Mission: Impossible II: a Romantic Action Adventure Film
Elaine Lennon takes an in-depth look at the screenplay for Mission: Impossible II, uncovering its influences, themes and motifs.
By Elaine Lennon.
Oscar-winning writer, producer, director and actor Robert Towne is widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters, contributing to such films as Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. In the 1990s he wrote screenplays for several of the biggest blockbusters, including Days of Thunder and Mission: Impossible, hitching his career to that of Tom Cruise.
In the last of a series of articles about Robert Towne and his collaborations with Tom Cruise we examine Mission: Impossible II, directed by John Woo, for which Towne wrote the screenplay, before offering some concluding thoughts on Robert Towne’s collaborative efforts in the 90s.
Writing the Script
Any search for a hero must begin with
what a hero requires – a villain.
It seems that, once again, a number of writers (perhaps as many as eight) had attempted to write Mission: Impossible II before it came to Towne’s attention, although whilst speaking on Behind the Mission – The Making of Mission: Impossible II, Cruise had remarked that he and Towne “had had ideas about if we ever did another Mission… which way we would take it.”
One of the basic problems with the first film was its overly complex story, and this, apparently influenced thinking on the second: “They didn’t want to abandon all the complexity; they figured the puzzle was part of the pleasure of the series. But extra efforts were made to ensure that all crucial plot points were given enough space and time to register with the audience.” (New York Times’ reviewer Rick Lyman).
Towne was basically brought in to create movement between the action scenes. He stated that “really what was involved was writing a story to fit the action….They said: ‘These are the action sequences. What do you think of coming up with a story to fit them?’ I said it was an insane idea, but I did it.”
Towne revealed his motivation for writing the script: “Ever since the end of the cold war, people have been looking for a villain… It’s tricky writing for a franchise series like Mission: Impossible because there are certain things that you know you cannot do… The single biggest challenge is to convince the audience that the hero might die.”
Part of his inspiration came from watching 60 Minutes, “when he saw a segment about new boutique antibiotics that kill specific strains of viruses. He filed the idea away. A bit later he was reading an article in National Geographic about Eskimos and a weird strain of virus found frozen in the Arctic ice. The dime dropped. How’s that for a villain? A pharmaceutical company that makes a super-killer virus just so it can sell people the antidote!”
How that might relate to the original story, credited to Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, is open to speculation.
MI2 producer Paula Wagner said of Towne that he “brings the nuance and complexity and a little bit of irony to the human interaction and to the characters.”
Towne acknowledged to Michael Sragow the inherent difficulty of writing the screenplay:
That took some working at it: to develop a language that at least had the simulacra of life – if that’s what you want to call it – even if it wasn’t real. That’s what takes three drafts: to get that feeling for language, to get the right level of reality – or its own level.
I had always worried that Mission movies would always be over-involved in process and in the technological version of the Feydeau farce, with people pulling those masks on and off. But here I think we managed to use those things as metaphors for character.
Hong Kong Influence
The influence of Hong Kong action films can be seen not just in the employing of Woo as director, but in the acrobatic stunts which are familiar from that genre (made more audience-friendly in The Matrix trilogy). Acknowledged as a modern classicist, chiefly as a brilliant director of balletic action sequences, Woo had hit the ground running in the United States with Face/Off, an ingenious camp classic starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. (In fact, Woo had made an earlier film, Hard Target in 1993, with the infamous Muscles from Brussels, Jean Claude Van Damme, but nobody had noticed and so Woo’s reputation remained unsullied.) “Basically it’s a triangular love story,” said Woo of Mission: Impossible II. “The good guy and the bad guy are both in love with the same girl.”
Sragow suggests that it is necessary to have a good collaborative relationship with a director on “these romantic adventure-cum-suspense movies; they’re always team efforts – whether we’re talking about Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht on Notorious or Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman on North By Northwest.”
And Towne agrees that
You have to have that teamwork — you have to work with people so immersed in this world that they can give reality to the romance and adventure and suspense, or else it’s all a lighter-than-air fairy tale. You have to ground it — and to do that you have to help each other believe in it.
However, linguistic problems hindered the nature of the collaborative process with Woo:
He was involved every day in what we did; it’s just, for the moment-to-moment work, his language skills are not such that he was able to achieve it. We would read to him and refer to him and he would make suggestions. But the actual involvement,in terms of the interplay, was with Tom and me. At the end of every day in Australia, Tom was there. And sometimes he would go up to Paula Wagner’s room while I was writing; then he’d come down, take the pages, run back up the fire escape, and, I was told later, read the pages to whoever would listen to him and come back down.
Themes, Influences and Motifs
A Romantic Action Adventure Film
Wagner declared that she wanted to make “a romantic action adventure film.” And the generic specifics central to an action film’s structure require a romance line to create a subplot to the main narrative line.
While conforming to the needs of the blockbuster franchise, then, Towne’s technique binds action and romance together, because in trying to save the girl, Ethan is also initiating the possibility of romance and humanising the hero-spy. (Woo remarked that it was his first film with a happy ending.)
As Towne said, “Tom loves risks. And that’s what drives Ethan… If there is a romance, will the girl survive?”
In discussing Ethan’s character, Towne reverts to the terminology of his beloved Greek mythology: “He looks like Icarus, but he is really Daedalus.” The mythology was explicit in the screenplay: the villain that needs a hero, the illness that requires an antidote, the Chimera that has to be killed by Bellerophon, the idea of Nyah as ‘a Trojan horse’ which is punctuated by a scene at the racetrack.
