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The star talks about what director John Woo changed in the sequel, from harder stunts to warmer characters
''Press any button to begin. Press the green button for more options. Press the red button to cancel....''
Tom Cruise is leaning out the window of his Porsche, mumbling the instructions for paying the parking fee at the entrance to the Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades. ''This isn't working,'' he decides after pushing every button on the ticket dispenser. ''This is getting way too complicated. This thing doesn't make any sense.''
What a harsh reality check. The guy who dangled from a cable to crack a CIA vault in the first Mission: Impossible movie — and who bungee-jumps out of a helicopter to bust into a biotech lab in Mission: Impossible 2 — can't even infiltrate a parking lot. ''I can't figure this thing out,'' he mutters sheepishly, trying to shove his credit card into the ticket dispenser. ''It must be broken.''
It was Cruise's idea to meet here at the Will Rogers Park, a quiet 186-acre sanctuary not far from the house he and his wife, Nicole Kidman, keep in Los Angeles. ''I thought it'd be nice to get some fresh air,'' he explains. ''I've been so busy I haven't had a chance to just be outside and breathe. You know, it's a pretty hectic time for me.''
Oh, we know. After three years of toiling on artsier projects (spending 19 months shooting Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, delivering an Oscar-nominated performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia), Cruise is back in the popcorn-munching mainstream. In fact, his $90 million M:I sequel, costarring Thandie Newton, Dougray Scott, and Ving Rhames, may be the most action-driven film of his career. Certainly it's the first to feature Cruise hanging by his fingertips from a 2,000-foot cliff, popping frontal wheelies during a high-speed motorcycle chase, or blasting bad guys with a gun in each hand.
And all of the above — especially the blasting-bad-guys-with-a-gun-in-each-hand part — unspools in the ballistically balletic style of John Woo, the Hong Kong import who's currently the hottest action auteur in Hollywood. ''This is more John Woo's movie than it is mine,'' offers M:I-2's 37-year-old star (and coproducer along with business partner Paula Wagner), and he's not just being polite. Every slo-mo, bullet-riddled, flying-pigeon-filled frame of this film bears Woo's unmistakable imprint. ''I call it John Woo's Mission: Impossible,'' Cruise half-jokes.
Of course, in some ways it's still the same old Mission, spun out
of the same old 1960s TV show. Once again Cruise stars as Ethan
Hunt, the gadget-packing spy who works for the ultrasecret
Impossible Mission Force (although now his boss is played by an
uncredited Anthony Hopkins, who gets the best line: ''Well, this
is not Mission: Difficult, Mr. Hunt, it's Mission: Impossible'').
It's still got that same jazzy Lalo Schifrin theme music perking
up the soundtrack (lovingly reinterpreted by rap-metallers Limp
Bizkit). And, naturally, it's got a corkscrew plotline that
twists through sundry exotic locales (Australia, Spain, the Rocky
Mountains) and involves lots of people reaching behind their
necks to peel off fake rubber faces — only this time, mercifully,
the story line has been simplified just enough so that you won't
need your 12-year-old nephew to explain it to you afterward.
''There are certain Mission: Impossible elements that you need,'' Cruise says. ''But I figured, What's the point in doing a sequel if you aren't going to make it completely different? And that's what I told John Woo. I told him to forget everything from the first film and make it totally his own. I told him to do whatever he wanted.''
At this point, Cruise has given up pushing buttons on the parking ticket dispenser. Instead, he's fished a few crumpled bills from his pocket and stuffed them into a rusty canister next to the entrance. ''There,'' he announces, flashing those famous $20 million-a-picture choppers before heading into the park. ''That should cover it.''
Mission accomplished — finally. No cable dangling or bungee jumping required.
''I have never wanted to make a sequel,'' says the director of Face/Off, Broken Arrow, Hard Target, and such Hong Kong action classics as The Killer and Hard-Boiled. ''There is nothing creative about it. You have to follow the first. You have to follow the same characters. But when Tom came to me, he said he wanted it to be different. He set me free. I was pretty shocked.''
It's the day after M:I-2's May 18 Hollywood premiere, and Woo is reminiscing about the two years it took to make Mission possible. ''So I suggest to Tom that we make it a romantic-style movie, a love story, with a great human heart,'' he goes on in his still-shaky English (he's been making movies in Hollywood only since 1993). ''I liked the first film, but it seemed a little cold to me. I wanted to see a new Tom Cruise, who really cares about people and is passionate. And Tom thought that was a great idea.''
Many writers were called upon to create a new, passionate Cruise — Michael Tolkin and William Goldman took early whacks at the script; Star Trek's Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga get story credit — but it was Robert Towne (Chinatown) who ultimately cooked up the winning plotline: Cruise saving the world from a genetically engineered killer virus. He's also the one who fleshed out Woo's idea for a more romantic Ethan Hunt, giving the secret agent a couple of steamy love scenes with a new jewel-thief gal pal. (''It was all very technical'' is the way Newton describes her smooches with Cruise. ''You can't really give a deep kiss on film because it doesn't look very nice to see two faces squashed together that closely. Seeing people going at it like scissors just isn't pretty to look at.'')
About the only thing Towne didn't write was the action sequences. Most of those were whipped up by Cruise and Woo during their early meetings and were well into preproduction even before the screenwriter tapped out his first lines. ''It was a very unusual experience,'' Towne says. ''I had to write the story around the action instead of the action around the story. It was like doing a puzzle. Or like writing backwards. I'd never done anything like it before.''
