Mission: Impossible 2
Produced by Cruise-Wagner Productions and Paramount Pictures
Directed by John Woo
Screenplay by Robert Towne
Released by Paramount Pictures

Produced by Double A Films
Directed by Michael Almereyda
Screenplay by Michael Almereyda, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Released by Miramax Films

Small Time Crooks
Produced by Sweetland Films
Directed by Woody Allen
Screenplay by Woody Allen
Released by DreamWorks

In Mission: Impossible 2 (M:I 2 to enthusiasts), the boyishly becoming Tom Cruise strikes heroic poses, simulates kung-fu kicks, and hangs charmingly from cliff faces. Unfortunately, the movie constructed around him is not nearly as becoming. It’s just another tediously overproduced, contemptuously underwritten farrago of stunts and explosions. Kids will enjoy it, although I suspect they’ll find its video-game version more emotionally engaging. Otherwise, there’s little of interest unless you’re an investor who has bulked up on pharmaceutical stocks. If so, you may find the film’s treatment of your cash cow quite riveting—and perhaps a little discomfiting.

The film opens with a riddle. An Einstein look-alike appears on a laptop screen and enigmatically intones that “every search for a hero must begin with what a hero requires: a villain.” He then injects something into his arm. That pharmacological something becomes the film’s Macguffin, triggering all of its subsequent action. Ethan Hunt (Cruise as the impossible missionary) is sent to solve its mystery. Innumerable explosions, car chases, and kick-fights later, he decodes the riddle and discovers what was in the syringe. It seems an Australian pharmaceutical company has decided to take the guesswork out of research: Instead of waiting for the next big disease to show up, they’ve elected to be “proactive” (as they say in corporate speak), developing an anti-viral drug and then designing a lethal virus for which it will be the wonder cure.

The parallel with the pharmaceutical industry’s less circumspect practices is hard to ignore. While I’m very happy to live in an age when antibiotics and vaccines can cure everything from ear infections to polio, there’s no denying that the pharmaceutical giants have too often succumbed to hubris and greed in their rush to develop the next highly profitable cure. At times, they have pushed inadequately tested, enormously expensive drugs onto the market with results that range from useless to utterly disastrous. The swine flu vaccine and thalidomide were two glaring examples. More recently, there has been growing evidence that the blanket prescription of AZT and protease inhibitors for those infected with HIV has done more harm than good, frequently killing HIV-positive individuals who may have been in no real danger of developing AIDS.

The film’s criminal drug CEO (Brendan Gleeson looking every ounce the part) seeks to eliminate such unseemly consequences by taking the next, all-too-logical step in drug marketing: administering both malady and its patented remedy. He only needs to release a few vials of his deadly virus in downtown Sydney and—presto—his antidote will enjoy a thriving market. How’s that for gaining market share and preemptively eliminating quibbles about price?

A fanciful interpretation? Perhaps. But the film’s writer is Robert Towne, the man who scripted the bracingly cynical Chinatown 26 years ago. Given the assignment to make Cruise look like James Bond on steroids, Towne apparently decided to amuse himself by slipping a little subversive subtext into the otherwise standard action heroics.

But what about the film as entertainment? Orchestrated by John Woo of Hong Kong kung-fu fame, M:12 offers a nearly nonstop series of kabooms punctuated by hip-hop hand-to-foot fights, all delivered in lightning montages as the camera alternates dizzily between extreme close-ups and long-distance shots. It’s a simple strategy: Pummel the audience into believing they’re getting their money’s worth. At today’s prices, I’d say a 90-percent discount is in order.

While I wish the star power in M:I 2 had been turned down several lumens, the lack of thespian brilliance undoes Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet even more than its wrongheaded modernization. The play might have weathered this film’s sea change to contemporary Manhattan had Almereyda not forgotten the hero. Unfortunately, this Hamlet has docked in the Big Apple without a Hamlet in the hold. Instead of Denmark’s troubled prince, we get Ethan Hawke palely loitering. He’s little more than a slacker with attitude.

In theory, Almereyda’s attempt to bring home the play’s timelessness makes sense. After all, Shakespeare himself was updating a tale that preceded him by 700 years or more. In practice, however, Almereyda’s film succeeds only in calling attention to the play’s historical distance from us. Elsinore is rendered in 21st-century terms in a way that is jarring in its ingenuity. Denmark has become a huge corporation headquartered in one of Manhattan’s glass-and-steel office boxes. Claudius is the ultimate corporate climber, murdering his brother in order to install himself as the firm’s CEO. Instead of soldiers glimpsing Old Hamlet’s ghost wandering across the castle battlements, security guards in the company’s lobby pick up a strange apparition on their closed-circuit television monitors. When Claudius and Polonius send Ophelia to spy on Hamlet, they strap a voice-activated tape recorder to her torso. The play within the play is a video comprising scenes from horror and porno films edited together with Monty Pythonesque cartoon drawings.

