Mission: Impossible 2 is the series' odd one out but I love it all the same

Mission: Impossible 2
(Image credit: Paramount)

Why is Tom Cruise free climbing a sheer rock face in a tank top and shades? Like many things in Mission: Impossible 2, the opening prioritises looking cool over practicality. There's certainly an argument to be made – and this is no bad thing – that this is a movie that runs on vibes and vibes alone.

There's also an argument to be made for the 2000 sequel being the most underrated Mission of the bunch. That's not one you'll find here. It deservingly sits near the bottom of most M:I rankings; an odd curio of a film – directed by John Woo, no less – that's a tonal mismatch for Cruise's strengths, bundled with a two-dimensional villain, a stuttering plot, and by far the series' least memorable action sequences. 

So, why do I love it so much? How can you not love a movie that starts with Ethan Hunt being delivered a classified message via rocket propelled sunglasses and ends with two alphas jousting on motorcycles and kicking the shit out of each other on a beach? If I didn't have a word count to fill, I'd leave it there. But the reasons to adore Mission: Impossible 2 are many.

The premise alone is brilliantly restrained compared to what comes after: tasked with hunting down rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott, who spends half the movie scowling in his island compound) and a deadly Chimera virus, Ethan Hunt enlists the help of Ambrose's ex-flame Nyah (Thandiwe Newton) to take him down. No Hunt masterclass, just a honey trap. It all feels like Mission: Doable, a loose getaway sandwiched between a half-dozen action epics. 

In truth, Newton's delicious cat-and-mouse act completely carries the film. Whisper it, but she has more chemistry with Cruise than any of his co-stars before and since (Newton, for her part, described filming as a "nightmare" in a 2020 interview with Vulture). It's electrifying seeing the two bounce off each other and it's worlds away from Cruise's pretty safe, chaste performances of the past 20 years.

Their car chase in the Seville hills – surely the biggest case of 'why not, we have a budget to spend' in action movie history, complete with slow-motion swerving – also gives us a sparkling taste of Hunt doing his best Bond impression. For a series that has shied away from the 007 comparisons in recent years, this is a goofier, sillier baby brother of the DB5 chase in GoldenEye – not bad company to keep, then.

Cruise control

Mission: Impossible 2

(Image credit: Paramount)

Mission: Impossible 2's biggest strength, though, is in how much it dines out on 2000s camp, with lashings of cheese on the side. Slow-mos, fades, fish eye lenses, black-and-white shots, zooms, and, bizarrely, Flamenco dancer wipe transitions are all Woo's stock in trade here. They don't make 'em like they used to, that's for sure. 

The shot choices might furrow some brows, but it helps that Woo makes everyone here look like a star; everything they do gives off the laid-back, seductive tone of a faintly sexy perfume ad. Eyes shimmer, lips purse, and the tension is off the charts. For the first – and last – time, Mission: Impossible is a little bit naughty, and it revels in it.

The relaxed attitude (Woo, famously, didn't speak English during production) also gives us rare chef kiss clunkers of lines that are eaten up by Cruise. "We just rolled up a snowball and tossed it into hell. Now we'll see what chance it has," he mutters in one moment. Even he's not buying what he's saying – and it's glorious. 

It's easy to forget, too, that there are bizarre bit-part roles for Brendan Gleeson and Anthony Hopkins. That's the sort of movie Mission: Impossible 2 is: one where two of the leading talents of their generations get in and get out as low-energy footnotes. They walked so Phillip Seymour Hoffman could run.

In 2023, it's a time capsule of another kind – an intriguing glimpse at Cruise before he fully cultivated his action hero persona. Cruise is oddly fine with not being the centre of attention, here – even if it does suffer in places because of it. If you like watching a man who counts cheating death as a part-time hobby using binoculars and looking at computer screens for half the runtime, you're in luck.

Stamp of approval

Mission: Impossible 2

(Image credit: Paramount)

Instead, we get a giant what-if: Dougray Scott's Ambrose – the anti-Ethan Hunt, for all intents and purposes – glowers and snaps his way through the movie. He could've been Hollywood's next big thing, but arguably reached his ceiling here. Indeed, an accident or scheduling conflicts – depending on who you believe – while filming Mission: Impossible 2 cost him a gig as Wolverine in X-Men. It's also an intriguing sideways glance at where the direction of the series could have gone until it had the rough edges sanded off by J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird before being refined by Christopher McQuarrie.

Then there's its absurd peak: the death fake out scene. In today's meme economy, it feels tailor-made to be accompanied by pictures of Martin Scorsese declaring, 'this is cinema.' Hunt manages to pull a fast one, using a mask bait-and-switch to trick Ambrose into killing his henchman Hugh Stamp. It's then topped off by Cruise (as Stamp) sprinting away, surrounded by the Woo trademark of white doves as the scene's operatic score transitions into the Mission: Impossible theme. 

McQuarrie and Cruise are a Hollywood dream ticket, but even they would be hard pressed to match the Woo-ness of it all, a superb blend of melodrama and mayhem that feels like a fever dream. Watch it for yourself if you don't believe me.

Is any of this good? It's hard to say – but it sure is entertaining. There's something scientific and calculated about later Mission: Impossibles. Not quite filmmaking by algorithm, but Cruise and his creative team certainly cracked the code by the time Rogue Nation rolled around. Here, half the fun is watching the series fumble around for its place in a cinematic landscape that would soon be filled with Bournes, Bonds, and action knock-offs galore. All told, there's something inherently watchable about Cruise starring in something a little bit messy and imperfect.

Yes, the series would go on to have greater, more impossible Missions. But there's something to be said – should you choose to accept it – about embracing this fascinating and flawed one-of-a-kind sequel.

Not sure what to watch next? Here are the best action movies on Netflix. If you're still in a Mission: Impossible mood, read our interview with Dead Reckoning director Chris McQuarrie.

Bradley Russell

I'm the Senior Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, focusing on news, features, and interviews with some of the biggest names in film and TV. On-site, you'll find me marveling at Marvel and providing analysis and room temperature takes on the newest films, Star Wars and, of course, anime. Outside of GR, I love getting lost in a good 100-hour JRPG, Warzone, and kicking back on the (virtual) field with Football Manager. My work has also been featured in OPM, FourFourTwo, and Game Revolution.