The theater promos that ran for weeks hyping Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation wanted to make one thing very clear. That shot of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) hanging off a plane as it takes off? That’s really Tom Cruise hanging off a plane (he did it eight times). Amid the hype, you get the feeling that the promo isn’t trying to sell Cruise’s bravery, but is instead trying to connect with something the audience might already be thinking: This guy is a maniac—but isn’t that what we like about him?
Since the height of his fame in the 1990s, Cruise’s stardom has weathered strange incidents and Hollywood gossip connected to his love life and his advocacy of Scientology. Even though he stars in a new blockbuster just about every year, his couch-jumping, uncomfortable morning-show interviews, maniacal laughter, and talk of “suppressive persons” have hurt his credibility. Outside of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Cruise’s last bona-fide smash hit was 2005’s War of the Worlds. Subsequently, he’s embraced projects both interesting (World War II drama Valkyrie, sci-fi original Edge of Tomorrow) and middle-of-the-road (action dramas like Knight & Day and Jack Reacher), and everything has underperformed at the box office.
This all came before the release of Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear, which leveled more claims against Scientology and was predicted to further hurt Cruise’s career. And yet almost 20 years since the original’s release, the Mission: Impossible movies have remained immune from the Cruise pushback—partly by harkening back to an age when the actor was the undisputed king of Hollywood, and partly by embracing the strange intensity he’s known for today.
The first Mission: Impossible (1996), directed by Brian De Palma, set the tone for the franchise as a quasi-James Bond, but with even more gadgets. It had globetrotting, several memorable action scenes, and a plot so ridiculously convoluted that the details no longer mattered by the time it got to the conclusion (which involved a helicopter tethered to a high-speed train going through the Channel Tunnel). Each subsequent film was helmed by a new director who added his own personal brand: John Woo’s liberal use of slow-motion cinematography, J.J. Abrams’s labyrinthine blend of flashbacks and double-crossing, Brad Bird’s light touch with action that turned climbing the Burj Khalifa into a high-wire comedy act. Through it all, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has remained a total cipher: There’s never any time for character development, and after an off-screen marriage to a character played by Michelle Monaghan for M: I-3, Hunt doesn’t even get much romantic frisson with his female leads.
Instead, he gets a new package of death-defying stunts to perform—being blasted against a car by a rocket launcher, perhaps, or hanging off a sheer cliff with no wires to support him. When Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa for Ghost Protocol, the result is visually stupendous, but more a feat of athleticism than acting. Cruise has given genuinely strong performances in other recent films, particularly his transformation from publicist slug to military hero in Edge of Tomorrow, but his work as Ethan Hunt often feels more like an act of physical sacrifice, a frantic effort to keep in the audience’s good graces. Hunt does little outside of action sequences, mostly barking exposition and staring intently while his colorful supporting cast keeps a comedic running commentary around him.
Of Mission: Impossible’s original supporting players, only Ving Rhames (as the surveillance expert Luther Stickell) remains by Hunt’s side in the fifth movie, but Simon Pegg (as the tech wiz Benji) and Jeremy Renner (as the stuffy government exec Brandt) have been added into the rotation to serve as incredulous sounding boards. Here’s how a scene in the Mission: Impossible series usually goes: “We need to do [an utterly insane, ludicrous thing],” Ethan tells his team. “But that’s utterly insane and ludicrous!” someone replies. Ethan then glares until everyone agrees to do it, and then it’s onto the next set-piece. This formula is brilliantly simple, doesn’t require much back-and-forth, and lets Cruise do what he does best: tear through each film like a bullet before viewers have time to question how demented his character seems to be.
It helps that the Tom Cruise of Mission: Impossible is the quintessential Tom Cruise character, running fanatically toward the next crisis, as he did in hits like The Firm and Minority Report. In earlier films, Ethan was given personal issues to work through, such as his aforementioned marriage, but in Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation those arcs get pushed off onto the supporting cast, so that Hunt can focus on the impossible mission at hand. Others can worry about fragile international relations or dead spouses; there’s a nuke aimed at San Francisco that Hunt has to stop, even if it means literally throwing his body in its way.
Despite the revelations of Going Clear, which accused Cruise’s religion of forcing its participants into indentured servitude (and blackmailing the stars who endorse it with secrets about their personal lives), he won’t be going away as a star anytime soon. Even though a film like Edge of Tomorrow landed softly at the U.S. box office (grossing $100 million on a $178 million budget), it did well enough internationally ($369 million worldwide) to avoid being labeled a total bomb. Though he can continue to coast on worldwide name recognition, it helps even more that Cruise will always have Ethan Hunt to lean back on.
It didn’t always seem that way—when Ghost Protocol was released, Renner’s casting seemed to indicate that Paramount was clearing the way for a baton pass to a younger star, as the aging Cruise (now 53 years old) wouldn’t be able to subject his body to such rigors forever. But Renner, who’s less of a star and more of a great character actor, remains second fiddle to Hunt, whose future seems secure as the films continue to rake in profits. Rogue Nation’s box-office take will be the ultimate decider, of course, but Cruise is unlikely to drop the one brand that’s remained constant through his many public embarrassments. Ethan Hunt doesn’t have to be recognizably human or relatable. He’s a ball of lightning, or as Alec Baldwin’s CIA Director character in Rogue Nation describes him, “the literal manifestation of destiny.” Like Tom Cruise, he’s a very alien force of nature, and somehow, that recognition is easier for audiences to embrace.