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How did Mission: Impossible become Hollywood’s most reliable franchise?

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Critical adoration and box office success has met the sixth installment of Tom Cruises series, an unlikely 22-year phenomenon that shows no signs of tiring

Lets take a moment to appreciate the preposterousness of Mission: Impossible. Not the rubber masks or the exploding gum sticks or the nuclear countdown clocks that always stop with one second till death. (The usual, Ving Rhames Luther Stickell would shrug.) All franchises have their implausibilities, whether its Transformers sentient cars or the Fast and Furious sentient Vin Diesels. But only the Mission: Impossible franchise has gotten better reviews with every installment, climbing its way up the Rotten Tomatoes rankings as though wearing electromagnetic gloves. Bruce Willis cant make a good Die Hard happen. But this weekend, Mission: Impossible Fallout had the best critical approval of Tom Cruises entire career, better even than the three films that scored him Oscar nominations, and his second-highest box office opening ever, just under 2005s War of the Worlds. Fallout probably would have beaten that, too, if MoviePass hadnt glitched.

Kudos to Cruise for making the most of a career he never meant to have. Mission: Impossible is also an outlier on his resume. Before he became Ethan Hunt, Cruise refused to shoot a gun or a sequel. In the 80s, he turned down Top Gun 2 to make The Color of Money and Rain Man. There was no room for a sequel, he shrugged. For the first decade of his movie stardom, he chased Oscars, not villains, and if his characters wrestled anything, it was their own guilt and privilege. As an actor, that was all Cruise needed. But when he formed Cruise/Wagner Productions in the 90s and decided to produce his own movies, he needed a hit.

Id been looking for an action movie, said Cruise. Back then, that meant mimicking Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Seagal. Macho meathead stuff wasnt him. Instead, he had a brainstorm. Cruise remembered Mission: Impossible, one of his favorite childhood TV shows, where the heroes used their brains, not bullets. When he first pitched the idea to Paramount in 1992, the studio did a double-take. People looked at me a little cross-eyed because it was a TV series and at that time people werent really doing that, said Cruise. They would for good and bad thanks to him.

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Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. Photograph: Allstar/PARAMOUNT PICTURES/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Cruise took more risks. He hired Brian De Palma to direct, a wicked genius whod never made a blockbuster hit, and instead of rebooting the series with himself as original star Jim Phelps, he turned Phelps into the villain. One of the television show cast members was so offended by an evil Phelps that he stormed out of the theater. Audiences, however, were hooked on Ethan Hunt, who dangled, slid into disguises, nearly got his neck sliced by a helicopter blade. And as a producer, Cruise didnt just wrap Mission: Impossible on-time and on-budget he finished it under-time and under-budget.

Mission: Impossible had a stunt man, though you rarely saw him on-screen. Cruise had his guy run through the routines to map out the dangers. Hed give me a scale of how painful it was going to be, said Cruise. Then Id jump in and get the final pounding. They kept things low-fi, shunning excess CG. When Cruise kept losing his balance on a jump, he simply shifted the weight in his shoes by slipping pound coins underneath his socks.

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Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Photograph: AP

Today, the stunts are as big of a selling point as Tom Cruise. Teenagers have never been alive to see Cruise lose an Academy Award they know him as that dude clinging to the outside of a plane. At first, film fans enjoyed watching Cruise execute challenges perfectly. By the fourth film, we liked to see him get banged up. Cruise not only broke his ankle leaping across a building in Mission: Impossible Fallout he kept that take in the film.

In 2011s Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, nothing works, not even that infamous electromagnetic glove. Groaned Ethan: The only thing that functioned properly on that mission was this team. True. Cruise had buffeted Hunt with interesting directors De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird and a band of actors able to share his heavy lifting: Simon Pegg did the jokes, Ving Rhames brought the legacy, and Cruise momentarily seemed ready to hand off the franchise to Jeremy Renner. After all, he was creeping close to the other side of the insult in the first Mission: Impossible when a younger Ethan joked that Jon Voights Jim Phelps was getting soft in his old age.

If theres a seventh Mission: Impossible, Cruise will be older than Voight. Hes not getting soft. And hes definitely not quitting the series thats let him prove hes still the closest thing to a movie star weve got in 2018. Theres a sense each Mission: Impossible film is a Hail Mary making up for the public mistakes that threatened to derail his career in his very bad PR summer of 2005. But that was 13 years ago, and anyway, that derailment never happened. War of the Worlds, his No 1 box office smash, hit theaters two months after that supposedly disastrous Oprah appearance. All thats been derailed is Cruises 80s dreams of being respected as a serious actor, not a stunt man. But as long as a new, and predictably terrific Mission: Impossible keeps arriving in theaters to big money and beaming reviews, Cruise will keep limping happily to the medicine cabinet for more bandages.

  • Amy Nicholson is also the author of Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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