Tom Cruise no longer seems quite human. That’s not meant to be an insult, necessarily, but an observation derived from the available evidence.
Put aside everything you know about Cruise that exists outside of his work, if you can: the Scientology, the couch jumping, the rigorous refusal to engage with any real discussion of his personal life, the corny PSA about how Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was going to save cinema. (At least Cruise was wearing a mask for that!) Focus on the work, and think about how Tom Cruise exists in your mind, and there’s one primary answer: Tom Cruise is Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, and Ethan Hunt is Tom Cruise. A delineation does not exist!
Twenty-five years ago, Cruise balanced himself horizontally at that computer terminal, clung to the top of a speeding train, and perfected the infamous Tom Cruise Run. He somehow made the act of ripping a goofy plastic mask of someone else’s face off his face look suitably serious. His laser-focused twitchiness paired well with the paranoid energy of Brian De Palma’s filmmaking style. And he had such good chemistry with Ving Rhames that the two of them remain the only actors to appear in every single M:I film. M:I went on to make more than $450 million at the box office (with only $40 or so million separating it from 1996’s second-highest international earner, Twister), and Cruise’s cinematic legacy became tied to M:I – and the uncanny way Cruise continues to understand that the most appealing quality he has an actor is a believable defiance of mortality.
A star since the age of 21 who skipped college, never took an acting class, and vaulted right into the business, Cruise’s onscreen persona has always been one of self-aware (almost smug) cockiness, coupled with calculated spontaneity. The haughtiness of his Steve Randle in The Outsiders, or his lothario mimicry in Risky Business, or—of course—the recklessly chest-beating rah-rah-ism of his Maverick in Top Gun. Early in his career, that wide-grinned display of overwhelming confidence gave way every so often to, as Tom Shales described in a 1983 Washington Post profile, moments in which he is “ingenuous and vulnerable”—but only moments. And as Cruise’s career reached its peak form during his 1990s dominance, Cruise vacillated between two personas.
On the one hand, Cruise spent a good portion of his 20s and 30s as the American everyman fighting a corrupt or unjust system, going up against Jack Nicholson in 1992’s A Few Good Men, Gene Hackman and the Mob in 1993’s The Firm, the greed of the professional sports industry in 1996’s Jerry Maguire, and that sex cult in 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut. On the other hand, as Cruise has settled into the stage of his career in which it’s clear no one says no to him, he continuously rejects the idea of being seen as average. Nearly every character Cruise has embodied in the past couple decades is defined primarily by their singularity, regardless of genre: sci-fi supercop John Anderton in 2002’s Minority Report, the Jamie Foxx-terrorizing assassin Vincent in 2004’s Collateral, the exceptionally petty Les Grossman in 2008’s Tropic Thunder, the swaggering rock star Stacee Jaxx in 2012’s Rock of Ages, the charismatically law-breaking pilot Barry Seal in 2017’s American Made. There is no one who exudes trying as much as Cruise does, and M:I is both the root of that relentless, admirable, bordering-on-obsessive perfectionism, and the well that continues to water the man who has made onscreen effort into a kind of alchemy.
“How many identities do you think Hunt has? How many times has he slipped past customs, in how many countries? These guys are trained to be ghosts.”
A lot of actors like to save the world onscreen: Vin Diesel with The Fast and the Furious franchise, Robert Downey Jr. during the years he was Iron Man, Mark Wahlberg in his collaborations with Michael Bay and Peter Berg (admittedly, they might care about just saving America, not all those other people). But no one has been doing it as long as Cruise, whose Ethan Hunt is introduced in M:I as a kind of hot-shot, know-it-all agent in the U.S. government’s secret Impossible Missions Force, or IMF. Hunt is bossy most of the time, wild-eyed some of the time, and loyal all of the time, and he trusts his superior agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) fully. So when a mission in Prague to intercept a rogue agent who is planning to sell a secret list of IMF agents goes bad—very, very bad, with the entire team killed, save for Hunt—he, in the immortal words of Michael Jordan in The Last Dance, takes that personally.
