Mission: Impossible is great, but I want Tom Cruise back

Cameron Frew
Tom Cruise in Collateral, Mission: Impossible, and Magnolia

In Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part 1, Ethan Hunt is described as the incarnation of chaos – the same could once be said about Tom Cruise, but we’re being starved of his gift.

Excusing the jaw-slackening aerobatics, the best scene in Top Gun: Maverick is the reunion between the titular pilot and Val Kilmer’s Iceman. He’s told it’s time to let go, and Cruise drops his steadfast and smiley resilience. His face is a portrait of vulnerability; his jaws clench as his voice hushes to a whisper, managing to bottle the onrush of tears into a single drop slowly trickling out the edge of his eye.

To quote the actor from his iconic 2002 Oscars speech, it was a “little bit of magic.” Pinpointing such moments is difficult when it comes to someone like Cruise; he’s not the biggest movie star, but the movie star, and he’s earned that honor by continually showcasing an inimitable charisma and point-blank refusing to compromise the motion-picture experience.

We have all reaped the benefits of his unreal daredevilry, whether he’s free-soloing a cliff face, climbing the Burj Khalifa, clinging onto the side of a plane as it takes off, skydiving from 30,000ft, or most recently, base jumping off of a motorbike. Trust me, this isn’t a plea for him to stop – even though he’ll probably die in the name of entertainment – but a prayer for the old Cruise; the crazy, unpredictable, frightening, ambitious actor that made me fall in love with movies, and continually renews it.

Mission: Impossible may be Tom Cruise, but Tom Cruise isn’t Mission: Impossible

Unless you’re an OG M:I viewer – in which case, you’re probably still bitter over the Jim Phelps switcheroo in 1996’s first movie – answer me this: can you honestly envision the Mission: Impossible franchise without Cruise as the sun around which it orbits? The stunts are just one selling point; much like Top Gun: Maverick, the butts that packed out theaters’ seats are there to see him just as much as – if not more than – the movie itself.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1 cast

Dead Reckoning Part 1 is a solid, likable performance from the headliner, but we have to admit: Ethan Hunt is a bit of a dull character. Entertaining, undoubtedly, and watchable – but he’s little more than the sieve that all end-of-the-world threats pass through before they’re miraculously neutralized. Tell me one defining characteristic that isn’t his death-defying mission strategies… exactly.

That isn’t to say the franchise isn’t capable of mining for that “magic”; go back to Mission: Impossible III and watch his heart-racing interplay with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Observe how the villain’s icy, shatter-roof candor slowly breaks Hunt, with Cruise cycling his hero through the 12 stages of grief. It’s proper edge-of-your-seat stuff, and a reminder that the actor will always be more than his stunts.

Cruise could be the greatest living actor… if he wanted to be

Let’s go back even further: 1986, the year of Top Gun and The Color of Money. The former made him a worldwide superstar, and the latter illustrated how precisely he could hone that specific, Cruisian arrogance. In the years that followed, he had a brilliant ability to tug and push his boyish charms on either side of the audience: in Cocktail, he’s a lovable booze maestro, but in Rain Man, he’s a loathsome pr*ck. And yet, by the end, we all end up in the same place: on his side.

That’s a sidearm that complements a larger weapon in his arsenal: there is no role he can’t execute better than anyone else. In A Few Good Men, he goes toe-to-toe with Jack Nicholson in perhaps the most goosebump-erupting exchange of dialogue in cinema (if you can’t handle the truth, get lost). In Magnolia, he makes his entrance through the holiness of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ and intros his character with seven words, landed with jaw-dropping conviction: “Respect the cock, and tame the c*nt.”

I could do the same with so much of Cruise’s filmography, but I’ll single out two others: first, Collateral, a rare villainous performance from the star under the direction of Michael Mann. He has a wolf-like ferocity and focus that’s absolutely mesmerizing; in one scene, he actually gets away with saying, “Hey, homie”, and in another, he’s tearing through killers in a bouncing nightclub with clinical rage, like a predator unleashed. He has unhinged energy flowing through his veins – let’s see more of it.

Secondly, Edge of Tomorrow, a late-era Cruise actioner that leans into him being a cowardly, smarmy b*stard that eventually allows him to flex his weapons-ready, courageous muscles. It’s one of the few movies in the past 10 years that feels aware of just how versatile his talents are; he reminds us exactly why we love him in the likes of American Made and Jack Reacher, but they’re not big performances.

I miss the risk taker; the filmmaker who resurrected control of a legacy production company and immediately made a grown-up war drama (Lions for Lambs) that flopped, the comic genius who self-elected to wear fat hands and dance in Tropic Thunder, and the legend who stepped in front of thousands of people to sing ‘Dead or Alive’ as Stacee Jaxx. Now, he’s just Tom Cruise, our resident madman – but that madness is singular.

Maybe he’s happy being the king of movies – but he could be the god.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 is in cinemas worldwide now. Check out our other coverage below:

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