Spy vs. Spy: James Bond vs. Ethan Hunt

Mission:Impossible-2 opened on Wednesday, May 24th, 2000 and already advanced word indicated that this film was more in line with James Bond than the first Mission: Impossible film, or even the television series. Swanbeck, Hunt’s new boss, replacing Jim Phelps who was killed in the last film, tells Hunt: “This isn’t Mission: Difficult. It’s Mission: Impossible. Difficult should be a walk in the park.” The rest of the cast and crew would do well to remember that. This is supposed to be Mission: Impossible, rather than James Bond. It’s one thing to be in line with 007 but it is something completely different when you go blatantly poaching in his territory. Here we’ll consider a few of the more obvious similarities between the two films. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, and returning from the first film is Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell. Thandie Newton is on board as Nyah Hall, a cat burglar wanted in Europe and Asia for several high profile thefts. Dougray Scott is IMF Agent Sean Ambrose, and Anthony Hopkins debuts as the new head of IMF, Swanbeck.

Cruise is assigned to retrieve a stolen, but live sample of a deadly virus called Chimera and deal with the thief accordingly. Suspicion is focused on Sean Ambrose immediately, as he is the IMF agent who was assigned to protect the transfer of the virus from Sydney to Atlanta; that, and his body wasn’t found among the wreckage of the plane he was supposed to be flying in.

Hunt is told he can recruit any two agents he wants, but he must also recruit Nyah Hall, a wanted cat burglar. Hunt assumes he’s recruiting her for her thievery skills, and heads to Seville, Spain to catch her in the act. After a car chase, a jewelry heist and some lovemaking, Hunt realizes that he’s fallen in love with her. He later meets with Swanbeck to discuss the operation and is surprised to find out that Nyah was once Sean’s lover. What’s worse, Swanbeck wants Hunt to convince Hall to resume her old relationship with Ambrose in order to find out what Ambrose is going to do with the virus, and that may mean getting back into bed with him. Hunt reluctantly agrees to the plan, and sets off for Sydney to initiate the strategy to be employed against Ambrose.

Tom Cruise is actually the weak link in this film. There’s never been much exploration of the Ethan Hunt character, and Cruise has seemed more interested in getting by on charm, looks, physique and pyrotechnics than anything else. Make no mistake, this is a Tom Cruise film, and as such, he essentially jettisons the team concept that worked so well in the television series so that the film can instead focus on his long flowing mane, perfect smile and ever widening crooked nose. Cruise and his co-partner, Paula Wagner, have never shown the slightest interest in adhering to even the basic premise of the original television series, which is why they can so easily justify killing off all the IMF agents within the first 30 minutes of the first film, or having Jim Phelps turn out to be a vicious killer.

Thandie Newton is the real find in this film. When she and Cruise are acting together, the film gets a sudden lift, and it can’t be denied, despite the films other faults that there is some chemistry between the two. Dougray Scott is capable but mostly forgettable in an underdeveloped role. The films climax takes Hunt on a motorcycle chase on a privately owned island to a cliff top hand to hand combat showdown with Ambrose. The fight sequence goes on way too long, is too bloody and too bone-crunchingly graphic for a PG-13 film. The action, when there is any of it, is almost too stylish. You feel as though you are watching a ballet with sub machine guns than a straight up action film. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Woo seems to have trouble in this film knowing when to pull back. Overall, the film is definitely an improvement over the first one, but then again, it has had some help from Mr. Bond himself. It’s also worth noting that the first Mission: Impossible film had a discarded scene originally designed to be used in the pre-credits sequence of Goldeneye: the high-speed monorail/helicopter chase.

Unlike Alec Trevelyan, played by Sean Bean, we know from the start who the villain in M:I-2 is going to be. Early on, Dougray Scott’s character, Sean Ambrose, is seen stealing the Chimera virus from a 747 bound for Atlanta. The plane is set on automatic pilot; a plan designed to smash it into The Rocky Mountains, in order to cover up the theft of the virus. In Goldeneye, Xenia and Orumov set the satellite to destroy the Severnaya facility in order to cover up the theft of the Goldeneye weapon system.