Who could have had it out for the team? Why did Ethan survive while everyone else died? Phelps, shot by an unseen assailant; Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas), stabbed; Jack (Emilio Estevez), smashed inside an elevator shaft. When IMF Director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) meets with Hunt to get to the bottom of what happened, de Palma revels in off-kilter, angular compositions, shooting both Cruise and Czerny from below, their entire faces filling the frame, their eye contact never breaking. Kittridge is convinced Hunt is a traitor looking to sell the IMF-agent list for his own personal gain; to prove that he’s not at fault, Hunt decides to do just that, to lure the real villain out into the open.
After escaping from Kittridge, reuniting with the last surprisingly still-alive member of his team, Phelps’s wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), and asking illegal arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave) to set up a potential buyer for the list, Hunt puts a new crew together of other “disavowed” agents. With Cruise’s Hunt, Béart’s Claire, Rhames’s hacker Luther Stickell, and Jean Reno’s helicopter pilot and muscle Franz Krieger in place, M:I then delivers, one after another, the action scenes and set pieces that would set the tone for the series’ ensuing bigger, wilder, better methodology. The heist at CIA headquarters, a calcavade of moving parts: Claire’s diversionary tactics, Luther’s cool head under pressure, Krieger’s burliness as he holds up Hunt, who levitates over the floor of a temperature- and weight-controlled vault and breaks into the most secure computer system in the world. The fantasy sequence in which Hunt puts together all the pieces of Phelps’s betrayal, re-imagining each element of Phelps’s plan in Prague and realizing that his mentor sold him out. And the final train assault, in which Luther jams Max’s uploading of the list of IMF agents, Phelps turns on Claire, and Hunt rolls around on the train’s roof while battling Phelps and evading Krieger’s helicopter attack in the tight Channel Tunnel. At the end of M:I, with Hunt’s and Luther’s names both cleared, they return to work at the IMF for whatever future mission, if they choose to accept it.
Cast members of the original Mission: Impossible TV series weren’t impressed; Martin Landau derisively called it “an action-adventure movie.” But what the film franchise understood early on is that these movies are fundamentally about Hunt’s Road Runner-like ability to evade death and Cruise’s willingness to court it with increasingly elaborate, consistently hair-raising stunts. The de Palma signatures of the first film—in particular, a first-person perspective in which we see everything head-on alongside Cruise’s Hunt, an approach that collapses our experience as an outside viewer of the film and places us directly inside the narrative—wouldn’t be mimicked by later directors. But watch any of the subsequent films from John Woo, J. J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and current series guardian Christopher McQuarrie, and each of them takes on the blueprint that de Palma laid out. The IMF is in danger, threatened either by a former ally (Dougray Scott in M:I2, Billy Crudup in M:I3) or a compellingly nefarious enemy (Philip Seymour Hoffman in M:I3, Michael Nyqvist in MI:4, Sean Harris in MI:5, Henry Cavill in MI:6); there is no in-between level of villain. A beautiful woman with mysterious motives floats in and out of the narrative (Thandiwe Newton in MI:2, Léa Seydoux in MI:4, Rebecca Ferguson in MI:5 and MI:6); Luther is along for the ride; and there are masks, always masks (Simon Pegg’s domain in MI:3 and onward). And most importantly, only Hunt, and the force of Cruise’s presence, can save the day.
Each M:I film builds on the first version of Hunt established by Cruise, de Palma, and writers David Koepp (who would work with Cruise again on The War of the Worlds and The Mummy), Steven Zaillian, and Robert Towne (who wrote Days of Thunder and M:I2): resolute and tenacious, especially when faced with deception or doubt. And each M:I film requires that Cruise maintain tight control on himself, a tautness that has become so synonymous with his persona that co-stars talk about it (like Newton’s story about Cruise’s relationship with a pimple while filming MI:2). In that Post profile, Shales said of Cruise, “There’s nothing of the neurotic wimp about him,” an oddly prescient line since Shales couldn’t have known that over the course of 25 years, Cruise would be daring himself, and us, with each new M:I stunt. Sprinting down the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai; hanging out of and hanging onto helicopters and planes; holding his breath underwater for six minutes for one uninterrupted take; climbing his way up a 2,000-foot cliff. Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt, Ethan Hunt is Tom Cruise. Mission: Impossible 7 (in which Czerny returns as Kittridge) and Mission: Impossible 8 are slated to come out in May 2022 and July 2023, and who knows however many sequels will follow, for however many years. Jack Reacher wishes.