From De Palma’s series launcher on, Cruise has used the tales of Ethan Hunt to ponder the nature of cinema as performance, perception, and manipulation.
The Mission: Impossible movies begin in perhaps the most inauspicious fashion possible: a computer tech, played by Emilio Estevez, watching security camera footage of clandestine crime scene clean-up. One of the men he’s watching happens to be Tom Cruise in heavy prosthetics and a wig. It’s an odd opening for an eight-film mega-franchise, a globe-trotting stunt spectacular that has attracted some of the world’s biggest stars and most interesting actors—America’s answer to Bond movies. But as the opening to a Brian De Palma movie, it’s a no-brainer. Of course it starts with a dorky guy in a cramped little room watching unappealing CCTV footage of a crime of passion. That’s De Palma.
Though Robert Towne wrote the script (he and Cruise were friends and artistic confidants; Cruise produced his 1998 movie Without Limits), the film is thoroughly De Palma’s, never more so than when indulging in its covert operations. He films the opening sting from Cruise’s POV, and its dizzying effect is rather like the opening to Dario Argento’s Opera or its fellow perverse Italian horror thrillers. It is always disconcerting when movie characters address us but speak to someone else when we see what the hero sees see but cannot control what they do. We are seeing a performance from the inside, knowing that if the scene doesn’t go off without a hitch, it could mean death for the man whose eyes we’ve been given for the duration. The Mission: Impossible movies have since changed directors four times, but their central tenet remains: they are about performance. They are about making movies to make sense of a senseless world.
The 1996 movie Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is just another in a long line of the actor’s self-assured young men trying to mold the world in their image. After the first decade of his career, defined by his Jerry Bruckheimer-produced hits Top Gun and Days of Thunder, Cruise’s brand became hot shots with attitude. Even his tragic vampire Lestat, in the controversial adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, is a creature who seems to be freebasing masculinity. Hunt’s sweaty paranoia and slick sleight of hand didn’t seem at all out of place in his roster. When he goes from an unwilling player in someone else’s spy game (his boss Jon Voight, who double-crosses his team and plays possum for most of the film) to orchestrating his own, he moves from bit player to director, producer, and star (fittingly, Mission: Impossible was the first movie Cruise produced).
Cast out from the secret U.S. Government Impossible Missions Force (IMF), Hunt must prove both his innocence and his mettle as a field agent, which means playacting, dressing up, and athletic displays of agility and stamina. Cruise is betrayed by what he sees over a video monitor (he sees Voight faking his death and takes it to be his genuine demise), his first lesson in the idea that subterfuge and cinema work together in the same sensual game. Hunt must learn to control the illusion himself, which will mean knowing when and where to break the fourth wall and jump off the stage and into danger.
When Cruise made Mission: Impossible 2, once more scripted by Towne, he had just gone out on the longest and shakiest limbs of his career, playing the heroically insecure Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia and the constantly outwitted Dr. Bill Harford in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Returning to Ethan Hunt, an even more stoic and obsessed Ethan Hunt, was a little bit of a retreat; like Cruise chafed at the idea of the lack of control that his last two roles had given him and once more needed to embody a master of the universe, a director working from inside of a movie. His actual director was Hong Kong dynamo John Woo, the man who reinvented the gunfight. With his focus on surfaces, textures, and movement, Woo allowed Cruise to strip Hunt of all but his strongest impulses.
Mission: Impossible 2 was Woo’s version of a conspiracy thriller, from Bond to The Andromeda Strain to, especially, Hitchcock’s Notorious (down to a sexually charged debriefing at a horse race). Woo films his stars (especially Cruise and thieving moll Thandiwe Newton, so radiant she frequently seems to be the only actor in the movie) to introduce them in mythic terms, matching the Greek heroes and ancient monsters in Towne’s script. Woo was trying to reduce the film to its purest essence and Cruise along with it. Cruise may have upped his swagger, fearlessly sporting an unfashionably messy hairstyle (indeed, Hunt’s hairstyles across the series have as distinct as the directors hired to shepherd him towards his next adventure) and is introduced free climbing Monument Valley, one-upping John Wayne) but it’s to deflect from his interchangeability. Everyone in Mission: Impossible can be replaced and embodied by someone else. Cruise and villain Dougray Scott constantly impersonate each other; the greatest sin in these movies is passing yourself off as Cruise’s Hunt and/or making it seem like he did something he did not.
The best scene in the film finds Hunt and company drugging and then creating a feverish nightmare for Brendan Gleeson’s guilty pharmaceutical developer. They trap him in a hospital room and convince him he’s dying from Chimera—a supervirus his company manufactured. It’s a little movie made just for him, to untangle his conscience and push him to start confessing things—a pocket-sized It’s a Wonderful Life. In subsequent Mission: Impossible films, Hunt’s team will repeatedly deploy this gambit—manipulating reality in small doses by impersonating Wolf Blitzer or various nefarious types and creating environments conducive to soul-baring. Hunt the director insists on perfection in his deception, though when he can’t achieve it, he’s a dab hand at improv.
