Tom Cruise: Impossible

 

“Or perhaps as some non-carbon-based life-form, entirely sprung from the smooth and iconic brow of its founder, Hubertus Bigend, a nominal Belgian who looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins’ blood and truffled chocolates.” — William Gibson

“It’s the actor Tom Cruise, who lives in the penthouse, and as a courtesy, without asking him, I press the PH button and he nods thank you and keeps his eyes fixed on the numbers lighting up above the door in rapid succession.He is much shorter in person and he’s wearing the same pair of black Wayfarers I have on.” — Bret Easton Ellis

 

Hu: Jenn! We are gathered here today for one reason and one reason only: to talk about Tom Cruise. It’s been a long time coming, and there’s no way we’ll cover everything in one yak–however protracted–but it’s time we at least begin our impossible mission. Before I die, I hope there will be a veritable Tom Cruise Studies, multiple special editions of academic journals focused around Tom Cruise, and at least one conference panel solely on Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol lead by Walter Benn Michaels. Cruise is too fascinating not to be already the subject of many, many deep dives. And since we both think about TomKat’s jogging photos at least once a week, I’m grateful that Avidly is publicly enabling our drive-by #jmt on #TomCruise.

tom cruise 1
#TomCruise

Schnepf: Jane! Me too. We might as well just start with the obvious question: where did the Cruise obsession begin for you?

Hu: You might say that the most recent Tom Cruise vehicle, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), changed my life. Something about Cruise playing a war-publicist-turned-soldier who gets caught in an ongoing time loop where no one believes him–indeed, where everyone thinks he’s borderline insane–really clarified things for me. Everything just clicked. I watched it in theaters three times and was freshly riveted each viewing. I finally “got” Tom Cruise in a way I imagined Tom Cruise “got” Scientology. Afterwards, I began daydreaming about what my hypothetical Tom Cruise Completist piece might look like. I visited the gigantic downtown Montreal HMV and asked verbatim for “every Tom Cruise film you have,” which lead me everywhere from the SciFi, to Drama, Comedy, and Action sections. Walt Whitman would have likely adored Tom Cruise, and probably in more ways than one.

But for the purpose of focusing what could easily be a sprawling look at the Cruise canon, you had the great idea of reading Cruise alongside his serial appearances in the current Mission: Impossible franchise. It seems highly appropriate too given that the fifth M:I installment, Rogue Nation, is scheduled to come out this week.

Schnepf: The new movie is an ideal peg for our Cruise discussion because Mission: Impossible is really Cruise’s franchise. Yes, he’s the star but it’s probably more significant that he’s the only person that’s produced every single one of the films. I can’t help but read them as sweeping allegories spinning out plots about Cruise’s public persona with a complexity I don’t think people expect from an action franchise.

Hu: As we’ve often discussed, NO ONE we talk to thinks Mission: Impossible is great. And we think it’s the greatest!

Schnepf: These films are deeply invested in the nexus of work and personal life, in celebrity as a profession, in aging and irrelevance. The pay phone, the video cassette tape, the disposable Kodak funsaver camera–these deliver missions to Ethan at the start of every film, but they’re also media relics that work but are no longer desirable. Mission: Impossible is premised on old objects assuming an uncanny agency. Rather than wait for inevitable abandonment by bored consumers they preemptively self-destruct as if beating fate to the punch–sort of like Tom Cruise on a talk show couch? In any case, there’s something darkly intriguing about orchestrating your own implosion in such a spectacular manner. Cruise has a lot to teach us about obsolescence.

Hu: Yes! And, often, making the old uncanny is also making the ordinary mystical again. A Kodak funsaver is already a charming toy for any nostalgic child of the 90s, but it’s “one-time” magic is compounded in Mission: Impossible. Wendy Chun gave a great talk here at Berkeley about “habitual new media” as this idea of new media always depending on the obsolescence of what was once–or even just!–new. New Media only persists on the promise that new media eventually gets old. As such, the viruses and bugs that we usually denigrate are actually necessary to the progression of new and improved technologies. Chun also argues that this makes us creatures addicted to the update, and I can’t help but think that this gets all so beautifully thematized in the repeatedly self-destructing technologies of each M:I, especially as each feels increasingly obsolete every time we return to them. I mean, think about the self-destructing gramophone on the pilot of Bruce Geller’s 1960s TV series of Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)! New media that get “set up” to die is part of the driving logic behind Cruise’s Mission: Impossible as well as, of course, Cruise’s own celebrity branding.

Schnepf: This is so interesting, Jane. That logic finds its way into M:I3’s final showdown too. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain activates a charge implanted in Ethan’s head, giving him just four minutes to live.