The M:I-2 writer inserts some background into the script that insinuates Ethan has had his doubts about Ambrose long before now, but ultimately that comes across as pointless. It is worth noting that both Trevelyan and Ambrose are turncoat agents, betraying MI6 and the IMF respectively. To add insult to intrigue, Dougray Scott was born in Scotland while Sean Bean was born in England.

The writers of both films create a rivalry between hero and villain, and in both cases, a woman gets involved. Trevelyan mocks Bond as being MI6’s “loyal terrier” while Ambrose mocks Hunt’s ‘stupid grin’, a reference to Tom Cruise’s $20 million dollar smile. Alec can’t wait to get his lips on Natalya, telling Bond that she tastes like “strawberries”, while Hunt, who has fallen for Nyah, has no choice but to send her to Ambrose’s bed once again (Ambrose and Hall were once lovers). At one point Ambrose even holds Nyah hostage in front of Hunt just as Trevelyan had Natalya held hostage in front of Bond.

Goldeneye’s writers give Alec motivation for his villainy: Trevelyan wants to send London back to the Stone Age for her betrayal of his parents, who were Cossacks, during World War II. No such luck with M:I-2’s writers. Sean Ambrose is motivated primarily by nothing more complex than simple greed. He wants to create a need for a cure to the Chimera virus. He has the antidote. What he doesn’t have is an outbreak of the virus. To do that, he plans on infecting up to 17 million Australians, starting with 3 million in Sydney, before announcing that the biological firm he’s now 51% vested in, has the cure. Stocks that were bought for $30 million dollars before the outbreak suddenly become worth billions as demand for the cure skyrockets worldwide. This is all well and good if you’ve got an actor with a role he can sink his teeth into, but Ambrose is a rather forgettable character. Before both villains initiate doomsday, they transfer other people’s cash accounts, stocks and bonds via computer into their own. M:I-2 even has it’s own version of Boris, this time with a beard and wooly cap. (Advantage: Goldeneye)

The car chase that takes place in Monaco between Bond and Xenia in Goldeneye has been shamelessly lifted and transferred over to M:I-2, this time showcasing Ethan Hunt and Nyah Hall. In fact, this couldn’t be any more stolen from Goldeneye if Tom Cruise was racing Famke Janssen rather than Thandie Newton. Hunt won’t take no for an answer when Hall tells him she doesn’t want to work for him, so he chases after her car and the two engage in a bit of sexual chemistry by racing one another. Hunt and Hall must not only out perform each other, but must also dodge other assorted vehicles that come into their path. At one point Hall’s car goes into a tailspin exactly as Xenia’s did in Goldeneye. But in the end, the copy is never as good as the real thing and Goldeneye’s chase is simply better by virtue of being the first and having Famke Janssen. In fairness, M:I-2’s chase isn’t all that bad either, but is marred towards the end by John Woo’s overuse of slow motion photography and fetish for seeing Cruise and Newton’s hair fly in the wind. (Advantage: Goldeneye)

Bond`s boss is referred to as “M”. Over the years he/she has given Bond his assignements, but never taken part in them. Conversely, throughout virtually every episode of both Mission:Impossible series on television and the first film, the team leader of the IMF, Jim Phelps, has been involved in the action and in the danger. Yet in M:I-2, the new boss of IMF, Swanbeck, inexplicably stays on the sideline more like “M” than Jim Phelps. Anthony Hopkins was even approached to play a more mature, mentor-like version of Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye, a role which he turned down and was eventually played by Sean Bean. He was then offered the role of Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies and turned it down.

