Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and the Furious Will of Tom Cruise

It may no longer constitute "acting," but the star's physically demanding performance powers the latest installment of the spy franchise.

Bo Bridges / Paramount Pictures

On one level, Tom Cruise is an odd choice for a star expected to anchor a spy-movie franchise. Espionage, after all, is largely concerned with the dispassionate collection of information, and Cruise is among the least curious of performers. A defining characteristic of his onscreen persona is the reckless certitude that he already has everything figured out. (This is also, as Oprah Winfrey and Matt Lauer would be happy to remind you, a defining characteristic of his offscreen persona.) Cruise’s technique consistently eschews the interrogative in favor of the declarative. Sure, he’ll dutifully track down missing files and identify enemy agents when tasked with such drudgery. But these are at best secondary chores, connective tissue to hold together the motorcycle chases.

This, of course, is no problem at all for the Mission: Impossible movies in which Cruise stars, which have consistently viewed plot coherence as an unnecessary luxury and have elevated the MacGuffin to something approaching a philosophical ideal. Indeed, Cruise fits perfectly as the star of the franchise for reasons that are right there in the title. You don’t overcome the “impossible” by thinking it over a little more carefully. (That’s how you deal with the “possible.”) You overcome the impossible through the application of sheer, unvarnished willpower, a quality that Cruise has always possessed in abundance. Other performers might cry more persuasively, for instance, than Cruise did at Jason Robard’s bedside in Magnolia; but none will cry harder. Others might juke more gracefully in their underwear than Cruise did in Risky Business; none will juke with greater conviction.

The actor’s trademark intensity is put to good use in the latest installment of the franchise, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, and never more so than in the opening ten minutes, a Bondian prologue in which the 53-year-old actor (not a stunt double, as he is justifiably eager to remind anyone who’ll listen) clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off and ascends to 5,000 feet. It’s a bravura sequence. The only downside is that the movie never again quite reaches such heights, so to speak.

But little matter. In another scene, Cruise penetrates a torus-shaped underwater vault, holding his breath for what seems the length of a Bible. (According to the movie’s stunt director, during one take Cruise didn’t take a breath for six minutes.) There are fisticuffs and gunfights and an assassination attempt that takes place during a production of Puccini’s Turandot. (Echoes of a similar effort at The Mikado back in 1978’s Foul Play.) And there is—of course—a motorcycle chase, which Cruise conducts with characteristic gusto. Asked at one point if he can track down a particular villain, he replies with what could easily be his life credo: “I won’t stop until I do.”

The plot, insofar as it matters, revolves around a shadowy syndicate of ex-spies bent on global domination. (It is called, conveniently enough, “the Syndicate.”) Early in the movie, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, of the ridiculously named Impossible Mission Force (IMF), is taken captive by the Syndicate, before escaping with the help of a female agent (Rebecca Ferguson) of indeterminate allegiance. Hunt assembles his usual colleagues (played by Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames) to take on the group. But the mission is complicated by a CIA director (Alec Baldwin) who has succeeded in persuading Congress to shut down the IMF on the grounds that it is a vestige of a bygone era. (Echoes here of nearly every Bond film since Never Say Never Again. All that’s missing is the word “dinosaur.”) The 007 vibe is further heightened by a final act featuring the British Prime Minister (Tom Hollander), the head of MI6 (Simon McBurney), and a rendezvous at the Tower of London.

For the most part, the supporting cast does what it’s paid to do: support. Ferguson holds her own in the physical charisma department, and Sean Harris makes the most of his role as the head of the Syndicate, all soft murmurs and stylish eyewear. Alas, Baldwin gives the strong impression that he has, Nicholson-like, become too large a character in his own right to convincingly play anyone else, at least in non-comic roles. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (teaming with Cruise again following 2012’s Jack Reacher) keeps things moving along briskly and with appropriate levity, though the movie overstays its welcome slightly at a bit over two hours.

But it’s Cruise who serves—almost literally—as the engine driving the movie. His performance is difficult to rate in the customary sense, because he has entered a phase in his career when “acting” seems almost tangential to his job description. There was a time when Cruise was eager to test his mettle with such fare as Born on the Fourth of July and Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia. But the challenges he’s set for himself lately seem principally physical in nature, as if by hanging off planes and diving underwater he can stop his own clock from ticking into middle age. It’s an exercise simultaneously triumphant and dispiriting, and there is an odd fascination in watching how much longer he can pull it off. Another Jack Reacher movie is planned, along with at least one more installment of Mission: Impossible, and Cruise has expressed interest in making sequels to Edge of Tomorrow and even Top Gun. Love him or hate him, Tom Cruise still has no intention of stopping.