Hu: Wow, Jenn, have you ever considered that Madonna’s “Four Minutes” might actually be a song about M:I3? We should also pay tribute to Amy Nicholson’s (who recently wrote an Anatomy of an Actor for Tom Cruise) smart analysis of the mythical couch jumping incident as one largely curated through technologies such as YouTube and gossipy internet journalism. Tom Cruise is an infinitely GIF-able man.

Schnepf: What does a countdown do but dramatize an action hero’s impending irrelevance? Remaining an action hero basically depends on beating the clock over and over again. M:I3 ends with Ethan taking a cue from IMF’s clunky couriers and solving the problem of his impending death by killing himself first. Although he frantically searches for a defibrillator in the scene, what he really seeks is an electric current that will stop his heart before the microexplosive stops it for him. Ethan chooses to self-destruct so that he can come back a better agent–and a better husband.

Hu: The theme of resurrection is all over Cruise’s canon, and I think M:I3’s and Edge of Tomorrow’s literalization of that is also what generates the intense pathos in both films. The melodrama–that hope that it’s never too late for a second chance–is so urgent in the final moments of M:I3 that it’s all the more heartbreaking when you understand that Ethan is the one who is forced to activate his own death. Cruise loves a good challenge.

Schnepf: He’s so committed to the long game! We could probably argue the series is a kind of long-form filmmaking. It’s been around for almost two decades, and it’s seemed to survive through the logic of pre-emptive annihilation too. Each film draws on a new team of directors, composers, cinematographers, and writers in an effort to avoid getting stale. The only constant is Tom Cruise.

Hu: The first Mission: Impossible (1996) feels like a John le Carré remake, cast with bad accents and unlikely couples. With the hindsight of the M:Is that would come after, it’s kind of amazing to witness where it all started. De Palma’s M:I is by far the most Serious and least overtly campy of the series, though this latter point is obviously tempered by how the film as aged. It has all the thick, dusty aesthetics of an 70s cold war spy thriller, with the bad internet cliches of the 90s.

tom cruise 2
Bad Internet clichés of the 90s.

But also, importantly, reinforces and establishes the tropes for the series (remember, originated as a long-running cold war television show, of which Cruise had grown up a fan of!). So while I get that never aspired to, like, Tarkovsky, I nonetheless see the Cruise’s investment in the remakes as, at least in its inception, a kind of validating machine. I mean, Sydney Pollack was initially on board for this! Between him and De Palma, those are some Hollywood blockbuster associations, and Cruise is no novice when it comes to .Mission: ImpossibleMission: ImpossibleM:I classy directorial marketing

Schnepf: This is the first action franchise Cruise agreed to be in but I think getting to produce and make decisions about the directors and actors he would work with probably had a lot to do with it.

Hu: De Palma even said, “The genius of Mission: Impossible is that it was clever. They achieved things not (by) hitting people over the head with crowbars. We had to be very clever. Tom always wanted to make it the smartest movie possible.” Apparently the director even convinced Cruise to film in Prague because it felt indier than other cities? The lead-up in making the first M:I movie sounds fairly torturous too–with multiple screenplay attempts, firings and hirings–so it’s not super surprisingly that the final product, while propulsive, is kind of… difficult?

Schnepf: Far too difficult. M:I devotes a lot of screentime to explanations. It’s like the franchise hasn’t realized the plot devices it has at its disposal yet. Sometimes a MacGuffin is just a MacGuffin.

Hu: It’s what makes the rebranding from the first M:I to the second so surprising. Jenn, I rewatched M:I2 recently and was newly surprised by how BAD it is. Or, as Ben Travis writing about his “guilty pleasure” in The Guardian puts it, “Mission: Impossible II, directed by action auteur John Woo, is a bad, bad film.” Right after the opening credits, the film dives right into an unabashedly Orientalized scene of flamenco dancers in a nighttime club in Seville. Ethan Hunt spots Nyah, his love interest for the duration of this IM, from across the room and they circle each other in slow motion while one dancer stands between them, twirling her red dress as though it were a bull cape. The scene looks like it came straight out of West Side Story, except no one in West Side Story has hair like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2, which is, for what it’s worth, the same hair he has for Magnolia:

tom cruise 3
Same Hair
tom cruise 4
Same Hair

Regardless, the film’s wikipedia page emphasizes M:I2’s similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Wiki is going off a single article, which doesn’t actually do much beyond saying Spy Thriller Kind Of Like Other Spy Thriller, but the drive to validate Mission: Impossible 2 through what basically sounds like a conspiracy theory? That I can get behind.

