Smoke and Mirrors


Unlike such philosophically grounded early-summer rivals as the Aurelian Gladiator and the Hubbardist Battlefield Earth, Mission: Impossible 2 is refreshingly devoid of metaphysical ideas. John Woo’s sequel to the 1996 blockbuster, designed to promote Tom Cruise as a viable action icon, is a vaguely absurd epidemiological thriller filled with elaborately superfluous setups and shamelessly stale James Bond riffs.

The Cold War is long over; Austin Powers has more than exhausted the spy genre’s comic possibilities. All that remains is Woo’s capacity for choreographed mayhem and king-sized clichés. Crash a plane before the credits; introduce the secret agent hero (Cruise or his stunt doubles) dangling by three fingers off a canyon wall. Cut to a back-lot Seville patched together from old issues of National Geographic to initiate the action courtship between Cruise and international jewel thief Thandie Newton—a meet-cute that plays somewhere between a lap dance and a demolition derby.

M:I-2 doesn’t even care much for technology. Woo is content to posit a perfunctorily gadgetized world in which satellites and computers combine to create an atmosphere of Dr. Mabuse-like surveillance so total that a laptop can be used to supply a flashback when needed by the narrative. The baddies are threatening to unleash a hideous plague of gene-spliced influenza and then sell the world its antidote—in a nice instance of irrational exuberance, the villain (Dougray Scott, distinguished mainly by a thick brogue) wants stock options as well as money. Robert Towne, who diddled David Koepp’s Mission: Impossible screenplay, supplied the script himself this time, but one doesn’t attend a Woo film to hear Sir Anthony Hopkins vent his self-contempt by drawling, “This is not Mission Difficult—it’s Mission Impossible.”

Nor will the movie do much for the Magnolia-enhanced Cruise image. Bulked up but still boyish, Cruise is so theatrically hyperalert, nimble, and noble he might be starring in a grade school production of Hiawatha. Ultimately, Woo turns Cruise into a stalking, stomping, punch-and-pummel machine, but for most of the movie, the star-producer stands alone. (Given the director’s track record, it seems likely that he would have wished to do more than employ latex face masks to facilitate the identity melding of hero and bad guy.) Ving Rhames’s ace hacker is less a sidekick than a viewer surrogate. For much of the movie, he watches the action on his screen as though it were a primitive video game: “Hope he kills all the bugs before the yellow dot gets to the red one.” Newton is an appropriately forlorn stray cat, never too stressed to wear a midriff-bearing T-shirt until, two-thirds of the way through, she takes a drug that turns her back into Beloved.

Woo pays homage to the midair stunt that was the centerpiece of Brian De Palma’s even less interesting Mission: Impossible, but he doesn’t pull out the stops until the bio-lab pulverization shoot-out, with Cruise skidding fearlessly across a glass-and-debris-strewn floor, both guns blazing. Never let it be said that John Woo is afraid to pour on the cheese—Cruise and Newton exchange supercharged looks across a room crowded mainly by the back-bending arabesque of the flamenco performer at center stage; Scott is used to balefully reflect a detonating grenade in his contact lens; the hero bursts through a flaming door accompanied by a swelling chorale and a crescendo of flapping pigeons.

For all this hoopla, M:I-2 is less outrageous than Broken Arrow or Face/Off (let alone Woo’s Hong Kong movies). Still, once all narrative pretense is suspended in the final 40 minutes, the director is contagiously content to riff on his own particular brand of action pyrotechnics. A somersaulting dead-shot with motorcycle getaway sets up the Evel Knievel jump across a burning bridge, allowing Woo to juxtapose a Mack truck broadside with Newton’s solemn preparations for a cliff-top swan dive, then cut back for Cruise’s no-hands swerve-and-skid across the path of a tumbling SUV.

The climactic seaside chopper joust has its share of explosions and near-miss eye gouges. It’s a credit to Woo’s relentlessly fanciful action ballet, however, that the coup de grace is a relatively low-tech (but utterly impossible) flying double kick to the head.