''I came up with the motorcycle chase,'' Woo volunteers. ''I wanted
something really fast because Tom has such great energy. The
airplane crash was Tom's idea. And we both liked the
''We just sat around and talked about things we liked,'' Cruise concurs. ''I like airplanes, I like cars, I like climbing. And then we asked ourselves, What hasn't been shown in a movie before?''
One thing that hadn't often been shown before in a big-budget Hollywood action movie was Sydney, Australia. But, of course, that wasn't the only reason Cruise decided to plant so much of the production Down Under. ''It's my wife's home country,'' he says, ''and it's a gorgeous place.'' Still, it wasn't all cuddly koala bears and kangaroos. Set-smashing storms pushed back an already delayed shooting schedule. And while labor costs are cheaper in the southern hemisphere, Australian crews couldn't always keep up with Woo's frantic shooting pace (cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball had to be imported from Hollywood to replace Aussie Andrew Lesnie).
Bureaucratic red tape also tied things up. One entire action sequence — a police chase through the streets of downtown Sydney — had to be scrapped when politicians complained about the days of gridlock it would have caused. ''That sort of thing happens in every city you film in,'' Cruise says diplomatically. Local labor groups kept a close eye on the production as well, making sure the film hired lots of homegrown talent.
And then there were Woo's whammo stunts and fight scenes, which required extensive preparation. Cruise, who'd never thrown so much as a karate chop in any of his previous movies, had to learn basic martial-arts maneuvers — and some not-so-basic ones. ''I get inspired by my actors and choreograph fights just for them,'' Woo explains. His inspiration for Cruise: Risky Business. ''Tom is like a rock star when he talks,'' Woo says, doing a little Joel Goodsen-style air guitar to demonstrate. ''When he talks, he has so much energy it's almost like he's dancing. So I used that to choreograph his action scenes.''
Newton didn't have any fight scenes, but she did have to learn to steer an Audi TT Roadster at top speed without running over any crew members. ''I'm a terrible driver,'' she confesses. ''I don't pay attention, which can be very dangerous during a car chase.'' To keep her (mostly) on the road, a stunt driver crouched in the seat next to her, clutching the hand brake just in case.
The most insanely dangerous stunt, though, was Cruise's dizzying gambol on that massive gorge, which the actor insisted on performing without a double despite pleas from Woo, the studio, and even his mother (who flew to Utah to watch the sequence being filmed). While a camera crew hovered in a helicopter, the actor bopped around the cliff face supported only by a safety cable. ''Everyone was like, 'Where are the nets?''' Cruise remembers, settling down on a grassy hill in the Will Rogers Park. ''But when you're 2,000 feet up in the air, where are you going to put nets? What are you going to do? Put air bags on the ground?''
Amazingly, there was only one potentially serious accident on the
set: Dougray Scott, who plays the villain, an IMF traitor with a
thing for Hunt's girlfriend, reportedly almost broke his neck
while shooting Woo's road-scorching, car-smashing motorcycle
chase. ''Oh, that's an exaggeration,'' the Scottish actor insists.
''I just fell off my bike. I scraped myself a bit. It wasn't a big
deal.'' (It was big enough to add to production delays, which
ultimately prevented Scott from starring in the upcoming X-Menfilm.)
In the end, it took about 160 days to shoot the film, nearly twice the norm. For Paramount, which had originally planned on a summer 1998 release, then a winter 1999 opening, the wait must have been excruciating. With 1996's Mission: Impossible grossing $181 million domestically, the studio had been sitting for four years on its biggest potential movie franchise since Star Trek. Still, according to Cruise, ''the studio never called once to ask what we were doing.'' (''We wanted there to be a Mission: Impossible 3,'' says Paramount motion picture group chairman Sherry Lansing, explaining why the phone stayed on the hook.)
The delays did cause some migraines at Paramount's marketing and publicity offices, but that was to be expected. It's a natural law in Hollywood: The longer a production drags out, the more rumors it attracts. And in M:I-2's case, the gossip has been spreading wildly all year, with reports of everything from massive script problems (denied) to tensions between Cruise and Woo (vigorously denied) to Cruise's alleged ban on eye contact on the set (extremely vigorously denied).
Now that the film has arrived in theaters, most of the speculation has dissipated. Or maybe just shifted. The burning question these days is, Will there be an M:I-3? ''Definitely,'' says Lansing. ''Tom is really excited about it and so is John Woo.'' But that's news to Cruise. ''There's always that pressure, but that doesn't mean I'll have to do it,'' he says. ''We'll have to see. I honestly don't know. It's a long way away.''
Right now, stretching out on the grass, soaking up sun, he's still sounding a bit nervous about M:I-2. ''You never know how a film is going to work,'' he says. ''You never know if people will go along for the ride or if you're going to p--- them off. All I know is what's fun for a director, what's fun for a writer, and what's fun for me as an actor. And then you just hope it turns out to be fun for the audience.''
Whatever happens with M:I-2 — or M:I-3 — there's certainly plenty of other fun stuff in Cruise's future. He's currently contemplating producing an HBO series with Towne (''An action drama'' is all he'll say), and next year he'll start filming Steven Spielberg's sci-fi thriller Minority Report. There's also fun stuff he hasn't yet gotten around to scheduling. ''I'd like to work with Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Russell Crowe,'' he says. ''And at some point I'd like to try directing. I've been offered things for a few years now, but it would have to be something really special.''
No doubt it can be arranged. Just one friendly suggestion: Steer clear of parking lots.
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