a completely sympathetic figure.

In a characterization that was several decades ahead of its time, Devlin was presented as a raging misogynist who was at once disdainful and secretly titillated by the heroine's "notorious" past. He constantly derided her and belittled her, which only provoked her to flaunt her promiscuity. The film clearly implied that Devlin's sadistic attitude contained a deep-seated prejudice toward women, and his eagerness to prod Bergman into a dalliance with another man hinted at a perverse voyeuristic streak as well.

None of these intriguing psychological layers are present in the new "M:I-2," which depicts Cruise's Ethan Hunt as a paragon of virtue. Is this because Cruise is one of those egotistical movie stars unwilling to play a cruel, neurotic character? Actually, the evidence suggests that he might have been game for the assignment. In "Magnolia" he willingly played a virulent sexist pig, and in the first half of "Rain Man," he did a good job portraying a coldhearted hustler.

Certainly Towne, in "Chinatown" and other scripts, has proven himself capable of creating characters with dark edges. More likely, the simplification of the characterization results from a studio mandate. Nervous executives have decided that a summer blockbuster requires true-blue heroes and blackhearted villains to woo undemanding audiences. (The fact that "M:I-2" has taken in more than $92 million at the box office in its first week suggests they may be right.)

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