It’s striking that the five Mission: Impossible films, made across two decades in an ever-changing Hollywood, have all starred Tom Cruise. Even in this age of franchises and costumed stars, it’s hard to think of many actors who have been associated with the same character — be it a Bond or a Batman — for quite as long as Cruise has been playing the part of Ethan Hunt. Especially an actor who was much, much bigger than the character when he first took the role: Yes, Vin Diesel has been in six of the seven Fast and Furious movies, but Diesel needs the paychecks; yes, Robert Downey Jr. has now played Iron Man five times, but that part was central to his comeback. Whereas Cruise did the first M:I film when he was at his absolute peak, in the days of Jerry Maguire and The Firm and A Few Good Men. And here he is 20 years later still doing it. Even though he’s no longer quite as bankable as he once was, the studios aren’t looking for a younger replacement; even though the part isn’t exactly the kind of legacy-burnishing role that movie stars of his vintage often look for, he keeps coming back to it.
The best explanation — and this thought is hardly original to me — is that Cruise keeps playing Hunt because Hunt is Cruise. The role is a perfect marriage of a movie-star persona and a cinematic character, and at this point it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the part.
Which is not because the role is extraordinarily complicated, distinctive, deep. Indeed, the whole point of Ethan Hunt is that he’s a pure doer, with little time for romance, internal wrestling, or regret: The mission is impossible, but he’s going to pull it off, and we’re going to watch him do it. But not effortlessly, the way Bond or some other smoothie spy might; not in a winking way, à la the ’80s action stars. No, the point of Hunt is that even though he’s confident in his abilities, even though at this point everyone around him is supremely confident, he still has to work hard for everything — every wild maneuver, every death-defying stunt. And he’s not afraid to let you see him sweat.
Which is how it’s always been with Cruise the actor: His gift and curse alike is that he’s always made the audience feel very aware of how hard he’s trying, how much he’s putting into every part, how intensely, madly, truly he wants to be the star. He’s not there to smolder or pout, he doesn’t do subtlety particularly well, and mystery is beyond him. But he’s going to make sure that you don’t look away.
His best roles have found ways to play with this persona, to buffet it or subvert it a bit. Jerry Maguire, for which he probably deserved an Oscar, was basically a “What if Tom Cruise got fired?” elevator pitch; his vicious pickup artist in Magnolia was basically “What if Tom Cruise used his powers for evil?”; his military PR man in the recent, excellent Edge of Tomorrow was “What if Tom Cruise were secretly a coward?”
And all his public-image problems have stemmed from moments — jumping on the couch, the leaked Scientology video — when his star persona suddenly seemed a little bit too real, like something he was actually dialing down for his movies, like a psychosis in search of a fitting moniker. (“Maverick Syndrome”?)
But the Mission: Impossible movies offer us the Cruise persona without either complication or apology. Hunt is the “living manifestation of destiny,” a chastened critic says near the end of the latest installment, which sounds vaguely like something out of Dianetics — but the whole point of these movies is to make you believe in it, in him, in Hunt and Cruise alike.
And the latest one, irrelevantly subtitled “Rogue Nation,” is one of the best. The plot is the usual: Misguided bureaucrats (embodied by Alec Baldwin) want to shut down the Impossible Missions Force (the other IMF) for reckless brinkmanship and other action-movie necessities, which is a Big Mistake because there’s a super-villainous organization on the loose, the so-called Syndicate, led by a supervillain-y Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), that only Hunt can prevent from continuing to disappear South Asian aircraft, among other resonant acts of terror.
The gang — Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg), and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) — is back to help him, and of course there’s a girl, a double or triple agent with the movieland name of “Ilsa Faust” (Rebecca Ferguson), with whom Cruise is paired for set pieces, not sex: fisticuffs, gunplay, high-speed chases, a multi-assassin set-to at a Viennese opera house, a deep dive to break into an underwater security system, and more.
People liked the last Impossible movie a lot, mostly because of how capably the director, Brad Bird, shot its set pieces (particularly a vertiginous Hunt assault on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa). But for my money this one, helmed and scripted by the now-frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, is the better movie overall: more consistent, a little more interesting plot-wise, and lifted considerably by Ferguson’s unusually vivid character.
So Cruise can breathe easy (if he ever does). He ran the race, fought the fight, and, this time, proved that he can still close the deal.