On Mission: Impossible, Edge Of Tomorrow, and the morbid star power of Tom Cruise

Screenshot: Mission: Impossible 2, Photo: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (Paramount), Mission: Impossible—Fallout (Paramount), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio

This piece was originally published July 30, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018

One of these days, Tom Cruise is going to seriously hurt himself. It’s kind of inevitable, isn’t it? Cruise, who just turned 56 but still throws himself into every role like a teenager certain of his own invincibility, has a new Mission: Impossible movie out, the terrifically exciting Fallout. The star’s insistence on performing many of his own elaborate stunts has been a cornerstone of this franchise (and the publicity machine that sells it) since 1996, when the first installment hit theaters. But Cruise isn’t pulling back on the throttle. If anything, the stunts seem to get more intense the older the actor gets, as he gleefully attempts to top the last time he nearly killed himself on camera. Given everything he really did on the set of Fallout—HALO jumping out of a real airplane, steering a real motorcycle into real oncoming traffic, learning how to really fly a real helicopter—it probably counts as a miracle that he only shattered his ankle.

Illustration for article titled On Mission: Impossible, Edge Of Tomorrow, and the morbid star power of Tom Cruise
Photo: Mission: Impossible—Fallout (Paramount)

In the face of such gleefully reckless self-endangerment, the temptation to psychoanalyze can be overwhelming. Is Cruise just a sensation junkie, an Evel Knievel with a nine-digit budget to splurge on his daredevil addiction? Is all of this a protracted midlife crisis, the way for an aging movie star to stave off dread about his advancing years and waning celebrity? Does the guy have a literal death wish, or has his faith in a certain controversial religious dogma convinced him, on some level, that he can’t die? Ask Cruise and he’ll insist that the stunts are just the purest expression of his showmanship. “I can’t help myself, I just cannot help myself,” he told EXTRA during the promotional blitz for Fallout. “How far can I go to entertain an audience? It’s been my whole career.”

Mission accomplished on that front. Every Mission: Impossible movie has been a hit (Fallout, as of this writing, is shaping up to be one of Cruise’s biggest debuts), and that’s partially because their star—who hand-selects his directors and plays a big role in the development of each installment—has preserved the analog thrills that the series was built on. In other words, Cruise’s focus on practical, stunt-based action is crucial to the bankable fun of Mission: Impossible. But there might be something more complicated in the relationship between the actor and his audience, a kind of sadomasochistic contract. When Cruise climbs a skyscraper or lets someone almost stab him in the eye (because, hey, it looks more believable to do it for real), he is on some level cheating death for our amazement and amusement. And those of us in the dark are his enablers—egging him on, charged by his precarious proximity to annihilation. Maybe we want to see him hurt himself or worse. Maybe he knows that, and how to use it.

Action movies are, in general, dances with death. They play on our queasy attraction to the void, and our innate understanding of how ephemeral life can be. That’s especially true of the Mission: Impossible series, which tends to downplay violence and bloodlust in favor of nerve-wracking suspense. At their sublime best, these movies sync our own breathless anxiety—about heights, about speed, about the fragility of our bodies—to whatever Cruise’s almost supernaturally determined secret agent Ethan Hunt is doing for his country. The best set piece in the whole series is probably the scaling of the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, because it’s staged and shot in such a way that the audience—especially when watching the film on an enormous IMAX screen—really feels the altitude, as though it were on the side of the building with Hunt (and, by extension, with the lunatic actor who really climbed it, albeit with a harness the filmmakers removed in post-production).

That we can often tell without a doubt that it’s Cruise hanging from the plane or seated on the bike dramatically increases the verisimilitude. We believe these scenes more, and so does Cruise, whose willingness to risk life and limb to get the shot is an especially extreme form of method acting. Hunt, as he’s played, written, and conceived, basically is Cruise: a charismatic professional lunatic who’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his mission. That makes every Mission: Impossible a meta star text, every conversation about Hunt’s daredevil nature—his unhesitant habit of leaping into the fray, no matter the odds—a running commentary on Cruise himself. The series is, quite blatantly, a self-glorifying monument. But it’s also fascinatingly revealing, maybe even personal in the way it works through its headliner’s work ethic.

Like plenty of other mega-watt movie stars (especially those who have been stars since they were basically teenagers), Cruise can’t play normal. He’s too famous to ever disappear into a role; even his supposed changes of pace are built on a familiarity with his image—“comically” masked in Tropic Thunder, menacingly subverted in Collateral, put in hair-metal drag for Rock Of Ages. Of course, it’s not just his enormous tabloid celebrity that places everyday characters out of Cruise’s range. For many viewers, it’s hard to look past the weirder or more unsavory aspects of his personal life: the very public divorces; the unhinged talk show appearances; every revelation about his role in the Church Of Scientology (including that extremely bizarre recruitment ad that leaked about a decade ago). Maybe he now specializes in characters who don’t think twice about leaping out of open windows because nobody will buy him as anyone sane or centered enough to keep his feet planted on the ground.

