Scalding Hot Takes: Mission: Impossible-Fallout
Having been out of the film criticism game a hot minute, or a couple of years, I have not seen a Tom Cruise movie since 2012's Rock of Ages but as an American citizen and former film critic I of course have intense, complicated feelings about the preeminent movie star and American icon. As someone who has spent a lot of time plumbing the shadowy depths of the increasingly incompetent, greed, fame and brainwash cult Scientology through scathing expose after scathing expose, it bothers me that the man has spent much of his career enriching and empowering some seriously deplorable people caught up in a truly regrettable scheme, a long, long grift that’s finally starting to unravel.
Is it possible to think about, let alone write about Tom Cruise without Scientology being in the equation? I don’t think that it is, particularly in this day of the artist and their personal failings being inextricably intertwined in the public’s prying mind.
Yet that association is not entirely pejorative. Throughout Cruise’s remarkable new movie Mission: Impossible-Fallout my idiot brain, which apparently took the film as an opportunity to regress to an almost toddler-like stage of intellectual development, actually thought things like, “Wow! I bet Cruise’s Scientology training helped him accomplish physical feats that would otherwise be impossible for a man of his advanced age and diminutive size” and “Scientology must not be all bad if its members can seemingly defy both aging and gravity deep into their fifties.”
I was so impressed by Cruise as a death-defying physical specimen in Mission:Impossible-Fallout, and almost secondarily by his acting, that it actually made me think more highly of Scientology as a quasi-religion. That is some high praise.
As much as Cruise’s devotion to Scientology bothers me, I have enormous respect for him as an actor and producer who has made the most of his sometimes modest talents through hard work, savvy choices, a commitment to quality and a level of commitment to his craft and his body as he slides ever deeper into middle age that borders on perverse and masochistic.
Cruise’s commitment to doing as many of his own stunts as possible is a key component of the publicity campaigns of his recent action movies, particularly in the Mission Impossible series. He’s developing an almost Jackie Chan reputation for risking life and limb to make his action set pieces exciting and convincing.
Cruise’s scary, borderline unhinged level of commitment to his action movies is even more impressive when compared to someone like Steven Seagal, who famously naps, eats pie and pays his bills onscreen to save time and maximize personal efficiency, or Chuck Norris, who after decades as an action hero still couldn’t be bothered to change out of jeans (they’re so constricting!) or develop a second facial expression.
At an age when most actors, particularly unlikely action heroes like the diminutive senior citizen behind the Mission: Impossible series are slowing down, Cruise is doing more action than ever. I’m not just talking about Cruise shepherding, as star and producer, the Mission: Impossible series or the Jack Reacher films, or even his failed attempt at besting Brendan Fraser in a Mummy-themed action extravaganza with 2017’s would-be tentpole The Mummy. Foolish man-animal! No one bests Brendan Fraser in a Mummy movie!
I’m talking about the amount of action Cruise does in each of his films as well. In Mission: Impossible-Fallout, Cruise doesn’t just do a whole lot of running and jumping and hanging on and getting hit and hitting people. No, in his latest vehicle, Cruise does entirely too much action. For the sake of my fragile immune system, there should have been fewer scenes of him nearly dying and more scenes of him hanging out in a diner reading a newspaper. That might not be “cinematic” or “exciting” or “something anyone would want to see in a Mission: Impossible movie” but it would give me time to breathe and relax a little in between pulse-pounding action sequences. Some of us have delicate competitions and are liable to faint if exposed to too much excitement and let me tell you, friend, that I did not spot even a single Victorian-era fainting couch in all of the North DeKalb Mall theater when I saw the movie, and brother, I sure looked.
Throughout Mission: Impossible-Fallout, I found myself thinking, “No, Tom Cruise! Don’t do that stunt! It’s too dangerous! You’re going to die for my amusement, Tom Cruise, in one of these damn movies, and then your death will be on my conscience. Your tombstone will read, “Died doing mind-blowing stunts. Pretty much everyone who enjoys expertly executed stunt sequences in high-powered action sequels is complicit in his violent AND EXTREME death.”