Schnepf: Jane, everyone who says M:I2 is awful is right. Everything Anthony Hopkins says in it is the worst! And yet I think at least some of its faults are the consequence of desperately trying to course correct for De Palma’s Mission: Impossible. That plot was so tortuous and twisted that it defied viewers to make sense of it.

Hu: That’s such a good point! My partner joined a viewing of Brian “Dionysus” De Palm’s M:I late and shortly left thereafter because he was so confused as to what was going on. This should, honestly, never happen when watching any of the M:Is. The action is almost always propulsive enough to at least keep viewers watching. Confused, maybe, but enrapt.

Schnepf: Woo’s M:I2 shuns complication. It aspires to the form of the epic with its stylistic hallmarks of grandeur and simplicity.

Hu: The film actually kind of begins like a videogame? And then immediately moves into the famous rock climbing sequence. All of this is filmed as cinematically related–the view from the airplane that crashes into a snowy mountain becomes, after a bang, the desert peaks that Ethan is scaling.

Famous Rock Climbing Sequence!!!!
Famous Rock Climbing Sequence!!!!

I do kind of love the bold incomprehensibility of time and space in the narrative world of M:Is, though!

Schnepf: It’s a small world, Jane. I think the chunnel sequence in the first M:I was our first indication that the series is into the compression of space and time. To inject some drama into this hyperconnective universe, Woo, resorts again to epic: Nyah is likened to a “Trojan Horse,” while the virus is a modern-day Chimera–a monstrous composite of beasts, featuring the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent. The antivirus is Bellerophon, the Greek hero who slays it. When Luther responds to this explanation with, “That simple, huh?” you’re not quite sure if he means the reductive account of biochemistry or the streamlined plot.

Hu: M:I2 is bad melodrama. It’s got more symbolic condensation than any of the other M:Is and that is saying a lot. The first M:I at least offers us some ambiguity as to who is abetting whom, but the line between Good and Evil in M:I2 is, while sometimes dubiously drawn, never ambiguous.

Soundtrack and Sheep Bleeting
Soundtrack; Sheep Bleeting

Schnepf: Right! The virus is a formidable foe for all the usual virus reasons: invisible to the naked eye, inhabiting host bodies with the stealth and ease of contagion–it poses a distinct set of challenges to Ethan as the present-day Bellerophon, and Woo as the filmmaker. Woo toggles between viral life on two scales. In its microscopic dimension, it looks like infected blood cells coursing through veins. In its macroscopic one, the viral becomes visible as undifferentiated mass life. There are so many crowds in this movie! Visions of life populate the screen; flocks of birds and herds of sheep traverse breathtaking panoramas of the Australian outback. And the animal allegories give way to human herds–more swarming crowds lapping just at the edges of every scene. On the streets of Seville, anonymous revellers are silhouetted against bonfires. In Sydney, race tracks teem with thousands of spectators crowded on top of one another in the stands. Even the soundtrack mixes crowd sounds (and sheep bleating) in with the dialogue.

Hu: The crowds are absolutely working overtime in this film: they suggest the scale of devastation Chimera might wreak, they do quick work in signalling the brutal impersonality of the virus, and they force most of Ethan and Nyah’s erotics to play out in public, often with them unable even to face one another. The one time Hunt and Nyah “meet” alone, it’s actually Cruise playing Dougray Scott playing Ethan Hunt, and, I have to give credit: Cruise looks TRULY EVIL in this scene.

Solitary Hero; TRULY EVIL
Solitary Hero; TRULY EVIL

Schnepf: And yet despite the crowds, there’s no doubt Ethan remains the solitary hero basically charged with the biopolitical imperative to make humanity live. And I think it’s in the problem of depicting humanity of screen that we can begin to account for what many critics have recognized as the strange romance between Ethan and Nyah. “I can see most people leaving this movie hungry for human activity,” a film critic from The Washington Post once said, “I mean, there are Limp Bizkit videos with more emotional depth than the “love” between Ethan and Nyah” (remember, this was 2000). Nyah, for her part, is aware that things aren’t quite right with the relationship, hoping aloud that “somewhere in the course of business this got personal.”

Hu: It’s a shlocky way of acknowledging that things are basically always personal when it comes to Cruise, even when they really don’t, well, feel that way. Tom Cruise: Always Already Personal. And Nyah’s romantic role in M:I2 is telegraphed so hard right from the start that it’s actually a little… difficult to read at first? I like the idea of the film as an epic, because there is this kind of hard inevitability about the film’s plottedness that is truly bizarre to witness. It’s bad melodrama, but I never cry.

Schnepf: Because it’s not emotional. And I think the absence of a spark makes sense once we see that both characters literally have nothing personal to offer. The form of the epic, as Lukács tells it, demands a hero without an interiority and Ethan seems totally unencumbered by subjectivity. Nyah, meanwhile, becomes the carrier of the virus: in pandemic speak, this makes her the potential patient zero of a future outbreak. As the commercial plane crash that begins M:I3 reminds us, death in this film is rarely singular. The film milks the new millennium’s anxiety about our heightened connectivity by ensuring we all die as we live–together. Standing in for everyone, Nyah is no one in particular.

Hu: It’s kind of remarkable that M:I2 was the only major disease outbreak film of 2000, and even more so that it’s one in which the threat of fatal contagion never manifests in an actual outbreak. Five years after Twelve Monkeys and two before 28 Days Later, the SciFi films of 2000 perhaps appear weirdly tame in retrospect. There is also something deeply classical about M:I2’s vision of viral threat: it doesn’t so much feel like the consequence of too much modernization so much as the effect of too much evil. As Dr. Nekhorvich says in the film, “Every search for a hero must begin with something that every hero requires, a villain.” By manufacturing the Chimera virus because of how much money its cure, Bellerophon, might make, Biocyte embodies capitalist evil. But, Dr. Nekhorvich’s villain-function, of course, also has to have a face, which gets pretty complicated when we consider how the history of the Mission: Impossible franchise has been based around the face-mask trick. Villains and heros perpetually change places throughout.

But by placing Nyah as neither villain nor hero, but as potential sacrificial victim, M:I2 actually makes basically every other character in M:I2 some kind of male villain. In an attempt to stall her own death, Nyah fetches and then injects herself with the virus that Ambrose would have otherwise killed her to retrieve. But, of course, the problem now is how to stay alive after this choice. Without Bellerophon, Nyah has only twenty hours to live–a period of time that finds her, near the end, STANDING ON THE EDGE OF A CLIFF, ready to jump off.

tom cruise 9
Ready to jump???

What stops M:I2 from lapsing into classical tragedy is that it is, of course, never too late in Ethan Hunt’s world. Nyah doesn’t commit suicide, a move that would reify her as the mythological female figure of abandonment, sacrifice, and shame. Instead, she and Ethan do what he normally does after the end of an Impossible Mission: they go on vacation.

Schnepf: Yes, the utopic closing scene. Ethan and Nyah lock eyes through a crowded Sydney city park teeming with people (they are always doing this apparently). But unlike earlier mass visions, this one features kites, balloons, young families, and happy children, ending in celebration of the procreative promise of a collective future.

Hu: The year 2000: Yes Future.

Schnepf: The last thing Ethan whispers is, “Let’s get lost” and the couple retreats from the film’s foreground. It’s a facile way for the film to end but it also suggests that Ethan’s quest all along was simply to stop being a hero. As an allegory, it poses an interesting question about Tom’s career: can he just act in a film and not be its star? Can Tom Cruise not be Tom Cruise?

Hu: I feel like this is always the final question when it comes to Cruise, because the question attached to him is forever: Who exactly is Tom Cruise? At this point, it seems like we’ll never really know anything approximating the real Mapother IV (beyond the conventional religious daddy issues narrative) but why is it that, each time I watch a Cruise film, I feel as though I’m exactly where he wants me to be? It’s kind of a mind fuck, in which Cruise’s blanket artificiality and public curation actually makes me feel as though I’m getting closer to the perverse weirdo below the surface. It’s also what makes all the Scientology archive of Cruise apparently hella hyped on life so fascinating: that material is curated too, of course, but because it walks the line between “acting” and “reality,” it’s enormously hard to tell if, well, Tom Cruise is just always this unhinged?

Schnepf: It seems like a thought-experiment M:I3 will play out (and I’d argue Ghost Protocol, and outside the franchise, Tropic Thunder wrestle with that question too).

Hu: I know I’m pretty much alone in this, but M:I3 might be my favorite of the series? It’s the “earnest one,” the Casino Royale of its franchise. It came out while he was with Katie Holmes, and feels genuinely invested in true love. There is a truly perfect scene where Cruise does hard math on a window pane by first tracing the skyline, rotating his pen like a compass, and then writing out the word “CHUTE” as the final solution to all this problem solving.

tom cruise 10

Tom Cruise: Visual Thinker!
Tom Cruise: Visual Thinker!
chute retry
Chute!

Then we watch Tom Cruise slide down a chute.

The movie also has Philip Seymour Hoffman as the only convincing villain yet to have played against Hunt; indeed, a villain that you actually find yourself rooting for? And then, of course, there’s the underrated Michelle Monaghan (her role in True Detective almost redeems that project for me), Maggie Q, AND Keri Russell. The opening scene begins in medias res, and you totally buy it. The narrative propulsion is impressively stupid. I don’t ask why Ethan Hunt runs when he does; I just know I can’t look away.

Schnepf: There is so much going on that it’s actually impressive that this plot still speaks to larger Cruise concerns. In the wake of Cruise’s break with Kidman, rumors swirled that the Church of Scientology demanded its followers break from family members and loved ones deemed “suppressive persons.” M:I3 is like a powerful rejoinder to this popular narrative. By M:I3 Ethan has retired from active IMF duty and seems happily ensconced in domestic life. But the pervasiveness of work and whether or not it’s really possible for Ethan to stop working never really goes away, even here. M:I2 began with Ethan on an extreme rock-climbing vacation in Utah–one indistinguishable from work. He’s really investing in human capital, honing his skills as an agent. It’s hard to make him stop.

Hu: Yes! LIVING is working for Hunt/Cruise.

Schnepf: M:I3 wants to insist that Cruise’s career depends, above all else, in the institution of family, even as it also needs us to know this might be difficult given that Cruise is his career. I watched a red-carpet interview where Tom said he and J.J. Abrams “wanted to make it personal, we wanted to make it a love story.” This is a funny statement because it’s not actually true that Ethan becomes any more empathetic, caring, or trustworthy. In fact, the movie seems to imply this may be impossible, that at his core Ethan may simply be a secret agent. Even in the midst of his own engagement party, there’s Ethan, sequestering himself in the garage, using that Kodak fun saver from the 7-11 not to capture family memories, but to receive the mission that will only introduce his lies and Julia’s abduction into the impending marriage. This brings up an important question though: what could intimacy mean for a secret IMF agent leading a double-life?

Hu: I’m pretty sure it’s getting a quickie marriage at the hospital where your wife works while she’s wearing scrubs and you’re wearing all black, and then immediately transitioning to hospital closet sex?

Creepy?
Creepy?

Schnepf: It’s hard to know if we’re supposed to cheer on the marriage or be very, very nervous about it. My favorite scene is when Ethan seems to stare lovingly across the engagement party at Julia, and this turns out to be covert lip-reading. For Ethan, this is just what you do when you’re in love. The party trick, reminiscent of the ominous lip-reading scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, doesn’t fail to creep out Julia’s friends.

tom cruise 13
Julia’s Friends
tom cruise 14
Creeped out!

It’s in little moments like this that the movie risks incorporating the charming-but-also-maybe-overbearing Cruise persona we witnessed during his very public courtship with Holmes. As it turns out, however, Ethan doesn’t have to keep work at work–he only has to get Julia to be a part of his work life too. Sort of a neoliberal romance, you could say. By immersing Julia in the world of Ethan’s work (first through forcible kidnapping, then through a quick shooting tutorial), the film suggests that solving the problem of the work/home divide is merely a matter of making your wife into your co-worker.

Hu: Oh. My. God. The Gaslighting of the 2000s. Or, Honey You’re On My IMF You Just Don’t Know It Yet. I say gaslighting because, at the end of the film, while Hunt is confessing his entire secret agent backstory to Julia while also asking her to kill him and then bring him back to life–all within the span of minutes? Julia seems TOTALLY READY for it, like Hunt has subliminally prepared her for just this moment. I definitely would not be taking it as well as she does in that scene.

tom cruise 15
Taking it well

Schnepf: She just goes along with everything. Where is the resistance? Gunning down Billy Crudup marks her moment of complete conversion into the IMF world, I think, and the film’s ending drives home the point by landing Julia literally in the agency, laughing it up with Luther, Benji, and the rest of the agents. (The plot, it should be said, bears an eerie resemblance to those reports–like the infamous W magazine piece–intimating Tom was “imposing his will on Holmes’s career.”) Ethan tells his boss they’re off to their honeymoon next–which is to say the film could have ended with the happy couple alone at last on a secluded beach. It does not.

tom cruise 17
Not On A Beach

 

Hu: It’s just a fade out as they walk away from a cheering crowd of IMF agents and everyone has a huge smile on their face! Scientology could not have scripted this better. And then, of course, when the next M:I begins, my first continuity question is, “Where is my beloved Michelle Monahan???” You’d think maintaining one consistent love interest would propel the seriality of spy thrillers, but it’s so counterintuitive to their logic. The girl has to die in order for secret agent to keep doing his job (cf. John Wick).

Schnepf: Jane, there is so much anxiety in Hollywood about actors overstaying their welcomes! Another remarkable Cruise quality is the way he performs his endurance. