Tom Cruise is one of this generation’s most enduring movie stars. In 1986, he piloted Top Gun to the top of the box office; three decades later, well into his fifties, he launches the fifth instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise while his Top Gun contemporaries have faded into irrelevance (or television).
So what is Tom Cruise’s defining characteristic as an actor? To what can we credit his sustained basking in the Hollywood sun, even through his couch-jumping and Scientology scandals? There’re his all-American chiselled good looks, of course: his hawkish profile, his pure-white Kennedy smile. His enduring athleticism: whether sliding across the floor in his socks and tighty-whities, clinging to the side of a rock face or busting a move to Ludacris, Cruise’s most iconic moments are encapsulated by their physicality. His on-screen personality precisely balances smarm and charm, and there’s that aggressively blunt sense of humour – akin to an uncle slapping his hand on your shoulder and loudly regaling you with a joke at a drunken family gathering. For me, though, the primary attribute I think of when I think of Tom Cruise is intensity.
It’s fitting then, that Mission: Impossible, the one film franchise that has survived with him, shares that same intensity. The diverse company of auteurs passing through this series of action flicks leaves few common characteristics between the films – beyond, perhaps, an emphasis on (yes) seemingly-impossible heists incorporated into unnecessarily complex espionage narratives – beyond an insistence on pushing stunt-work and setpieces to their limits. After all, where else can you see a 5’7” 53-year-old man clinging to the side of an airplane?
In his review of Rogue Nation, Matt Zoller Seitz wondered “If you watched all of the Mission: Impossible films in a row, starting with 1996’s original, would they feel like a James Bond version of Boyhood?” I did just that in preparation for the fifth film, and while you can learn a lot from watching these films back-to-back – particularly about the evolution of action filmmaking over the last twenty years – you certainly don’t see Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt undergo the same growth as Ellar Coltrane’s Mason. Hunt is a constant across the franchise, in every sense of the word.
Who is Ethan Hunt? For the most part, this isn’t a question the Mission: Impossible movies are interested in answering, but the latest iteration – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – perhaps comes closest in a late speech from a CIA big shot played by Alec Baldwin. Hunt is, in Baldwin’s words, “the living manifestation of destiny.” It’s hard to disagree. Hunt is basically an American James Bond, but where Bond’s defining gesture is the tie-tightening or tuxedo-cuff-adjustment – an embodiment of the British resolve to face certain doom with some degree of class – Ethan Hunt is known for his grin, his gentle shrug, the single ‘wake a sec’ finger he proffers a combatant before engaging in battle. He’s a James Bond that he knows that he’s going to win … it’s just not going to be easy. Ethan Hunt is a flesh-and-blood incarnation of modern America, imbued with an unflagging confidence that everything’s going to be okay if you just shut up and let him do his thing.
Brian de Palma introduced Hunt in 1996’s Mission: Impossible, an entirely competent action film that’s barely a de Palma movie (and barely an adaptation of the television series from which it took its name). The director largely avoids his Hitchcock homages and grand cinematic flourishes for a generic genre film. Like its successors, it’s very much a film of its time, feeling indebted to both Speed and Goldeneye in its straight-arrow storytelling. Hunt here is recognisably human – he has moments of weakness and is duped by boss-turned-bad-guy, Jon Voight – but he’s still superhuman enough to control his own body heat in the much-mimicked CIA heist sequence. It’s here where de Palma’s influence is mostly strongly felt; more often than not, he works in archetypes, not characters, and that suits this franchise – whose central character is essentially the Hollywood ideal of a super-spy.
Mission: Impossible is a good film but a modest blockbuster, at least when compared with the scale of modern movies. John Woo’s follow-up, on the other hand, is the series’ only real misfire. I spent most of my time rewatching the film trying to diagnose the root cause of its failure. My first theory was that Woo’s fondness for melodramatic excess scuttled the project; unlike Nic Cage and John Travolta, ‘camp’ and Cruise don’t play nicely. But the film’s campiness is restricted to isolated pockets – like the justly-parodied doves or the motorcycle climax – and, if anything, it’s too serious outside of these moments. One can point the finger at the clumsy attempts at Sydney tourism, but they’re a symptom rather than a cause.
