The Running Man
Quick, without consulting the internet, what kind of a personality does Ethan Hunt have?
Maybe you’re wondering, “Who, exactly, is that?” That’s the name of Tom Cruise’s character in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Though…”character” is perhaps not quite the right word, as the running joke for many years has been that Tom Cruise is playing Impossible Mission Force Agent Tom Cruise.
Is the problem that the character of Ethan Hunt isn’t sharply defined? Consider that Indiana Jones is a guy who’s always in over his head and getting out of situations through more than a little dumb luck. We get the sense that John McClane isn’t particularly happy to be battling terrorists, and he’d much rather be hanging out at a cookout having a few beers. Then there’s Ethan Hunt, a guy who…um…dangles from things? Yeah, he’s not sharply defined.
Could a better actor have overcome that issue? Absolutely not. Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but the guy can act. It’s surprising he’s only been nominated three times for Academy Awards,* and even within the Mission films, there’s a moment in Mission: Impossible III where Cruise goes toe to toe with one of the greatest actors to ever live and acquits himself nicely.**
So what’s the problem? To my mind, the first three Mission: Impossible movies are a hybrid of spy movies and action movies. Starting with the fourth film, Ghost Protocol, they truly became spectacle. Stunts became STUNTS. We all joked that Tom Cruise would eventually fire himself into a black hole or free dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. An awful lot goes on in these films, and as much as I enjoy them, there’s not a lot of time spent on character. With Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, would the same thing happen again? Would spectacle eclipse character? Surprisingly, less than usual!
We begin with a Russian nuclear submarine, the most lethal killing machine on the planet. Scratch that, the formerly most lethal killing machine. A number of problems occur, problems that quickly become catastrophes. That leads to the sub sinking. Not because of an undersea duel or a tragic accident, but because of artificial intelligence. The question becomes, is the A.I. truly sentient or is it being guided by someone?
Either way, it’s not awesome, and that’s why Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) gets involved. As per usual, he’s backed by his ride or die pals Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), and assisted by the shadowy independent operative Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). They’ll launch into a globetrotting chase to obtain the A.I. while being pursued by a different team of shadowy operatives led by the hard-charging Briggs (Shea Wigham). Professional thief and amateur chaos agent Grace (Hayley Atwell) complicates matters, and everyone might be extra-screwed by Gabriel (Esai Morales), who has his own plans for the A.I. and his own history with Ethan.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Tim, your plot synopsis sounds the tiniest bit like gibberish. You phoning it in this time?” Short answer: I’m phoning it in at about the regular amount. Longer answer: there’s a long and proud tradition of Mission: Impossible plots not making a lick of sense.*** We’re deep into the summer movie season now, and it’s incorrectly believed that summer movies are uniformly big, loud, and dumb. While Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One has an epic size and is loud as hell, it’s made with keen intelligence and clockwork precision.
Tom Cruise’s original plan for this franchise was to have different auteurs come in and offer their unique takes.**** That was the plan until Christopher McQuarrie came onboard with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. He’s enjoyed a trusted working relationship with Cruise for years, and it’s not just because he’s a super nice guy. McQuarrie is a clean and concise director, one who confidently steps away from the shaky-cam used by Paul Greengrass and J.J. Abrams. His work is similar to John Wick’s Chad Stahelski, yet where Stahelski focuses on intricately choreographed gun combat and fight scenes, McQuarrie paints on a bigger canvas. Here, there’s a frantic airport pursuit, a chaotic Italian car chase reminiscent of The Blues Brothers, and a (very) long sequence involving a cliff, a motorcycle, a train, and a bridge. McQuarrie doesn’t just throw things at the screen. He’s controlled, and while his setpieces are massive, they function with the precision of a Swiss watch.
McQuarrie and co-screenwriter Erik Jendresen have alternately continued one tradition with the franchise and improved on another. The first is that, like all of the previous films, this installment is impossible to explain without a flow chart and a few strong drinks. That’s not to say the plotting is half-assed. Rather, it’s intricate, complex. Better is the improved characterization given to Ethan Hunt. Previously, the only consistent character trait you could attribute to him was “intense,” which is not super compelling. Jendresen and McQuarrie drill down a bit into Hunt’s past and how it informs his relationships. Should you be expecting three-dimensional characterization that would make Larry McMurtry proud? You should not, and that’s not how these films function. It’s deep enough not to get in the way of the plot or the setpieces, but there’s enough depth to show the idea of a balance between stunts and character development.
This being a summer blockbuster, there are a number of moments where the cast is a) running, b) screaming, c) fighting, or d) expositioning. That’s to be expected. Luckily, everyone follows the lead of Cruise and walks the tonal tightrope of keeping things serious-ish. As Ethan, Cruise has his usual levels of professional intensity. When he’s not engaging in stunts that are literally death-defying, he’s got a few scenes where he’s allowed to remind us that he’s a better actor than he’s given credit for.***** His supporting cast is fun, and as good as everyone is, two performances stood out. The first is Haley Atwell as Grace. Her professional thief initially seems to be someone skilled at playing everyone against each other. Atwell quickly shows us that, as sharp as Grace is, she’s in way over her head. She’s enormous fun to watch as she desperately improvises. Also, these films haven’t always had memorable villains. Pom Klementieff steps up as the enthusiastically psychotic Paris, a killer in thrall to Gabriel. Paris is, literally, a maniac, and she proves that in a hilarious car chase where she smashes through nearly anything a vehicle can conceivably smash through.
The summer movie season isn’t over yet. While I don’t yet know what the best blockbuster of the hot season is, I feel comfortable saying that Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is top-shelf entertainment. Come for the breathless action and breakneck stunt work, stay for the surprisingly grounded characterization of a character who traditionally hasn’t had much.
*Cruise was nominated for Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia. You ask me, he should have won an acting award in Rain Man instead of Dustin Hoffman.
**In that moment, Cruise is held captive by villain Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he alternately threatens, cajoles, and begs for the life of his wife.
***I direct you to this amusing article about kids confounded by the original film’s plot.
****At one point, both David Fincher and Joe Carnahan were set to direct an installment.
*****While Cruise is a damn good actor, he began his career playing a cocky hotshot and transitioned into mostly playing a hypercompetent professional. I’d like to see him stretch himself more. I’m not saying he needs to play a serial killer or Eleanor Roosevelt next. Watch him in War of the Worlds playing a selfish and immature father who’s the wrong guy to shepherd his kids through an alien invasion. More of that, please.