I’m not saying that I was worried that his character, Ethan Hunt, would die. No, even though my rational brain realized that if Tom Cruise had died filming a Mission: Impossible movie it’d be huge worldwide news and obviously I would have heard about it, my crazy brain was legitimately worried that I’d hit a scene where Hunt would plummet to his death after falling off the Eiffel Tower or something and next up would be a title card reading, “Tom Cruise actually died filming this stunt so obviously we can’t continue the movie and we thought this would be the most intense and extreme way for you to find out. Sorry.”
It’s a testament to the craftsmanship and guts of Fallout that I spent much of it worrying about the safety and life of its star and producer even though logic obviously dictates that they would not release a movie if the lead actor dramatically died making it unless it was, you know, The Crow or something.
Cruise stars in this fifth sequel as Ethan Hunt, special agent extraordinaire. This time around his mission involves retrieving pilfered plutonium while being shadowed by the malevolent, mustachioed likes August Walker (Henry Cavill), a brick wall of a CIA agent.
Cavill is, of course, known and grudgingly tolerated as asshole Clark Kent/brooding Superman in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Why Did I Watch This? and Justice League, films mostly derided as real stinkeroos. Man of the Steel is the best of a sorry lot, being underwhelming more than aggressively, offensively terrible but Cavil is much better used here as a ferocious physical specimen whose youth, vigor and towering height make the star seem even shorter, older and creakier by comparison.
My favorite moments in Fallout are when Cruise as Hunt stops furiously scuffling with some bad guy or performing a perilous, death-defying stunt long enough to size up a larger, younger, less winded and exhausted opponent with a look that implicitly says, “Holy shit. What have I gotten myself into and how, for the love of Xenu, am I going to get out of it?” shortly before he proceeds to get himself out of an impossible jam through some manner of derring-do.
Fallout toys intermittently with the idea of being one of those somber action movies, like Logan or Unforgiven, where age and physical deterioration figure prominently as we follow killers in the autumn of their years, at a point where their bodies begin to deteriorate, with their minds following close behind. It can never quite commit to that particularly rich thread of macho movie mythologizing because it needs Ethan Hunt to keep on doing the impossible and making it look prohibitively difficult.
Cruise seems to be aging in reverse. The calendar might say he’s fifty-six years old in this, the sixth Mission: Impossible film over a twenty-two year span, but he seems to have reached a new physical prime late in life. I got winded just watching him run, jump and fuck up bad guys, and that’s not only because I’m dangerously out of shape and also get winded doing things like standing up or think about anything too hard.
By this point Hunt has a lot of years on him, and a lot of trauma, and a lot of damage yet because he’s played by Cruise in what is threatening to become his signature role, if by virtue of volume alone (he’s made a fuck-ton of these movies) he still retains a distinct boy scout quality. He has every reason in the world to be disillusioned and hate the world and a government that has put him through so much (only Donald Trump has been put through the ringer more than Ethan, what with Crooked Hillary, FAKE NEWS and Cuckservatives all taking shots at him constantly) yet he retains a fierce moral code all the same.
I watched Mission: Impossible-Fallout the same day I wrote about Peter Bogdanovich’s 1976 comedy Nickelodeon, an underrated tribute to the pre-Birth of a Nation era of silent films in which Burt Reynolds and Ryan O’Neal execute an endless series of Buster Keaton/Harold Lloyd-style pratfalls. They succeed despite being no one’s idea of natural physical comedians in part because they are both athletes and their roles in the film are as much physical as mental, if not more so.
That’s even more so of Cruise here. This might just be the only action movie I’ve ever seen where I worried that it was actually too realistic, that they made everything look entirely too real and that I would have preferred something less convincing but also less intense.
Is Mission: Impossible-Fallout a great movie or merely a very good one that’s easy to overrate in light of the competition? I'm not sure. It’s a tense, no-nonsense master class in gutsy craftsmanship from an actor and producer that epitomizes its producer-star's penchant for over-achievement.
Yes, Tom Cruise is a tiny little creep with all manner of unsavory personal connections but he’s also, from all evidence, borderline superhuman. His very public support of Scientology may make the world a worst place but he’s also capable of making great action movies decades into a remarkable career defined in no small part by an almost superhuman will to succeed. Cruise may not have the physique or stature of Schwarzenegger but through hard work, determination and any number of auditing sessions he’s grown into an all-time great action hero all the same.
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