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‘Mission: Impossible—Fallout’ Shows Why Ethan Hunt Is Tom Cruise’s Greatest Role

The latest in the long-running franchise is a sensational action film and a fitting celebration of an actor who gives his all to the part, even if it almost kills him

Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

My favorite Tom Cruise performance is in Eyes Wide Shut. Do you know why? Because he has no idea what’s going on. Stalking through a strategically phony-looking version of New York on a string of increasingly surreal house-calls-slash-booty-calls (rewatch the movie if you haven’t in a while, it’s hilarious, four stars) Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford is a man without a plan, barely able to hail a cab and stewing in his own sense of confusion and insecurity.

Three years earlier, in 1996, Cruise had starred in both Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire, a double-bill that inadvertently set up Eyes Wide Shut’s indelible portrait of movie-star identity crisis. Mission: Impossible was Cruise’s delayed coronation as an action star (a mantle he had resisted after Top Gun), while Jerry Maguire investigated the pleasure of watching the most cocksure American actor of the ’80s—the guy who felt the need for speed, the guy whose hair was perfect—reduced to a shambling wreck, in need of somebody to complete him. Kubrick’s movie went even further in inverting its star’s persona: Nearly two decades into a career defined as much by his lithe physicality as his golden-boy looks, Cruise accrued pathos as a man of inaction.

There’s a pretty good Eyes Wide Shut reference in Mission: Impossible—Fallout, which isn’t anything like Eyes Wide Shut except that its director, Christopher McQuarrie, also seems to understand what’s soul-nourishing about seeing Tom Cruise be humbled. McQuarrie is also the guy who cowrote 2014’s excellent Edge of Tomorrow, a movie that didn’t just humble Cruise but killed him, over and over again, until his haplessly respawning character finally got it right—a brilliant satirical riff on the actor’s above-the-title stardom (imagine if Maverick were Goose).

My guess is that Cruise indulges McQuarrie’s abuse because it comes cushioned in as much flattery as any filmmaker has ever lavished on a star: I’m not sure that Vincente Minnelli ever photographed Judy Garland as worshipfully as McQuarrie does Cruise in Jack Reacher, a movie that spends most of its first 30 minutes having characters talk about how awesome its namesake is, often to his face, and includes a scene based entirely around the spectacle of Jack standing around a hotel room without a shirt on.

McQuarrie’s two Mission entries (including 2015’s terrific Rogue Nation) double down on the idea that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is not just a tireless, turbocharged defender of the peace and a paragon of professional competence, but also morally spotless even when making tough decisions or losing stolen plutonium. He’s the kind of black-ops specialist you’d like to have a beer or get a mortgage with. The kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful IMF agent you’ve ever known in your life.

At the same time—and with increasing intensity since the franchise-redefining Mission: Impossible III—Ethan Hunt has acted as a human pincushion, an ambulatory voodoo doll who takes more onscreen punishment than any other action icon. And the bruising nature of these stunts is heightened by our knowledge (and because of how much it gets written about, film after film, don’t pretend you don’t know) that Cruise is really performing them. Not in Edge of Tomorrow, with its parade of CGI-mutilated Tommy knockoffs, but definitely in Mission: ImpossibleGhost Protocol, where he hangs off a skyscraper in Dubai. Or Rogue Nation, where he hangs off the side of an airplane. I don’t want to spoil too much of what happens in Fallout, but I swear to God the guy learned how to pilot a helicopter, which is not only more than Harrison Ford ever did for the Indiana Jones movies, but more than Indiana Jones ever did. (Not that those movies would have been improved by Ford’s flying skills.)

Cruise’s Xenu-take-the-wheel mentality may be rooted in the belief that digital-age summer blockbusters should embrace analog authenticity like the James Bond and Indiana Jones adventures that came before them. More power to him for risking life and limb to prove this thesis. Eyes Wide Shut might be Cruise’s most amazing performance because of how little he seems to be doing (he’s a mostly silent marionette for his bearded puppet master), but Ethan Hunt is his greatest role—more than Jerry Maguire or Maverick or Ron Kovic or Jack Reacher or the Guy Who Fought The Mummy—because of how it equalizes his Cary Grant and Jackie Chan sides, and because the character’s fanatical devotion to his craft allegorizes the show-must-go-on impulses of the 56-year-old go-getter playing him. It’s genuinely exciting to watch Tom Cruise put himself on the line for a roof-jumping montage that one of the Avengers regulars would have green-screened; there’s also a certain sadistic pleasure in knowing that he’s suffering for his art.

Back to that Eyes Wide Shut joke, which happens about two-thirds of the way through Fallout and is enjoyable beyond its cinephilic reference point because of how it’s designed to make Ethan (and Cruise) look bewildered in a moment of crisis. Already hot in pursuit of a double-crossing rival, Ethan stumbles into some kind of ornate religious ritual at a massive London church. With each second that passes, he’s falling further behind his target, while on all sides of the chapel, several different sets of henchmen are closing in. He’s as flustered as Dr. Bill when he was asked for the second password, but also conscientious of his surroundings: “I’m very sorry,” he stammers to the flock before exiting as graciously as possible stage left, pursued by hitmen.