Goldeneye ends with Bond and Natalya infiltrating the island of Cuba, destroying Trevelyan’s satellite dish, and killing him off. M:I-2 ends with Hunt infiltrating a small, private island where Ambrose is holed up plotting his reign of terror. Ambrose and his computer hacker Wallis, played by William Mapother (Tom Cruise’s cousin in real life) begin the process of fattening Ambrose’s bank account. Hunt manages to break in and obliterate the place by blowing up tanks filled with volatile fuels and gases. In Goldeneye, Bond blows up liquid nitrogen tanks. In MI-2, Hunt at first tries to escape the island by jumping onto the skid of Luther`s helicopter. In Goldeneye, Bond escapes the imploding dish by jumping onto the skid of a helicopter. (Advantage: draw)

MGM would do well to look at John Woo’s work and consider him for future directing duties. After all, he did sign a three-picture production deal with the studio earlier this year. He brings a lot to the table that other directors simply can’t match. Does he overuse some of the “Matrix” style stuntwork? Yes. Does he employ slow motion technique too often in this film? Yes. But I’d rather have too much than too little and there are moments of genius in the film that he should be given full credit for. Does his style of filmmaking belong in a James Bond film? My first thought was no. A Bond film is too civilized for his way of directing, but then I realized that that is exactly the kind of trap we as fans have fallen into for so long. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have an ace action director like Woo come in and shake things up a bit.

When Mission: Impossible-2 isn’t ripping off Goldeneye, it’s doing some Bondish things better than the actual Bond producers are. For example, MI-2 makes stunning use of Seville and Sydney. Parts of the Seville sequences were actually shot in Australia, but the work that went into creating the atmosphere that made you believe Hunt was in Spain is top notch. Australia is beautifully filmed, with everything from the Sydney Opera House to the Outback making its way into the film. By contrast, the last 3 Bond films have suffered not only from lack of exotic locations, but also from a sense of having even been there. With MI-2 we can see the actors actually in Sydney, with all its famous landmarks being used as backdrops. When was the last time Bond visited anyplace remotely as interesting as Sydney? Monaco, in Goldeneye of course.

Ever since then, the movies have been set in Cuba; Afghanistan; Hamburg, Germany; Vietnam; Kazakhstan; Baku, Azerbaijan; and Turkey. There may be a unique thrill to seeing and filming the dried up oil fields of Kazakhstan but they hardly qualify as exotic locations. Too often in the Brosnan Bond films one exotic location has served to double another, less exotic location. For example, in Tomorrow Never Dies, the production crew filmed in the snow capped mountains of France for the pre-credit sequence, yet the location doubled for Afghanistan. For The World Is Not Enough they again went back to France, this time to film a ski chase on the slopes of Chamonix, yet that location doubled for Kazakhstan, not exactly a place well known for its glamorous ski slopes, beautiful lodges, or enticing snow bunnies. Thailand has doubled for Vietnam, Spain for Azerbaijan, and Puerto Rico for Cuba. This has got to stop. Where are the scenes of Bond walking along the piers of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco? Or driving through the back alleys of Tangier, Morocco? Or jumping from the Hemingway Estate in Key West, Florida? Enough with the contemporary storylines that take Bond into some of the most politically charged regions of the world. For years the Bond fans have clamored for 007 to be sent to Australia, yet here we have to look at Ethan Hunt be the first action hero to go on assignment down under. It’s not too late for Bond to go, but it won’t happen if the series lets other franchises steal their material and then steal their thunder.

And what about the lead female in MI-2? For years this website has offered up the name of Halle Berry as a potential Bond Girl that is not only stunningly beautiful, but also able to widen the film’s racial demographics, yet it is Mission: Impossible-2 that takes the first step forward in hiring a black actress to be the love interest for Tom Cruise and Dougray Scott, two white actors no less. Her race is never an issue in the film and little of it has been made in the press, but shouldn’t the Bond films, which were at one time in their history considered “cutting edge”, have been the first major action series to have a black actress as a lead love interest? Yes, we’ve had Rosie Carver and May Day, but they were villainesses who ended up dead. Halle could easily have played Paris Carver, a role that had no particular race distinction attached to it, or even Christmas Jones. Better yet, why not just write a role for her? Other film projects have shown an alarming amount of forward and progressive thinking, particularly in terms of casting, that threaten to leave the Bond series in the dust if something is not done.

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