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Tom Cruise works his highly compensated ass off in this fireball follow-up to Mission: Impossible. The effort is especially appreciated when M:I-2 – dig the digitally hip title – goes slack. It’s fun to watch a star, as opposed to a stunt double, sweat out an action scene. And Cruise, within insurance limits, lets it rip with the risky abandon of a young Burt Lancaster. For a $20 million salary, plus a backend deal as co-producer that could earn him three times that, Cruise crashes through flames on a motorcycle, hangs from a cliff by his bare hands and kickboxes the Keanu out of the bad guys. Respect the cock, indeed.

Cruise sizzles in a killer blast of thrills, suspense and delicious sin. Like Limp Bizkit’s funky spin on the M:I theme, this flick is engineered to push your buttons. Four years after the original, the sequel rejoins Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the daredevil secret agent, during a literal cliffhanger. On a rock-climbing vacation in Utah, Ethan swings from a ledge 2,000 feet up. That’s where his new boss (a drolly nasty Anthony Hopkins) contacts him about a new mission: Find Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a rogue agent who has stolen a virus that can decimate the population of Sydney in a matter of hours. “It’s not Mission: Difficult, Mr. Hunt,” purrs Hopkins, “it’s Mission: Impossible.”

Humor. Now there’s something we missed the first time around. Mission: Impossible was a summer-’96 smash, grossing $181 million even if all memory of the plot selfdestructed on exiting the multiplex. Brian De Palma directed a few deft set pieces – Ethan infiltrating a computer room like a high-tech Peter Pan and a climax that jammed a helicopter into a train tunnel – but the rest of the film was a chilly, incoherent mess that lost the tacky joy of the 1960s TV series.

M:I-2 keeps the pulse pounding without sacrificing laughs or logic. Even Ethan, a workaholic you’d never catch with a martini, shaken or stirred, loosens up. Cruise is building an M:I franchise, each film crafted by a new director in a new style. I can’t wait for M:I-9, directed by Adam Sandler. But the director at the controls of M:I-2 is Hong Kong legend John Woo (The Killer, Hard-Boiled), whose American films run the gamut from bad (Hard Target) to better (Broken Arrow) to brilliant (Face/Off). Woo, a master of hot action and hot emotions, told Cruise he wanted to make, of all things, a romantic spy movie.

Good idea, but not easy to pull off. Any movie with a budget that exceeds $100 million brings in an army of writers. Count Wesley Strick, William Goldman, Michael Tolkin and Robert Towne among the scribes whose fingerprints are detectable on M:I-2. But the only credit goes to Towne, a Cruise pal and a 1975 Oscar winner for Chinatown – for my money, a model of screenwriting excellence.

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So what has all this pricey talent come up with for an M:I-2 love story? Not a damn thing, except to copycat Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic, Notorious, in which agent Cary Grant recruits the woman he loves (a never-hotter Ingrid Bergman) to seduce a Nazi (Claude Rains) and discover where he’s hiding uranium. In M:I-2, Ethan recruits Nyah Hall (gorgeous Thandie Newton), the thief he loves, to seduce her ex-boyfriend Sean and discover where he’s hiding the lethal virus.

Is M:I-2 simply paying tribute to Ben Hecht’s script for Notorious? Yeah, right. It’s an hommage, which in this case is French for grand larceny. Like Grant, Cruise plays a character who is torn up inside by exploiting a lover in the name of his job. Luckily, Newton (the ghostly wild child of Beloved) goes beyond the call of action-babe duty (nice rack, nice smile) to give Nyah a haunting complexity. It also helps that Towne can wield dialogue like a whip. Boss Hopkins likes to tease Ethan for his moral misgivings: “We’re asking her to go to bed with a man and lie to him. She’s a woman. She’s trained to do that.” Expect that line to go off like a grenade among date-night audiences.

Woo plays the situation for explosive eroticism. Forget Cruise and Newton naked in bed, it’s Newton and Scott who do the detonating. Like the great Rains in Notorious, Scott – in a star-making performance – creates a sympathetic villain. On a dock in Sydney, Nyah walks toward Sean. Woo studies every nuance on their faces in ravishing slow motion. She’s afraid, but faking interest; he’s suspicious, but unable to hide his passionate yearning. No dialogue; it’s all in the eyes.

Scott’s portrait of a monster in love gives M:I-2 a depth of feeling it otherwise lacks. The Oedipal Nazi in Notorious had a pushy mother; Sean has a gay henchman, Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh), to warn him off this predatory babe. “She’s not exactly gagging for it,” says Hugh. How’s that for homoerotic subtext? In a racetrack scene involving the covert transfer of a digital disk from Sean’s left jacket pocket to his right, Sean learns of Nyah’s betrayal. Woo brings off the moment with subtle expertise.

If only M:I-2 could keep delivering on that level. But scientific mumbo jumbo about the virus and an antivirus slows the movie to a crawl. It doesn’t help that the sequel shares the original’s fascination with rubber masks that characters pull off for surprise revelations that are so obvious, a newborn could see them coming. And subtract points for wasting the vital Ving Rhames, back from the original as surveillance whiz Luther Stickell, in a role that demands little more than saying, “Ethan, do you read me?”

No matter. Woo generates explosive excitement with a high-speed motorcycle chase that has Ethan and Sean lunging at each other like knights at a jousting tournament. Ditto the fight scene that follows, with Cruise doing flips and kicks like an American Bruce Lee. When it comes to ba-da-boom with a poet’s touch, nobody does it like Woo. What more do you want in summer escapism? OK, maybe you’re bothered that Woo is repeating himself with the slo-mo action, the hero with two guns and the flying doves that herald bloodshed. Maybe you think that producer Cruise has tamed Woo by making him work within the confines of a box-office-friendly PG-13 rating. What – you were expecting a big-bucks event movie uncompromised by Hollywood greed? Grow up. No screenwriter ever nailed the futility of fighting a corrupt system better than Towne, and he did it in a single line: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

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