If you go to see the latest installment of the "Mission: Impossible" franchise to worship at the altar of Tom Cruise, you'll walk away admiring the wrong guy. The true star of this summer's action-and-popcorn delight isn't the admittedly likable, well-chiseled and athletic Cruise. It's director John Woo, who flings a whole afternoon's worth of shoot-'em-up special effects into the 126 minutes of Numero Dos.
Much of this "M:I-2" takes place in and around colorful Sydney on the coast of Australia. That's not too far from Hong Kong for Woo to feel right at home, and all of his trademark moves are apparent: Look for games of chicken played with deadly weapons, bone-whacking martial-arts duke-outs and sinister stare-downs that are fraught with meaning. If you've been a fan of Woo's Hollywood products -- "Broken Arrow," "Face/Off" and "Hard Target" -- you'll have to agree that he keeps giving action fans a lot to love.
Love? On a summer Cruise? Well, yes. Writer Robert Towne ("Chinatown") has crafted this episode as a romantic adventure. Master spy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) must enlist the aid of master (or is that mistress?) thief Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton), the only known weak spot in the defenses of villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). Hunt goes in for a kill, but falls prey to Newton's smoldering charms. (And who wouldn't? She looks smashing).
Hunt and crew are chasing after a deadly virus and its matching anti-virus, both concocted by a ruthless multinational corporation to engineer a desperate need in the buying public and then meet it at a price. The chases -- which start well before your candy's gone -- take us careening along mountain roads, screeching on motorbikes and exploding through tons of shattered glass. Even that hoariest of action vehicles, the helicopter, becomes pretty exciting in Woo's hands.
Newton, who has made a career out of playing vulnerable slave girls (Beloved, "Jefferson in Paris"), makes a graceful transition into vulnerable thiefette; she's believable as a tough cookie with a soft center. Scott, who played the prince in Ever After, has the difficult job here, and though he's a visually pleasing presence as Ambrose, viewers can be forgiven for wishing that Anthony Hopkins (who replaces the late Peter Graves as Hunt's superior) had taken on the role of lead villain.
Cruise has hit his stride as an action hero with such confidence that he can completely take over any scene the script requires him to. He's one of a handful of actors who can perform Woo's gravity-defying acrobatics. (Rule No. 1: never throw a punch when a somersault, whirl and kick will do). Watching him scale a cliff, you genuinely believe he's doing his own stunt work. At the same time, he has all the right equipment to play the shrewd agent and defenseless lover.
Arriving on the heels of the first-rate "Gladiator," "M:I-2" is the latest ingredient in a summer that's already heating up into a bouillabaisse of tasty delights for action fans. If Mel Gibson's upcoming "Patriot" matches their level of eye-opening thrills, it'll be a simmering season indeed.