I vividly recall the date of the last and final time I had written off Tom Cruise as washed up: Dec. 12, 2011.His last hit — if you wanna call it that — as a leading man was Mission: Impossible III more than five years earlier; it grossed only half what its predecessor did and also half of his prior hit, War of the Worlds. Marketing for his films since then deemphasized his name; his upcoming film, a Christmas release getting a slow roll-out, elevated the subtitle over the brand.
It was that film I saw on Dec. 12: Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. And the second it was over, I knew The Age of Tom would continue. Cruise wasn’t merely in evidence, he was inevitable. Here was a man who had been a genuine star since 1983, whose brand seemed untarnishable: From Risky Business to Top Gun to The Color of Money to Rain Man to Born on the Fourth of July to A Few Good Men to The Firm to Jerry Maguire to Minority Report, he was unstoppable, even when he seemed to go into career hibernation. (He even squeezed out a few art house hits and three Oscar nominations in the process.) Ghost Protocol was not so much a comeback as a doubling-down, a reminder that he had what it takes to open a film, to be at the top of his profession, to defy the naysayers.
In the years since, he’s had his ups-and-downs, some critical busts but box office hits (Jack Reacher, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation), some outright busts (Rock of Ages, The Mummy). But I learned one thing back in 2011: Never. Write. His. Obituary. At least not until you see the corpse in a box.
So I greeted the return of Ethan Hunt for the sixth installment of the franchise, Mission: Impossible — Fallout (the first one in the series to repeat a director — Rogue Nation’s Christopher McQuarrie) with the anticipation of someone not to be fooled again… though not naive, either.
Over the 22 years of the series, the Mission: Impossible franchise has become our American 007, a superspy who globetrots and with enviable cool saves the planet. (Spoiler alert: He does so again. Big shock.) An element that makes this and James Bond as engaging as they are is that the stakes are high, but the action feels achievable, if not realistic. Over the past decade, aliens, superheroes, mutants, asteroids and robots have repeated flattened every major city on earth, so that now it comes off as comical. Our planet has been reduced to target practice. But M:I scores with heartracing action scenes through city streets where the Eiffel Tower does not crash, where threats are real but preventable, not just manageable. It seems idiotic to promote Fallout’s sense of authenticity, but that’s what it is. The most outrageous it gets is believing that the only men’s room in a hall filled with thousands of EDM fans is as pristine and unoccupied as the one in this film.
Which is not to say Fallout doesn’t have its flaws — quite a few of them, in fact. The exposition becomes cumbersome and confusing; despite all the double-crossing and triple-crossing, there aren’t any real surprises. (McQuarrie also wrote the screenplay; he won an Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects, and you can see his fingerprints on both.) A climactic tick-tock scene, set to take place in 15 minutes, stretches out over nearly 35.
And yet I still loved it.
It’s a testament to genre movies, especially one in its sixth incarnation, that they can build suspense even when the outcome is inevitable.
Cruise, who is now 56 years old, still has a boyish appearance, though he’s puffier, a little tired-looking. But his approach to the character is the perfect mix of implacable and determined. And he’s fearless. Knowing that the actual movie star performs most of his own stunts — stunts that seem like they could only be done with CGI and body doubles — adds a genuine risk factor to the movie. You are sincerely engaged with Ethan as a character, because you sense his humanity. Cruise is a better actor than he’s often given credit for, and he dares share most of his scenes with Henry Cavill, one of the most beautiful men in movies today, but who is not as good an actor. Still, when you look like Omar Sharif with a jaw you could trace right angles with, who cares?
The convolutions aside, McQuarrie does an excellent job of keeping the audience focused on the spatial orientation of the action scenes. There’s no visual garble here, no overedited action that mask what’s at stake. Just try to catch your breath.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
Opens in wide release Thursday.