The coining of the name of the screenplay’s female antagonist, Nyah Nordoff-Hall, owes much to Towne’s play on the audience’s prior knowledge and his own commitment to mythical storytelling, as well as his collaborator, cinematographer Conrad Hall. The writers James Norman Hall and Charles Nordoff are principally known for their novel trilogy Mutiny on the Bounty (Botany Bay, Men Against the Sea, Mutiny on the Bounty), which was the basis for the eponymous 1935 film and remains a well-loved adventure saga in the minds of Americans. (And James Norman Hall is the father of Conrad Hall.) As well as locating her in the realm of the mythic, this gives us a clue as to Nyah’s destiny: to commit a form of treason to her former employer, also her former lover, in the course of a legendary adventure. Nyah’s profession is also a furthering of the animal motif introduced in the first film of the series – she is a cat-burglar.
The orientation of the film towards the mythic is further illustrated by the patenting of the drugs, which clearly represent good and evil – the choice to be made by men who metaphorically hold the whole world in their hands. While perhaps not Towne’s finest writing hour, the underscoring of the narrative with this level of symbolism creates firm links with the body of his work in general, neatly conflating both the mythic and realistic lines of his narratives, and underlines his own apprenticeship with genre fiction – the borrowing of influences, the intertextual referencing to classic Hollywood filmmaking, and the nod and wink to a knowing public.
Of course, the screenplay cannibalises the first film: the play of masks and identities – even an oxygen mask, in a nod of course to Face/Off, which Woo acknowledges as Towne’s idea – which has its ultimate payoff as Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott playing the rogue agent much as Sean Bean had done in the James Bond film Goldeneye) takes off his mask to reveal Ethan Hunt, whilst Hunt does the same at different and crucial plot points. They ‘face off’ in a literal cliffhanging climax which echoes the film’s introduction to Ethan free-climbing in Dead Horse Point State Park.
The animal motif is repeated from Mission: Impossible, with references made in particular to Nyah either as a ‘cat’, or a ‘monkey.’ And cats are one of Towne’s favourite on-screen animals, viz., the description of Lillian Bodine as “a painted cat” in The Two Jakes.
We see pigeons (carriers of messages – and disease) and horse-racing; and again, as in Mission: Impossible, there is a reference to a rat in a maze. Some of the action takes place on Bear Island; doves accompany Ethan during the break-in; and Hunt, is, once again, prey.
We have a reprise of helicopter scenes and a near-miss in an elevator to remind us of Emilio Estevez’s death in the first film. As in North By Northwest, a series of different modes of transport is used – now an action movie trope. And, as in Mission: Impossible, a transitional sequence takes place on a bridge. The Biblical analogy here is represented by the false ‘resurrection’ scene; and then the final, final shootout occurs, restoring peace after narrative disturbance: literally, a cliffhanger, replicating the opening as the DNA-like story spirals to its conclusion.
Good and Evil
The dramatic irony at the narrative’s core is that a disease is being created in order to peddle a cure – perhaps a superficial riff on the theme of Chinatown with this dramatic twisting of the conflict into myth, a way of signposting the narrative endgame:
I needed the Chimera in order to
peddle Bellerophon. For a hero
to be appreciated, you need a monster.
Now, that’s not so difficult to
understand, is it?
The use of Ethan’s own bloodstream as a petri dish literally makes him the embodiment of the conflict at the film’s heart – the fight between good and evil.
A Notorious Influence
In an interview with Sragow, Towne acknowledged the influence of Hitchcock:
Sragow: It didn’t take long before I thought of Hitchcock’s Notorious.
Towne: In a strange way you have both the villains in both those pictures deeply in love with the girl and you’re meant to feel that. And I love that use of a triangle.
Sragow: You even have a substitute for Claude Rains’ protective, suspicious mother.
Towne: Yes, that Richard Roxburgh character. And we even have a racetrack! That was not intended; it’s just suddenly we had this great racetrack down there. Sure there was an echo of Notorious.
Yet in 2000, a week after Sragow’s interview had appeared, when Stephen Farber suggested (perfectly reasonably) in The Los Angles Times, that Towne had lifted the film’s plot hook, line and sinker from Hitchcock’s Notorious, Towne responded with ire in the pages of same newspaper. This, despite the obvious similarities: an American agent, Devlin, played by Cary Grant, endangers the life of his true love, Ilsa (another Ilsa, again played by Ingrid Bergman), by asking her to spy on her Nazi husband, Claude Rains (yet another refugee from Casablanca). Not to mention Nyah’s profession as cat burglar, a reminder of one of Hitchcock’s greatest successes, To Catch a Thief.
Given just how many similarities there are between Towne’s genre works and those in the Hollywood canon, particularly as written and directed by Howard Hawks, his denial seems all the more bizarre.
During the 1990s, Towne was involved in several collaborative efforts with stars, producers and directors, in order to finance his own, more deeply felt work. And yet throughout the collaborative screenplays can be found the essence of his work: the use of mythical elements, inspiration taken from classical Hollywood films, and the utilisation of metaphor and motif to yield unexpected depths in seemingly routine genre productions.
This phase of Towne’s career might be summarised as a balancing act. His natural desire to be the ‘controlling intelligence’ behind a personal project was balanced with a pragmatic approach to collaborative cinematic authorship. The film critic Richard Corliss talks of ‘layers’ of screenwriting. And perhaps we would do well to describe Towne’s collaborative blockbusters as being the ‘protean’ layer, signifying the “gem-polishing of the gifted adaptor.” And if Towne’s career now had a shape, its contours were those of a circle – like so many of his protagonists, he was back where he started. A screenwriter for hire.
We will give the last word in the matter, however, to David Thomson, who in his book The Whole Equation, regrets that:
Someone who was once among the best writers in Hollywood, and who might have written a fine novel about the life and times of Jake Gittes and Los Angeles, became the man who made a small fortune writing two Mission: Impossible pictures.
Check it out Here!
Not yet read the second article in this series,
Check it out Here!
Check it out Here!