Ethan runs a lot in Fallout, which McQuarrie has structured, in the best Mission: Impossible tradition, as a race against time. In a nicely conceived continuation of Rogue Nation’s narrative, Hunt and his team—series regulars Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg); Rogue returner Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson); and CIA-backed newcomer August Walker (Henry Cavill)—are tasked with retrieving stolen plutonium, only to learn from a black-market arms broker (The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby, who will hopefully come out of this movie as a big star) that the price is incarcerated anarchist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris)—i.e., the guy Ethan (and Cruise) nearly drowned trying to put away last time.

The idea that Ethan has to break his archrival out of government custody while being watched like a hawk by Walker—an unctuous, well-muscled dandy who hates his new colleague and suspects that, after decades of being disavowed and abused by the IMF, he may be in league with the nuke dealers—is clever, and Fallout piles on personal and logistical complications to the point of glorious spy-movie self-parody. Without ruining any of the carefully prepared twists, I’ll say that McQuarrie’s script (written, like Rogue Nation, all by his lonesome after the multiple screenwriters of Mission: Impossible III and Ghost Protocol) covers all the usual franchise bases (styling, profiling, limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheeling and dealing) with flair (sorry), while also going the extra mile with cloak-and-dagger stuff. During one seemingly endless allegiance-swapping standoff, I thought of this Key & Peele sketch and couldn’t stop laughing. With the movie, not at it—because that sort of thing is a lot of fun.

Look, I’m not made of stone: Pretty much everything in Mission: Impossible—Fallout is fun. The 150-minute running time, which felt like a death sentence in Avengers: Infinity War (in which I’m pretty sure Josh Brolin didn’t actually get impaled with a giant intergalactic ax), doesn’t get oppressive until the third final-act speech about what a swell guy Ethan is (poor Ving Rhames gets hype-man duty this time), and the main cast is used exceedingly well, each according to their abilities. Cruise oscillates skillfully between Ethan’s peerless professionalism and his all-consuming paranoia (it’s not just the stunt scenes that feel like documentaries); Ferguson’s tight-lipped woman-of-mystery act has deepened in finesse and humor since Rogue Nation; Pegg does spooked double takes like his American bank account depends on it.

As for Cavill, who recently made a fool of himself in a GQ interview, he’s Cruise’s best-ever foil, partially because he looks like a taller, more muscular Tom (something I thought when I saw Man of Steel), and also because the arrogant, beautifully tailored Walker gives off a Cruise-ish vibe: It’s not a jokey Ben Stiller impersonation, but rather a channeling of the next-big-thing charisma Cruise had back in the ’80s. Fighting side by side or butting heads, they’re a compelling pair, and even if I can’t fully get on board with the (gentle) gay-panic gag that goes with their first big dual-action scene in a high-class men’s bathroom (if you are or have been 12 years old, you can guess the basic outlines of the joke) there’s a charge between them that simply wasn’t there with Jeremy Renner’s similar sidekick-slash-sparring-partner Brandt in Ghost Protocol.

I’m also not totally sold on Harris’s quiet, monkish Lane as an all-time psycho killer mastermind, but it doesn’t matter. The real villains of the Mission: Impossible franchise are more ephemeral than terrorists: They’re gravity and time, which Ethan (and Cruise) treat with brazen disrespect and grudging acceptance, respectively. The decision in Mission: Impossible III to fully humanize a character whose great utility—to his superiors and to a movie studio—is as a blunt, anonymous instrument has had mixed results in terms of generating true emotion, or even appreciably raising the stakes in entertainment that are necessarily over the top.

Fallout makes a couple of gestures at chin-stroking seriousness, including a bit of anti-authoritarianism and a passage imagining what nuclear strikes on major cities would look like circa 2018 (which is fortunately just the setup to a well-prepared, Brian De Palma–style punch line). But its true satisfactions are gentler and tied to the idea that Ethan is eventually going to wind down. I don’t care that much about the character, or about Cruise, but the juxtaposition of one with the other is unaccountably moving, especially when contextualized by thoughts of mortality—via those death-defying stunts, and also the realization that six Mission: Impossible movies equal a pretty good chunk of a lifetime, filmgoing or otherwise.

At the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise is thoroughly domesticated; he’s taught to look forward to the cozy boredom of married life and middle age. Fallout’s fade-out can’t match that movie’s suggestive subtext (or love-is-just-a-four-letter-word sign-off), but its implication that Ethan may yet find a compromise between his youthful, save-the-world idealism and the self-preserving impulses of secret agents old enough to remember landlines and U2 when they were cool is sort of sweet.