The real problem is that Woo doesn’t even seem to like his film’s protagonist. Hunt is a jerk here, a cocky asshole whose perpetual smirk borders on sociopathic, and it’s hard to sympathise with him; an issue accentuated by the ludicrous plotting. Woo seems as contemptuous as his characters for Hunt’s predilection for protecting ‘innocent guards’, and stages a scene where a grinning Hunt – wearing another man’s face – watches that man tortured at the hands of his enemy (an entirely forgettable Dougray Scott). It’s hard to root for the hero when even the film roots against him.
Mission: Impossible II also has a woman problem. Having forgotten the specifics of the story in my rewatch, I was pleased to see Thandie Newton’s inclusion after the sausage party that was the first film. But after an unconvincing flirtation with Hunt, she’s relegated to honey pot, literal walking MacGuffin and eventually jettisoned from the film altogether in the third act. Actually, women are hard done by across most of the Mission: Impossible series (at least until Rogue Nation, which I’ll get to shortly). Perhaps you can argue that the lack of substantial female roles is a testament to the films’ disinterest in anyone but Hunt, but when you consider that there’s a whole cast of recurring male roles but not one woman has had a speaking role in more than one M:I film, that argument falls apart.
Just take JJ Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III, which throws Keri Russell into the mix as a hyper-competent IMF agent who’s captured, killed and then used as a vehicle for guilt on the part of Hunt (who wonders if he’d done the wrong thing by declaring her fit for active duty in a way that’s weirdly paternal, especially when Luther (Ving Rhames) asks if he’s slept with her). Michelle Monaghan’s there too – marrying Hunt and making the plotting of the subsequent films especially delicate – but mostly to exist as a captured princess and establish Hunt as some sort of archetypal Every Man: perfect spy, perfect husband, perfect everything.
Not that III is a bad movie, mind. Just as Woo’s effort embodied the node between late-‘90s and early-‘00s culture, dialling its intensity to ‘extreme’ while mixing up Limp Bizkit and Tom Cruise’s ‘badass’ haircut with super-glossy, clean filmmaking, Abrams’ submission exemplifies the aesthetic of the mid-‘00s. There’s shaky cam, 360-degree pans, super cyan-and-orange colour correction and a slickly gritty feel. Oh, and lots of lens flares, of course, since this is a JJ Abrams movie. It also makes good use of Philip Seymour Hoffman – the only memorable villain these movies have yet produced – and introduces Simon Pegg. I’m in two minds about Pegg’s inclusion; I appreciate his skittery-rodent/An Idiot Abroad energy but at the same time he’s such a generic computer nerd character. At least Rhames (who returns, somewhat out of breath, in the fifth movie) broke the mould.
I also appreciate Abrams’ attempts to self-reflexively lampshade the silliness of these film’s storylines, centring the plot on a ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ MacGuffin that is literally never explained. Sure, it doesn’t all hang together – Seymour Hoffman’s diabolical mastermind concludes his plan by deciding to take on Hunt in hand-to-hand combat with none of his goons to assist in a poorly-plotted climax – but it’s all so big and meaty and propulsive that it’s hard not to have fun with the film. Mission: Impossible III also endures as an influence on contemporary blockbusters. You can see how Nolan borrowed from it for the Hong Kong scenes in The Dark Knight, how The Winter Soldier was inspired by its elevator escape, how the recent Fast and the Furious films have drawn from its explosive bridge showdown.
But the best in the series was still to come. Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (apparently Hollywood can’t count past three) is the apex of the series thus far. Bird and screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, recognising that the previous films operated best as vehicles for spectacular setpieces, carved together a rudimentary storyline that put action front-and-centre. The iconic Burj Khalifa scene (which is astounding on IMAX, by-the-by) has plenty of in-film justification but, critically, it doesn’t need any. Getting Tom Cruise to scale a ridiculously tall building is good cinema, plain and simple.
Beyond the impressive setpieces Bird puts together, Ghost Protocol works because of its relentless momentum. Rather than pausing for expository dialogue that would connect the silly spy stuff together for the audience, the film ensures that each moment fluidly ties into the next. Cruise steps out into the street, is immediately picked up by Tom Wilkinson’s IMF Secretary, and then just as things stray towards talkiness they’re inundated with gunfire. You’re rarely given a moment to breath – or to think – which is probably my favourite thing about the movie. (Though I also unreservedly love how glitchy all the spy technology is in this film – improvisation makes for gripping action, after all!)
