One has to wonder which producer thought that John Woo—maestro of florid action melodramas—would be a good fit for a franchise defined by elaborate spy heists, intricate plotting, and lean efficiency. It's impossible to know how much Woo adapted Robert Towne's screenplay to fit his own aesthetic, but the end result is distinctive only in its reliable deployment of Woovian tropes. Remove the title theme, the three times that characters make use of the Mission: Impossible face masks, and the all-too-brief laboratory break-in scene, and all that's left is boilerplate Woo action-schlock that is also weirdly misogynist for some reason. (Sample dialogue: "You know women. They are like monkeys—won't let go of one branch until they've got hold of the next.")
The misogyny plays out in another way: By turning the only female character into a plot-essential vessel for the Macguffin, the film literally objectifies her. But at least in this Woo is an equal-opportunity offender. He is not all that interested in any of his characters qua people; his films have always treated people as abstract concepts wrapped in flesh. When Hard Boiled's Chow Yun-Fat somersaults over a low wall and spins into a kneeling posture for a balletic display of gunfire, he is not a human being but a body. We glory in his body's movements in the same way we glory in the destruction of his enemies' bodies. The only difference is that Chow Yun-Fat's body is Good and the enemy's body is Bad.
In a John Woo film, bodies are icons in the religious sense: their outward attributes are freighted with meaning far beyond mere literalities. (No one wonders what the twelve disciples in an Eastern Orthodox icon are feeling; what matters are the halos around their heads, the symbolic objects around them, their arrangement in the frame.) And Woo extends this sensibility to other objects as well. He doesn't deluge his shootouts in doves simply because he's an ornithophile.
Tom Cruise is not an icon. He is a star, which for the purposes of this movie is the anti-icon. His body signifies nothing except itself. He gives way to his worst tendencies here: his performance is a smirk with muscles, mutating into a grimace with muscles whenever he's called on to emote. Woo, either unable or unwilling to whip Cruise into shape, finds that his arsenal of directorial tricks comes off as much goofier in a film with a hero best described as "James Bond with 90s 'tude." The fact that the central conflict hinges on the so-underdeveloped-it-has-a-vestigial-tail romance between Cruise's character and Thandie Newton's just leads Woo farther out of his comfort zone. At various points, Woo calls up a flamenco-flavored musical cue under a shot of Cruise and Newton gazing at each other, as if to paper over the fact that these two people have no reason to care about each other. Flamenco music! It signifies love, right?
Woo's action films have always skirted the edge of pretentiousness and silliness, but those qualities are especially apparent in a franchise film like this, no matter how much freshly shampooed Cruise is used to distract us. You almost feel bad for Woo, even though half of the terrible choices onscreen were probably his. Regardless, it's a relief once he finally gets to the climactic fistfight on the beach. For a few brief moments, he forgets about the Greek mythology and the love triangle and the necessity of fleshing out Ethan Hunt's character. He focuses instead on what he does best: bodies in motion, crashing into each other and receding like the waves on the shore.