Mission: Impossible III finds Ethan Hunt starting from scratch. For Cruise, after alienating his public and his Minority Report and War of the Worlds director Steven Spielberg by centralizing his commitment to the fraudulent religion Scientology, Mission: Impossible III must have seemed like a shortcut back into the public’s heart. It more or less worked, not least because its massive box office ensured the green light for the fourth—and most epochal Mission: Impossible—to date. But it is impossible to watch Ethan Hunt create fantasies and nightmares without hearing Cruise say he’s proud to call himself a Scientologist because they can “create new and better realities and improve conditions” in a chilling ten-minute video. What, after all, is the IMF for, if not to create a new reality? Or perhaps protect an illusion?
III sees Cruise and Hunt alike attempting to be a blank slate. An actor with a life outside of work, including, in an autobiographical turn, a new wife everyone tells him he can’t keep. In devoting significant hunks of III’s two-hour runtime to Hunt’s emotions and devotion to wife Michelle Monaghan, Hunt looks almost like a regular guy. He wraps global conspiracy and full metal espionage in the context of simple marital trouble. It may not be the film’s most memorable scene, but Monaghan and Cruise having a difficult talk about the lies he has to tell to keep her safe before embarking on his mission to the Vatican might be the best work he does in the film. His intense eyes and quivering facial muscles betray him as his understanding paramour begs him to come clean, something he can’t do. It’s a window into Cruise’s life more revealing than it was likely intended to be, but then, is anything Cruise does by accident?
Then hot young director JJ Abrams tweaks the M:I formula just enough to allow Cruise to take emotional risks and take away his bumpers as Hunt, who may be the most Cruise of his characters. More than Maverick, more than Cole Trickle, more than Frank Mackey, or Jack Reacher, Cruise is Ethan Hunt in the public’s mind because so much of the performance is a high-stakes gamble with his body as a stack of chips. The now 61-year-old Cruise is still defying death every chance he gets. In III, he was taking a different kind of risk, though; he was acting opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman, the greatest American actor of his generation. To return to Woo for a moment, it’s a Face/Off situation, except that Cruise and Hoffman weren’t known for having similar cultural cache, performance styles, body types, or really having anything at all in common. If III has rewatch value it isn’t because of the adequate stunt work or the introduction of a more sensitive Ethan Hunt; it’s watching Hoffman do his best Cruise impression for a few scenes and then bring his method intensity to the role of a villain who, in anyone else’s hands, would have come across as outsized and cartoonish.
In 2011’s Ghost Protocol fourth M:I director Brad Bird focuses on kinetics and physics, turning his cast into silent comedians for a scene or two. A van door opens, and a drugged Russian prisoner falls out of it into the waiting door of another van. Perfect, seamless construction. His shots always have a piece of business, usually an action beat or the start of a punchline, their answers following swiftly thereafter. It’s remarkably efficient filmmaking. By treating the real world like one of his cartoon futurist paradises, the Incredibles and Iron Giant director focuses on the purity of action, which of course, makes him a great foil for Cruise, whose screen persona as Hunt has always been one part Wile E. Coyote and one part Roadrunner (if too straight to be Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck).
Bird having a better and more elastic sense of humor than Abrams (Woo and De Palma have senses of humor, too, but they took the job of action directors too seriously to let in much levity) means he can lean into Cruise’s desire to play Hunt as more than a superman or a tragic lover, but a man who underneath the bulletproof vests and scars is human and makes silly mistakes. His instincts are sometimes wrong, but he’s never more plugged in than when directing his team in little scenes, kissing Paula Patton to activate Anil Kapoor’s jealousy, screaming direction at Jeremy Renner through his earpiece, and improvising a solution to a malfunctioning prop.
Ghost Protocol was also the beginning of the Mission: Impossible movies taking stock of their own cultural stature (a reflection of Cruise’s sense of his problematic and heavily debated persona). Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa like King Kong was the first of the Mission: Impossible stunts to get its own ad campaign. Showstopping stunts have since become a crucial part of selling the films to the public. Neither Cruise nor Bird tries to hide their giddiness at achieving the stunt, let alone getting to use the building; the build-up is pure flirtation, and they know they’re taking the audience home. Not for nothing does Cruise end the movie by finally saying, “Mission Accomplished!” though the best joke is what he screams when he realizes his escape from the outside of the Burj is compromised.