Even worse than this clumsy modernizing is the film’s Hamlet. Almereyda announces his conception of the character by decorating the prince’s apartment with posters of James Dean and Che Guevara, the icons of disaffected, revolutionary youth. Hawke falls in with this conceit all too well. He makes Hamlet a glum, tormented adolescent so inchoately furious with adults he can only speak to them in a contemptuous hiss. He shuffles, dawdles, and mumbles throughout two-thirds of the play, wearing (instead of an inky cloak) a knit cap with ear flaps, the better to defend his boyish innocence from adult contamination. Like so many sensitive romantics before him, he is half in love with death and plays at suicide, holding a gun to his head with mawkish self-pity.

But playing Hamlet as a romantic rebel makes complete nonsense of the text. Clearly, Claudius, not the prince, is the true revolutionary. Not only does he assassinate his brother, the king, he violates taboo by marrying his brother’s wife in order to usurp the crown that rightfully belongs to young Hamlet. Furthermore, like many rebels before and after him, Claudius is unfit to rule. Given to drink and uxorious sensuality, he lacks the will to stand fast against the threat of foreign aggression posed by Norway’s Fortinbras. In short, he is the something rotten in Denmark, infecting the entire state with his desire for power without responsibility.

Almereyda and Hawke have tried to transform Hamlet into an idealistic rebel bent on tearing down a corrupt, fascistic ancien régime (in this case, corporate America). But the play makes it clear that Hamlet’s mission is to sweep away the new upstart order created by his pleasure-loving wastrel of an uncle and restore the genuine and sterner old order, the one his father had so admirably and responsibly served. Everything Hamlet does and says underlines this reading. Even his apparent slowness to act reveals his conservative intentions: As a man of honor, he would never attack a legitimate ruler on private grounds alone, no matter how repugnant he found him. Unlike modern leftists, Hamlet knows that the personal is not the political. Before he can act, he must prove incontrovertibly that Claudius has usurped the throne. This, of course, is the central tension of the play: sorting out the private from the public, feeling from duh’, passion from reason. (“Give me that man that is not passion’s slave.”) It’s this tension that has invited endless psychological and ideological interpretations through the centuries. Interpreters have often gone wrong, however, in allowing their contemporary speculations to drown Shakespeare’s clear intent. He presents his Hamlet as the one sane person in a world gone mad with license and hypocrisy. That is why Hamlet appears insane to others. And here is the play’s genuine contemporariness. Our time, too, is out of joint, and many a person today has succumbed at one point or another to the Dane’s bitter reflection: “O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!”

Although Almereyda doesn’t grasp this, his Polonius does. Playing the baffled counselor, Bill Murray, of all actors, gives every sign of fully understanding the play. With genuine wit, he departs from what has become the standard rendering of his role, making the go-along-get-along courtier a man who knows his limitations all too well. This Polonius knows he’s become a windbag and that his children only pretend to listen to him. Yet he still loves them. He delivers his parting words to Laertes in Act I with the hesitation of a man ransacking his memory for the old formulae of prudent conduct. More touching, he tries desperately to translate this time-worn wisdom into words that will sound new and compelling. But he has lost faith in his rhetoric. Even as he sententiously warns his inattentive son against incurring debts, he slips a thick roll of bills into the young man’s jacket when he isn’t looking. Chiding Ophelia for her imprudent relationship with Hamlet, he’s so concerned to prevent her stumbling further that he stoops to tie her undone shoelaces. This Polonius isn’t a fool: He’s merely an aging man grappling with the sinister changes that have undermined the once-decent order of things. Despite his waning powers, he strives to protect his children and serve his state as best he can. Murray renders Polonius with all the humor and poignance due a father in an age under libertine sway. Now, that’s contemporary.

Hardly as spectacular as M:I 2 or as ambitious as Hamlet, Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks is more satisfying than both. Maybe that’s because Allen has returned to basics. He’s gone back to Virgil Starkwell, the schlemiel who failed miserably at his vocation: robbing banks. As you may remember, in Take the Money and Run (1969), Virgil’s first bank stickup goes bust when the threatening note he hands the teller turns out to be illegible.

In Small Time Crooks, Starkwell bears a new name, Ray Winkler. He is 30 years older, but he shines no brighter. He is still the inveterate dreamer, his heart filled in equal amounts with larceny and love. When he notices that a pizza shop two doors from a neighborhood bank has gone out of business, he’s instantly back in business. While his wife, Frenchie (Tracey Ullman), runs the store as a cookie shop, Ray and his buddies will drill open the basement wall and tunnel their way to wealth. As he explains to Frenchie, it’s time they left their dumpy Manhattan apartment and moved to Miami to live the good life. (“I want to go to the dog track every day.”) Winkler’s aspirations are abysmally pedestrian. What happens to him and Frenchie, however, is anything but.

As in his best films, Allen deals in the conventions and cliches of popular culture, reworking them into wonderfully comic surprises. Here, he pays homage to Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners. He is a skinny, scheming, frantic Ralph Kramden in love with a woman he foolishly underestimates. As Frenchie, Ullman is always a light-year or two ahead of her Ray, never failing to anticipate his every lame gambit, yet this is precisely why she loves him. Allen plays this material as would a consummate pool player. You see his shots coming, but he puts so much English on them that their impact never fails to be delightfully eccentric. The only thing small-time about this movie is in its title. Otherwise, it’s a winningly unpretentious work that fully delivers the goods.