Late in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, one character tries to warn another that Ethan Hunt, the franchise's hero, played, as always, by Tom Cruise, is coming for them, and there's nothing they can do about it. Ethan, he says, is the living embodiment of destiny, as much as a human being can be, and he will always, always accomplish his goal.
It's a terrific gag — made all the more so when Ethan inevitably arrives a few seconds later — both because it plays off the series' core storytelling device and because it, in some ways, seems to describe the star himself. Cruise can be beset by PR nightmares or horrible rumors, but he never seems to lose his box office step or his onscreen persona as the hypercompetent, all-but-perfect ultraman.
Cruise rose to fame in the '80s at the tail end of the Cold War, and his persona almost seems to be American hegemony personified — there is nothing he cannot do if he puts his will to it, and a thing is good because he does it. His motivations change on a dime, and the tasks he sets himself to might seem trivial or small. But he will accomplish them, and if he's coming for you, he'll arrive, tornado-like, to throw you out a window.
Rogue Nation is terrific fun, the best action movie of the summer without Mad Max in the title. It's also, arguably, the best Mission: Impossible movie, impressive for the fifth installment in any movie series. But it also might be the Tom Cruisiest Tom Cruise movie ever made.
Here are all of the ways Rogue Nation uses Cruise almost perfectly.
1) There is literally no human endeavor Ethan cannot perform
There's a sequence in this movie in which Ethan holds his breath for more than three minutes so he can access a computer server that's stored underwater. Why is it stored underwater? There's a plot reason — it has to stay below a certain temperature — but the real reason is that it would be really cool if Tom Cruise held his breath for that long.
And, of course, part of the movie's publicity wave has been the claim that Cruise held his breath for six minutes to shoot the sequence. (I have my doubts, considering that the sequence isn't presented all in one shot, and learning to hold one's breath that long for a movie seems extreme even for Cruise. But hey, whatever works for publicity purposes.) But whether it happened doesn't matter. It's all about the mythology. For this franchise and this actor's career, it's not good enough to simply pull something off. No, you have to be the best.
And Ethan is the best. Always. He clings to the side of airplanes as they take off. He can instantly ascertain the true alliance of everybody he meets by gazing into their eyes. He draws perfect sketches of people from memory. He battles multiple bad guys at once, occasionally while tied to a pole. He looks dashing in a tuxedo.
Ethan Hunt (and again, by extension, Cruise) is better than you. He's better than all of us. He just is.
2) Ethan is a good-hearted humanitarian, sort of
The "plot" of Rogue Nation, such as it is, involves the Syndicate, the evil, shadow version of the Impossible Missions Force that Ethan works for. The film's script, written by its director, Christopher McQuarrie, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, is remarkably canny about this, too. The IMF operates with very limited government oversight. The only thing that keeps it on the side of the angels is the fact that its operatives believe in truth, justice, and the shadow government way.
But Ethan really is that good of a person, in the Mission: Impossible mythos. Rogue Nation's story is its weakest element — it's mostly an excuse to string along a bunch of elaborate action sequences — but when it makes an abrupt third-act pivot into Ethan having to save a co-worker's life, it somehow works.
This rescue mission has basically nothing to do with what comes before, but the film has sold the group dynamic between Ethan and his colleagues so effectively that you buy he would do anything to save them. Similarly, it has effectively suggested that Ethan is such an inherently good person that he essentially makes an act good by performing it.
3) Cruise almost always works with interesting, iconic leading ladies
Something about Cruise is that he has a tendency to bring out the best in the women he works with. Rogue Nation doesn't have the level of interesting material for its women that, say, Mad Max: Fury Road did, but it does have a tremendous turn from Rebecca Ferguson, as Ilsa Faust, a British double agent working within the Syndicate to feed Ethan breadcrumbs of information. Or is she a double agent? Is she actually leading Ethan to his doom?
It's to Ferguson's credit that she makes both interpretations completely plausible — even as you're pretty sure where she'll land, because you know what kind of movie this is and because Ethan, essential morality detector that he is, inherently trusts her throughout.
What's even more refreshing is that Rogue Nation doesn't dare suggest Ethan and Ilsa should end up together. Instead of pursuing any romantic interest, the film mostly suggests they make for terrific colleagues. They're like the Don Draper and Peggy Olsen of kicking people in the face.
Part of this is because Ethan is one of Cruise's more sexless roles. But just as much of it is because the film seems to understand that Ilsa — on the run from multiple governments and just trying to keep her head above water — has so much more to worry about than whether she sleeps with some dude.
4) Tom Cruise is surprisingly funny
It seems like every year, there's a new Tom Cruise movie where much of the criticism mentions, offhand, how unexpectedly funny the film is. Last year, that movie was the terrific sci-fi romp Edge of Tomorrow. This year it's Rogue Nation, which has never met a fight sequence it couldn't improve by playing off of Cruise's inherent size differential against some huge bruiser.
The gags in this movie are almost always at Cruise's expense, but he plays them with a wink, to let you know he's in on the joke. No matter how many bad guys are facing off with him, and no matter how screwed he seems to be, it's as if Ethan knows he'll be getting out of this jam, and we'll all laugh about it someday.
In particular, the film's highlight is that underwater heist, which leads directly into an all-out car chase. "Weren't you just dead?!" asks Benjy (Simon Pegg), Ethan's closest pal. And yeah, he was, and he's definitely woozy. But dammit, he's got to catch the bad guys, and if that means overcoming death itself, then so be it. In some movies, this would be played completely straight. Cruise, Pegg, and McQuarrie play it all tongue in cheek, and it works perfectly.
5) Tom Cruise picks great collaborators
The hidden secret of Cruise's success is that once he attained mega-stardom, he worked almost exclusively with the best directors around, and he had a terrific nose for scripts that would make great movies. Even when he's making blockbusters, Cruise is always taking chances, pushing into new territory.
Heck, Rogue Nation — the fifth film in a franchise, I'll remind you — features as its big third-act confrontation a suspenseful scene where three people sit around a table, instead of some blockbuster explosion. Cruise movies are almost always taking weird turns at the script level, and even if they end up in the place you expect them to, the detours they take along the way make them all the more interesting to watch.
Mission: Impossible is that rare thing in Hollywood — a franchise in which every single movie feels subtly different because of the director behind it. It's impossible to confuse, say, Mission: Impossible 2, with its over-the-top gun play and other affectations of director John Woo, with the much leaner and meaner Rogue Nation, where McQuarrie gives over a major second-act set piece to a beautifully staged and shot night at the opera. (Pay attention in this sequence to how clearly McQuarrie lays out exactly where all of the major characters are in the opera house. Few modern action directors have this clarity of location and position.)
McQuarrie — perhaps still best known for writing The Usual Suspects — is great at keeping dramatic stakes small and personal, so things matter more when the bullets start flying. That might seem like a weird fit in a Mission: Impossible movie, but it works here, because the star is willing to contort himself however necessary to fit the film, not the other way around.
In the end, that might be the Tom Cruisiest thing of all. Rogue Nation succeeds because Cruise knows when to keep the ball and when to pass it away. If nothing else, he's a great star because he's a great collaborator.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is playing in theaters nationwide.