This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Could the Mission: Impossible film franchise live on without Tom Cruise? MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT has proven that the franchise is still the big box office darling it has been since its ‘90s revival, and anyone who’s seen it will tell you it’s the best one yet. And you can take their word for it—it’s the best one yet. This Hollywood treasure hasn’t gotten tired, aging like a fine wine—or a Fast and Furious film. The stunts have gotten more intense, and no lousy gimmicks are needed to ensure its survival. But the question isn’t whether or not Mission: Impossible holds up, but why it still holds up, and if it has the potential to be a relevant piece of pop culture without its long-standing star. There are many expertly done action films with incredible stunt work out there, but there’s something special here. When Tom is old and grey, could they pull a James Bond and find a new Ethan Hunt? Or could our attention be held with a prequel film starring an up-and-coming younger actor? My answer is no.
It’s quite simple: I pay good money to go see Mission: Impossible for Tom Cruise. And not because I’m a Tom Cruise fan girl (are there still Tom Cruise fan girls?) but because in these films, Tom Cruise is perhaps the most perfect version of a polished Hollywood action hero that exists today, or perhaps that has ever existed. Yes, FALLOUT has an excellent cast overall, a solid story, and action and fight sequences that’ll knock your socks right off. But it’s actor, producer, life guru, and showstopper Cruise that’s the true lifeblood of this series. He is the rug that ties this living room together and without it the whole thing just looks wrong. His portrayal of Ethan Hunt is so easily digestible and neutral, impossibly inoffensive in every way. I know exactly what to expect but I am never bored, because he gives everything to this role as if his life depends on it.
This scene alone was worth all my money
The character of Ethan Hunt himself is not enough without Cruise. Remove the skydiving, power sprinting, motorcycling, and helicopter climbing and there’s no cool, badass personality behind it all. Ethan Hunt is so unbelievably good that he doesn’t even have any vices. You never once see him light a cigarette or drink an alcoholic beverage. He’s basically a less ethnically ambiguous Xander Cage. He’s not a womanizer and he has a healthy relationship with his ex. The only weaknesses he has are the kinds of weaknesses an over-confident job interviewee might say: he cares too much, he sacrifices everything to protect those who are close to him. Ethan’s not glamorous or tragic. He is the most uncontroversial good guy that ever was. And Tom Cruise knows how to work it without being generic and dull. Another actor might play Ethan as more rough and troubled, or more comedic and hokey, but then these wouldn’t really be the same movies. Ethan Hunt, as he is now, is not a sustainable character under the weight of another actor.
I could compare it to how weird it would be to make a Die Hard movie without Bruce Willis, or an Indiana Jones movie without Harrison Ford. But John McClane and Indy are perhaps recognizable enough to be played by other actors without confusing the audience, even if we hate the result (*cough* SOLO *cough*). But who is Ethan Hunt? Without Tom Cruise, could I pick him out of a lineup? At the hands of Tom Cruise, Ethan Hunt is the captain of the football team and the prom king. He’s the well liked-local politician. He’s the host of the morning show and your best friend’s dad. I couldn’t hate him if I tried. And I would never try.
And this is not to say that every movie Cruise stars in is good (I didn’t want to talk about THE MUMMY, but you’ve left me no choice). But when it comes to Mission: Impossible, Cruise emanates some kind of alien-like god complex. The fact that Tom Cruise seems to believe he is invincible is what brings a special kind of life to a set of films that otherwise might have run out of steam early on. This man is 56 years old, and yet, there is no indication that he believes he is 56. He still runs like he did 20+ years ago. He still does his own stunts, despite the fact that they’re even more intense now than they were in the beginning. He still behaves like a 30-year-old, and despite the wrinkles, I believe it. By now you’d expect him to be playing someone’s dad in a late-November Oscar-bait release. Seth Rogen is 20 years younger than Tom Cruise and he’s already playing dads! But Cruise is an action star through and through, and the sun hasn’t set on his time yet.
I think he’s late for church
Do you remember when Jeremy Renner was in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL so that they could “seamlessly” bring him on as the new Ethan Hunt? Yeah, me neither. Because it didn’t work. They couldn’t replace Cruise if they tried. He will cling to this role until his final breath and I plan to be there every step of the way. Who else has that high a level of A-list star power but is also willing to jump out of a plane 106 times for a scene after breaking an ankle in two places? Who else is willing to learn how to pilot a helicopter just to film the perfect crash? No one. This franchise dies with him. If Jackie Chan was China’s finest madman export, Tom Cruise is Hollywood’s response: a rabid, Buster Keaton-inspired alpha male.
One thing’s for sure—every Mission: Impossible movie I have seen has been a good time. Without fail. Because of the dedication Cruise brings to each one, so much life is pumped into the franchise. In an era where sequels and reboots are everything, it can be exhausting to end up with a phone-it-in franchise, the kind with exceptional execution but zero soul. As a moviegoer I end up feeling cheated, as if the studio believed I was stupid enough to enjoy a steaming pile of crap just because of the recognizable name attached. But not Mission: Impossible, perhaps the only franchise where its lead actor’s spiritual commitment to mayhem actually outweighs the technical mastery delivered by the film crew. This here is Hollywood escapism at its absolute finest and it pulls my ass to that theater seat like a goddamn magnet. As long as Tom’s around, they’ll never let me down.