'Mission: Impossible' and the Duality of Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Fallout and The Mummy - Photofest - H Split 2018
Even as he excels as Ethan Hunt, it's been hard for the actor to duplicate that magic in other would-be franchises.

The last couple of years have not been kind to Tom Cruise’s status as an action hero. In 2016, he played the taciturn Jack Reacher again in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, following that in 2017 as the lead of The Mummy and American Made. All three of those movies stumbled in one way or another — American Made acquitted itself best of all and received strong reviews, but it was not exactly a runaway hit. Meanwhile, The Mummy doomed a shared universe before it began and Jack Reacher earned $56 million less globally than its predecessor.

As Cruise is only four years away from 60 — yes, really — it’s not wrong to wonder if his action-star days are far behind him. But Mission: Impossible – Fallout suggests he’s got some life in him yet.

Throughout the last two decades, Cruise has excelled when he plays IMF agent Ethan Hunt. Hunt was first introduced in the 1996 movie adaptation of the 1960s TV show, Mission: Impossible, pulling off a daring and breathtaking break-in of CIA headquarters, fending off an attack by a man in a helicopter while hanging for his life on the top of a fast-moving train and more. As Cruise has grown older, he’s worked more often in action films than dramas — in between the first and second M:I films, Cruise co-starred in Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut, a one-two punch he’s not replicated since — but he’s never better than when playing the beleaguered IMF agent.

Fallout could easily have felt like more of the same, were it not for, among other things, Cruise’s fierce commitment to doing whatever he has to do to entertain people. Here, that means “nearly killing himself.” Not every one of this film’s 147 minutes is dedicated to action sequences that seem to catalogue the ways in which Tom Cruise could have died on set — the pre-title sequence is both ominous and deliciously twisty without featuring any severe action. But once Ethan and his not-entirely-willing new partner, CIA agent August Walker (a mustachioed Henry Cavill), have to do a HALO jump from above 20,000 feet in the air into a Parisian nightclub, Fallout isn’t playing around. Yes, Cruise pulled off that jump, just like he climbed up a rope to take over a helicopter mid-flight and jumped from one London building to another. (Of course, as you may know, he broke his ankle in the process, in a shot that’s in the finished film.)

It’s difficult to know exactly what makes the Mission: Impossible franchise so special for Cruise, what makes it work so well for his intense persona. Movies like Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and The Mummy suggest that Cruise is looking for other franchises on which to work in between making M:I adventures. (Seeing that Cruise is co-starring in a Top Gun sequel next only furthers this notion.) But few of those capture the ineffable essence of Cruise the way that Ethan Hunt does. In Fallout, Hunt is at his most desperate. One of Ethan’s refrains in Fallout feels like a Cruise mission statement: “I’ll figure it out!” The tension in that statement is always in wondering how. Ethan, of course, does figure things out at the last second, but how he does is always thrilling.

The same can’t be said for those other would-be franchises. (Hard to believe that we’re only a year removed from Universal announcing that so-called Dark Universe with The Mummy, which was a real don’t-count-your-chickens-until-they’ve-hatched situation.) Part of it falls to something Cruise can’t control: his age. In Fallout, both Michelle Monaghan and Rebecca Ferguson return to play important women in Ethan’s life, even though both actresses are a great deal younger than him. It was laughable in last year’s The Mummy when Cruise’s hero had a love interest who was young enough to be his daughter, just as it was laughable when the main character was referred to as younger than Dr. Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe (who is younger than Cruise). In Fallout, at least, there is an unavoidable sense that Ethan is getting wearier, physically and mentally. He’s still able to save the world, but he’s not always as spry on his feet.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a high point in Tom Cruise’s career. Frankly, in the last decade-plus, he’s only had a handful of standout films; four of them have been entries in this franchise. (Edge of Tomorrow was also a lot of fun, an exception in his recent filmography.) Though Tom Cruise may not be ageless, his intensity works in his favor when playing Ethan Hunt. A seventh Mission: Impossible has not yet officially been greenlit, but one is expected to be in the works. If Cruise can keep figuring out how to make Ethan’s exploits as brilliantly entertaining as they are in this new entry, then it’s almost worth the stumbles in between.