It’s hard to top the Burj Khalifa sequence, but Christopher McQuarrie gave it his best shot with much-publicised opening scene of Rogue Nation, in which Cruise clutches onto the side of plane as it takes off from a runaway. It’s an insane stunt, obviously, and solidifies Cruises as the modern incarnation of Buster Keaton or Jackie Chan, always ready to put his body on the line for his art. The way it’s leveraged in the film gives some insight as to why Rogue Nation, while still a solid film, is a significant step down from Ghost Protocol’s greatness.
Let’s think back to how the skyscraper scaling was used in the third sequel. It appeared at roughly the midpoint of the film – at which point you’re anticipating the scene you’ve seen so much of the marketing but you haven’t yet become frustrating waiting for it – and the stakes, purpose and timeline of the scene have been clearly established. As I said before, the scene would likely still be fantastic if you had shoved at the start of the movie without context, but by engaging the audience in the scene beyond a surface-level, it really resonates.
So what does McQuarrie do in Rogue Nation? Opens the film with the plane about to take off, of course. After some clumsy dialogue about “the package” being in the plane – suggesting we’ve learned the wrong lessons from M:I III – Cruise runs onto the scene, apparently out of nowhere, to clamber onto a plane containing said package (later explained as a palette of nerve gas that has no connection to the plot whatsoever). What eventuates is undoubtedly a cool stunt, but executed without finesse, ending with unappreciated abruptness. And this is reflected in the film’s overall structure, which jettison’s Bird’s fluidity for a stop-start pacing that undercuts the action on display.
Fortunately, that action remains impressive. Jack Reacher established McQuarrie as a gifted action director, with sharp editing and intelligent storyboarding maintaining audience engagement (I suspect it helps having an action star who doesn’t constantly need a stuntman to stand-in). I admit to worrying early on that Rogue Nation would embody the same conflicted conservative ideology that scuttled Reacher – particularly when it tries to sustain truther-conspiracy theories while advocating for an espionage organisation operating without any oversight – but thankfully that’s swiftly backgrounded.
If we want to maintain the “Mission: Impossible films as yardsticks for their era of action filmmaking” approach, then I’m not sure how much Ghost Protocol has to offer; from the vantage point of four years later, it doesn’t look much like any other blockbuster – it’s neither particularly distinctive nor particularly generic in its style. Rogue Nation, though, demonstrates the necessity for prominent product placement to justify the extensive budgets driving such films. It’s not enough for our heroes to merely drive a BMW at every opportunity – the new BMW’s fancy capabilities must become integral parts of the central heist, complete with fond close-ups. It’s insufficient for Pegg’s Benji to make a crack about playing videogames; instead, he plays the latest Halo and conspicuously fondles its Xbox packaging (despite playing it on a computer). Windows phones are extensively incorporated into the narrative, too – nowadays, if an advertiser’s forking out the big bucks, they don’t want the audience to forget about their product in a hurry.
These products are incorporated into the most complex plot of any Mission: Impossible movie, which features copious double-crossing and a Spectre-esque “Syndicate” responsible for all the bad shit going down globally. It’s the kind of plot that actually forces you to pause and think about what’s going on. It fits together well enough in the theatre, which is all you need, really (while plenty of plotholes reveal themselves after the fact, by that stage it shouldn’t affect one’s enjoyment of the film). The best thing about the film is that it finds time to give Rebecca Ferguson’s double agent Ilsa Faust a real storyline – she’s almost the co-protagonist, often working at cross-purposes to Hunt instead of by his side. Sure, it’s a shame that it took five films to get to a substantial female character, but at least we got there in the end.
At the end of the day, though, it’s really about Tom Cruise. It’s hard to believe that he’s well into his fifties here; he’s as lean and as confident as ever, with the screenplay’s occasional attempts to convince the audience that he’s in actual peril never quite succeeding. It’s not especially hard to imagine him turning up for another film in four or so years, strapping himself to the underside of a Formula One car or some such death-defying nonsense. Like Hollywood, like America, Tom Cruise endures.