Has any character in action movie history thrown his body around with more reckless abandon than Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible super spy, Ethan Hunt?
Today, following a weekend in which Cruise/Hunt sailed to victory at the box office, we take a step back to look at just how much hell this guy has been through over the years...
Here he is in Mission: Impossible II, riding a motorcycle straight into his foe’s, before catapulting off the seat and into the dude’s arms, where they meet in a rough-and-tumble embrace before falling off a cliff.
Here he is in Mission Impossible: III, hurling himself off a building in Shanghai to gather enough momentum so he can swing, like a human pendulum, onto the roof of another building. Note how hard the guy falls on his back:
And here he is, in the trailer for the extremely well-reviewed Mission: Impossible — Fallout, which opened atop the box office this weekend, taking one helluva punch from Mustached Superman, Henry Cavill:
Over the last 22 years, nobody has incurred as much bodily harm as Ethan Hunt, the perma-castaway of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), relegated to save the world while a bunch of government bureaucrats blame him for everything. Throughout the six installments, he routinely gets his ass whooped by all manner of enemy and thug. He gets in car crashes and motorcycle accidents and, in the first film, a vehicular maelstrom involving a helicopter, a moving train and a tunnel. I don’t have the statistics to back this up, but I would say that, amongst action heroes, he is right up there at the top of the list on the “liberal use of headbutts” scale. Upon reflection, I feel like Mission: Impossible III, the one where Ethan has to collect the “rabbit foot” or whatever, entailed little more than Philip Seymour Hoffman torturing the shit out of our boy, threatening to murder Michelle Monaghan and killing Hunt with a micro-brain-detonation-thingamajig. This wouldn’t be the last time Hunt died and came back to life: in Rogue Nation, while slipping a flash drive into a whirlpool security system (you know the type), he effectively drowned before being defibrillated by another agent who just wanted to rob him blind.
Of course, the central draw and conceit of the Mission: Impossible series has always been in its protagonist’s willingness to defy the laws of the physical and corporeal world, to toggle wildly and seamlessly between mortal and immortal. The very name implies how dependent the franchise is on Hunt doing things to and with the human body viewers thought heretofore not possible, even for action heroes (and this viewer has seen both Cranks). While he has the intelligence and ubiquitous know-how available to the best movie spies, his exceptionality lies less in his mastery of hand-to-hand combat or crazy rock climbing than in his overall audacity. He simply goes for things others would not, then goes farther. James Bond may be dope at poker, but it seems rather unlikely that he’d be so undignified as to scale the Burj Khalifa just to break through a very high-up window. That’s what his sexual wiles are for.
Such abandon would not be possible without the tenacity of Cruise himself, the last of a dying breed of movie stars: he lives to entertain, nothing more, nothing less (except if you count his steadfast determination to isolate body thetans or some shit). As other male stars of his generation—the Pitts, the DiCaprios, the Damons, the Afflecks, the Washingtons—have increasingly prioritized more quote-unquote “serious” ventures, with quote-unquote “serious” directors, Cruise seems content to ride off into his 60s without so much as a single Academy Award (and not a single nomination since 2000, for Magnolia). That’s not because Cruise isn’t as talented or as skilled an actor as his foremost contemporaries; we’ve all seen Jerry Maguire. It’s because Cruise deliberately chooses to make diversions like Jack Reacher and a prematurely rebooted version of The Mummy, rather than share the billing with other A-listers on a Tarantino film. You might be tempted to call him a sell-out, if he wasn’t so genuinely passionate about what he was selling. Cruise is the Hollywood equivalent of the kid who tried too hard in gym class. He drank the Kool-Aid, only the Kool-Aid is gasoline, and he’s spitting it out and engulfing this mother in flames, just so we can watch. He is Total Entertainment Forever.
And who would the noble divertissement vessel known as the Cruise (get it?) be if he didn’t perform his own stunts? At this point, the lore (or non-lore) is pretty well-known. He trained to hold his breath for six and a half minutes for that suspenseful underwater sequence in Rogue Nation. He vetoed the set department’s small-scale cliff and instead hung by his fingertips from a real-ass mountain ledge in the Moab, with only a “thin safety cable,” before pulling himself up during the rock climbing sequence that opens Mission Impossible: II; the director, John Woo, “couldn’t even watch.” He actually dangled off the side of an airplane, actually scaled the tallest building in the world, actually injured his ribs when a harness jerked him into a padded car after an explosion on a bridge in Mission Impossible: III. During the production of Fallout, he broke his ankle jumping from one roof to another. He also learned to become a master helicopter pilot in order to perform a 360-degree downward spiral maneuver in mountainous terrain. “Most pilots wouldn’t attempt this,” one stunt coordinator said in a behind-the-scenes video. Another chimed in: “You make a mistake, somebody’s going to die from it.”
All of which contributes to the character’s verisimilitude. Here is a movie star willing to challenge what’s expected of a movie star to perform the stunts required of an action hero willing to challenge what’s feasible for an action hero to save the world. Cruise has little interest in their own physical well-being, at least where our entertainment is concerned; Hunt has little interest in his either, where the fate of mankind is concerned. Both seem perpetually ready if not downright eager to sacrifice their bodies. Indeed, there is a heedless selflessness to the actor’s pursuit that bleeds through to the selflessness of his protagonist, and purity in their endeavor to serve. Beat me up, the two seem to say. Torture me, hang me from a rope attached to a helicopter, trap me underwater, kill me and bring me back to life. I’ll do anything, anything’s possible.