Of course, the “mission” wasn’t “accomplished.” Cruise was all too aware that he couldn’t stop now. Rogue Nation was the fifth film and the first to involve Cruise’s Jack Reacher writer/director and Valkyrie screenwriter/ghost director Chris McQuarrie. The pair had made a sturdy old-fashioned kind of crime movie with Reacher, and the muscularity of McQuarrie’s vision got Cruise in the mood to take the franchise in a sterner, steadier direction. Hunt still has moments of levity, but the fully cartoonish character of Ghost Protocol is gone. McQuarrie allows Cruise to keep his self-deprecating (self-lacerating, self-destructive) edge.
Rogue Nation opens with one of the more impressive stunts in the series: Hunt grabbing the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. Cruise is suspended hundreds of feet in the air for a breathtaking minute. Cruise taking such an active and dangerous role in his own stunts further highlighted the series’ approach to the machinery of filmmaking. Cruise was really doing what Ethan Hunt did. To watch the Mission: Impossible movies is to have a comprehensive understanding of the role of a stunt team and the care and precision required to pull off these feats of absurd physicality. Even though Hunt is threatened by upstarts burly and energetic enough to replace him (from Jeremy Renner to Rebecca Ferguson to Fallout’s Henry Cavill) you don’t see them jumping out of planes.
Ferguson and Cavill were crucial additions to the series because of the things they are and aren’t in Cruise’s reflection and what Cruise can no longer be. Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, introduced in Rogue Nation, is meant to be the female Hunt, a question mark sharpened like a knife. Her feline eyes allow nothing past them into the inner life she expertly masks. She’s even more enigmatic than Hunt—we don’t even know what she wants out of her life as a spy or if those furtive looks she gives Hunt are of a sexual or professional nature. At least Hunt has an ex-wife to protect from nuclear annihilation.
Cavill appears in Fallout as the wry and impossibly strapping foil to Hunt. The mustache and muscles buried beneath his designer suits (at 6’1″, he towers over Cruise like the Burj Khalifa) mark him as an earthier, more confident, and thus more corruptible version of Hunt, the man he could have been with fewer scruples. The world shows Hunt innumerable rewrites of his own story. McQuarrie’s camera wants for the sexual deviancy of De Palma’s, especially in its best scene: a fight in a Parisian nightclub bathroom. Though they’re mistaken for a group of cruising deviants, Cavill and Cruise’s workout comes not from carnality but from their tag teaming Liang Yang and destroying every sink and mirror in the joint; only the arrival of Faust puts a damper on the action. It’s one of the highlights of the last ten years of screen fighting. The more the technology has improved around Hunt, the more he has to rely on old-fashioned resilience; holding his breath for three minutes, surviving a brawl in a men’s room, jumping out windows and running, always running.
On the red carpet these days, Tom Cruise’s face now looks like he’s wearing a face mask of Tom Cruise on his own Impossible Mission, but he’s still impossibly charming and up to any challenge. He does it all in this year’s Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning: Part One. He drives a car one-handed, jumps off a cliff on a motorcycle, deploys a parachute, and performs hilariously relentless stunts on a train a la Buster Keaton. And who is his villain? There’s Esai Morales, a man as old as Cruise and thus his mirror reflection, and there’s rogue artificial intelligence. Very much in the news these days, Ethan Hunt taking on A.I. is a gauntlet thrown by this team: no computer can do what we do. Here’s proof.
McQuarrie, knowing he had to wrap up this saga while Cruise could still do the stunts and pass as a world-traveling secret agent who can beguile the likes of Rebecca Ferguson, ramps up his pacing, atmosphere, and makes antic use of the covid protocol-obeying set where very few people can share the scene at once. The film’s strongest innovation is the inclusion of Hayley Atwell and Pom Klementieff as, respectively, a new hero and villain. With one as passenger and one as pursuer, the stunts take on a different, bracing kineticism. Cruise is meant to be able to withstand all the punches and pratfalls, but with a novice Atwell to protect and guide (their uncertain trust in each other is the backbone of the movie) and a relentless Klementieff dressed for a My Chemical Romance concert chasing them, selling every car crash, alley fight, and machine gun blast, Cruise’s stunt work and reactions hit harder.
There’s a series best car chase that seems to deliberately best a similar but worse one in Fast X that trades the safety of CGI for seatbelts and doors off tactility. You feel every bump and turn. You barely breathe. The series may be attempting once more (after Ghost Protocol) to pass the reins to younger, more human hands, but it’s still Cruise who’s risking his neck for the audience. Every thrill still rests on the beating of his heart as if it were wired to explode if he didn’t make us forget we were watching a movie, an illusion. It’s still magnificent to believe. Not bad for a series that started with a guy in a room looking at a monitor, watching Tom Cruise playact. We’re all still that man. And so is Ethan Hunt.