Canadian documentary filmmaker Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential, Twist, and Poetry in Motion) will never be mistaken for John Woo, but his latest cultural survey, Grass, is an unexpectedly brash and punchy affair. This pot paean is supercharged with all manner of fake headlines and jazzy graphics designed to compound the dated hysteria of vintage anti-marijuana exploitation films.

As social history, Grass is pat but entertaining. The film is largely a compilation of head lore and connoisseur clips, including the loco-weed freak-outs from the cautionary oater High on the Range (1929) and a scene from Reefer Madness (1936) in which a ham actor seizes his moment, as Jack Smith wrote in these pages, “to disintegrate to the point of gilded splendor.” Cab Calloway sings “The Reefer Man”; Sonny Bono postscripts Tammy’s on a Bummer with a solemn warning to the kids of stupefied suburbia; Mondo Mod stages an interracial pot party that’s nearly as funny as anything in Black and White.

The film, narrated by Woody Harrelson, reminds the viewer of the surprisingly tolerant (and suppressed) 60-year-old La Guardia Commission report and the overwhelming presence of reefer in the ‘Nam while reiterating two political points. The first is that, in the absence of any hard evidence of marijuana’s deleteriouseffect, it was drafted—mainly by the original drug czar, Harry J. Anslinger—as a way to police Mexican laborers, control jazz musicians, and harass campus radicals. A weed for all seasons, it has been blamed on Chinese Communists and charged, almost simultaneously, with creating both juvenile delinquency and teenage apathy. Mann’s second point is that the campaign to eradicate pot has been tremendously expensive. In its way, Grass is doggedly straightforward. No matter how thick the purple haze, you’ll get the idea. Mann doesn’t spend much time evoking a marijuana aesthetic—the movie’s acme of cannabis-infused artistry is Cheech and Chong. Nor does Mann bother with epiphenomena like High Times—although the magazine is unlikely to forget him when it gives out its annual Dopey awards next year.

Richard Nixon is cast as the movie’s most villainous cop; Ronald Reagan is used to signify the end of society’s tolerance—and of mine too, I’m afraid. Grass‘s relentless hard sell ultimately grows wearisome. Although only 80 minutes, it ends, and not a moment too soon, with a pot legalization rally that might well be reproduced outside the theater.

Opening some years after a distinguished film-festival career (which includes the 1998 “New Directors/New Films”), David Williams’s Thirteen is a triumph of understatement. Williams’s first feature is modest and thoughtful, homespun and humanist and regionally based—a sort of old-school Sundance production.

The title refers not to public television but to the heroine’s age. Sometime after her 13th-birthday party, Nina (Wilhamenia Dickens) runs away from home, hitchhiking into the autumn countryside outside Richmond, Virginia. As her motivations are largely a mystery, much of Thirteen suggests a teenage Citizen Kane, with various explanatory flashbacks arising out of the interview two social workers conduct with Nina’s mother Lillian (Lillian Foley). The inquiry is interrupted by Nina’s casual return. Having experienced some sort of epiphany, the girl decides to earn money to buy a car—baby-sitting, pet-watching, attempting to become a real estate agent.

Wilhamenia Dickens’s Nina is tall and skinny, with sad eyes and a sullen overbite. Blunt yet withholding, she’s an authentic adolescent presence who makes no attempt to charm the audience. Nina is shown through her mother’s eyes. Her activities are annotated, if not entirely explained, by Lillian’s low-key voice-over, and her enigmas are filtered through the prism of Lillian’s idiosyncratic religious faith. The two principals seem to be less acting than playing themselves, which, in a sense, they are—albeit in a fictionalized framework. (Dickens is a foster child whom Foley adopted; the filmmaker is their neighbor.)

Ending with Nina’s 14th-birthday party, Thirteen is a youth movie without a single youth movie cliché. Highly composed and sometimes stilted, it nevertheless manages a documentary freshness. In this quietly affecting mother-daughter story, Williams has created a true imitation of life. The movie is as eloquently uninflected and filled with quirks as its star.