M:I-2: a horrible name for a mediocre piece of work

Mission: Impossible 2 (15) <i>John Woo, 124 mins</i> | Jesus' Son (18) <i>Alison Maclean, 109 mins</i> | Love and Basketball (12) <i>Gina Prince, 124 mins</i> | Children of Heaven (no cert) <i>Majid Majidi, 86 mins</i> | Flamenco (PG) <i>Carlos Saura, 100 mins</i> | American Movie (15)<i>Chris Smith, 104 mins</i>
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Every summer the great films come and go and then wither on to video. One May morning you wake up to the urban equivalent of snow: all the bus shelters have bloomed fresh posters overnight, all the burger joints have a new set of best friends. At a pace which imitates the tempo of the seasons, the blockbusters start to move through their life spans. But they are behemoths with short life expectancies, and you sense that these monstrous mayflies know they are hatched only to be used up and utterly forgotten. It seems unbearably sad, like summer passing.

Every summer the great films come and go and then wither on to video. One May morning you wake up to the urban equivalent of snow: all the bus shelters have bloomed fresh posters overnight, all the burger joints have a new set of best friends. At a pace which imitates the tempo of the seasons, the blockbusters start to move through their life spans. But they are behemoths with short life expectancies, and you sense that these monstrous mayflies know they are hatched only to be used up and utterly forgotten. It seems unbearably sad, like summer passing.

John Woo's Mission: Impossible 2 is the biggest film of the year so far, and it's nothing, nothing at all. No one will like it much. No one will love it. But that isn't the point. Successful films are rarely loved films. The salient factor for a film like Mission: Impossible 2 is this - is the time it takes for a global audience to recognise the product's mediocrity sufficiently long enough to make a billion bucks?

M:I-2 (this punchy alcopop acronym suits the film perfectly) has this plot. There's a tube of red liquid (virus, bad) and a tube of green liquid (antidote, good) and a villain (Dougray Scott) who uses the former in order to blackmail the world into buying the latter from him. Tom Cruise's sub-James Bond character Ethan Hunt enlists an ex-lover of Scott's (Thandie Newton) to help defeat him - thus the film contains a love triangle which UIP's publicists find heavily reminiscent of Notorious. (But then, Star Wars fans claim similar links to Paradise Lost - or PL:1 as current Milton scholarship probably has it.)

John Woo has been applauded - generally by the sort of person whose pretentiousness takes the form of inverted snobbery - as a maestro capable of transforming bombs and bullets into a gorgeously kinetic oriental ballet, or poem of violence (perhaps his apologists are confusing him with Takeshi Kitano). But Woo has the sort of taste that would go down a storm at Abigail's Party. When something explodes he scatters slo-mo doves around the frame.

Contrary to his own aspirations, Woo fails to overwhelm you with his ambience. He has a look, but not a vision, and an action film, by definition low on content, must be high on tone, on atmosphere. But Woo not only isn't an artist, he isn't a competent action director. He can't increase the tempo like Spielberg ( Indiana Jones), nor does he have Spielberg's vital humour. He can't link his action sequences like James Cameron (supremely, Aliens) or pace them like John McTiernan ( Die Hard.) He doesn't seem to understand how an action movie can connect sequences to build a perpetual motion, like accelerating jazz. In difficulties, the maestro even has recourse to his old get-out clause - the perfectly moulded latex mask, which his characters keep peeling off with increasingly barmy implausibility. And he's in difficulties so often that you begin to fear that the cast are stored, one inside the other, like Russian dolls, with Cruise, tiniest of all, in the middle.

Cruise is flavourless, frictionless, a vacuum. His Hunt has no characteristics whatsoever, not even recently divorced or giving up smoking. Trying to grasp him, or even root for him, the mind skitters like a spider in a sink. If there is any chemistry between him and Newton, it's of the type Fe + O 2 = Ferrous Oxide. Rust.

Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son is a nicely casual film based on a book that was once described as a 50, 000-volt kick to the head. Billy Crudup stars as the unnamed hero, a lost man moving through 1970s' America with pills and sighs and a strange, thumping walk. He meets Michelle (Samantha Morton) who introduces him to heroin, at which point the film moves into twitchy self-help groups in the company of a number of obvious American actors like Dennis Hopper.

But the star of the film is an actor called Jack Black, whom you might recognise from Tim Robbins's films Bob Roberts and Cradle Will Rock. Rather like that other keen and lardy supporting actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Black has become impossible to ignore. His face is cartoon-oblong, his belly low-slung, his voice a staccato delight. Black, who plays a drug-flummoxed hospital orderly, dominates the entire central section of a film which feels more like a collection of over-heard anecdotes than anything else, an odd record of an era's misconnections and failures - personal and touchingly wounded.

Love and Basketball follows two neighbours from a smart LA suburb (Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan) making a career in basketball. At times it's hard to believe that this is an American sports film - Love and Basketball never once squelches with unearned tears. It's cool, feminist, and fudges nothing. Flamenco, a documentary about the beloved Spanish art form, features hundreds of dancers and musicians doing their stuff. But with no subtitles to enlighten the non-Spanish speaker (why is this?) we are left in the dark about the genesis of flamenco. The music must speak for itself, and it does, if only for a while.

Children of Heaven was the first ever Iranian film to be Oscar nominated (it lost out to Life is Beautiful) and is a rather sentimental, inhibited film about two kids and a lost pair of trainers. Feeling Sexyheadlines the Barbican's Australian Film Festival, and is a visually unbridled, if narratively gloopy, film about infidelity.

American Movie is the hands-down Sundance award-winning documentary following wannabe director Mark Borchardt as he makes his B-flick Coven with the help of whoever happens to be in Wisconsin and willing. Space dictates a simple directive: see this film. You will laugh your head off.

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