Cruise’s attraction to thrill-seeking predates his 21st-century PR troubles, which makes it hard to look at the Mission: Impossible series as any kind of career-rehabbing damage control. But there is something significant about the way that he’s gradually reduced his onscreen persona to a superhuman singularity, a determination made flesh. Is Hunt a cipher, little more than an unstoppable body in motion, because to think about anything more than Cruise’s ageless physical prowess is to be reminded of his baggage? He can’t make us forget the bad press (or some of the frankly repellant anecdotes about the church), but he can channel the mania of his public appearances into raw, kinetic force. The guy who leaped around Oprah’s set like a nutjob is the same consummate entertainer who broke bones leaping from one building to another during the making of Fallout. One use of that energy was off-putting. The other is wildly, entertainingly productive.

But is there more to Cruise’s action-movie variation on the Jackass shtick than just a need to please, an outrageous Hunt-like commitment to getting the job done? To see an outsize method of self-punishment in his hazardous habits is to risk playing therapist to a career, putting Cruise on a couch he’d rather jump up and down on. Nevertheless, it can all feel like something of an atonement: the disgraced movie star winning back our devotion by showing us he’d do anything for it, even damn near break his own neck. Cruise has built a body of work that rests on a hypothetical love-hate relationship with him. Even those who find it impossible to look past the man to the work—and can you blame them, given how much the M:I series blurs the line between actor and character?—can get a perverse hit of pleasure out of his self-flagellating abuse of his middle-aged muscles and bones. These films can play like dark slapstick comedies where the joke is on Cruise’s well-being itself.

To that end, it’s really 2014’s Edge Of Tomorrow that stands as the ultimate Cruise vehicle, the one that most fiendishly exploits the contradictions of his still-formidable star presence. Doug Liman’s sci-fi/action gloss on Groundhog Day casts Cruise as Major William Cage, a military bigwig who’s dragged against his will into the suicide mission he’s been thoughtlessly shilling for on television; dropped into a hopeless D-Day-like battle against alien invaders, he finds himself caught in a loop of his final hours, re-spawning like a video game avatar every time he’s slaughtered on the battlefield. The magic of the premise is that it allows audiences to have their cake and eat it, too—to enjoy Cruise’s running-man routine, his mega-watt Hollywood charms and undeniable magnetism as an action hero, while getting to savor the twisted spectacle of him being killed over and over and over again. (Seriously, there’s a whole montage of Emily Blunt repeatedly shooting him in the head to reboot the day.) If the Mission: Impossible movies flirt with the (sometimes uncomfortably real) possibility that we’ll get to see Cruise die for his sins and our pleasure, Edge Of Tomorrow takes it further, safely visualizing the darkest desires of viewers with very complicated feelings about this actor.

Like most riffs on Groundhog Day, Edge Of Tomorrow also presents a kind of redemption arc, and this one works like a fascinating metaphor for the way Cruise has tried—just maybe successfully—to purify himself through action cinema. Can it be a coincidence that when we first meet Cage he’s a slimeball who nobody likes? By the end, after putting himself through a wringer of pain and suffering—training every day to become the best version of himself, the way the actor playing him will spend weeks mastering new skills for a role—Cage is basically Ethan Hunt. It’s as if Cruise were dramatizing his own career arc: His character is knocked down several pegs, only to reinvent himself through sheer will power, raw effort, and the embrace of life-threatening obstacles. His Cage has to die in order to be reborn—an exaggeration of the way Cruise has sprinted, climbed, tumbled, leaped, and kamikazed his way back into moviegoers’ good graces.

You don’t have to look hard to see these kind of self-reflexive parallels in the actor’s work. In last summer’s much-maligned The Mummy, for example, Cruise becomes immortal only after dying. All world-famous movie stars achieve a kind of immortality; their images outlive them, and some even burn themselves into the collective pop culture soul by dying way too young. At times, it feels like Cruise is attempting to cultivate the posthumous reputation of, say, James Dean without actually quite dying. By sidling up so frequently to the threat of death, is he chasing a premature immortality? For audiences, watching that chase holds its own dark, undeniable appeal. Strange though it may be to admit, part of the thrill of the Mission: Impossible series is the dangling possibility that this time, maybe this time, he won’t survive whatever brave/foolish stunt he’s undertaken in the name of entertainment. Not that they’d keep it in the movie if he did die on camera. That would be in very poor taste, even if it also might be what the deceased would truly want.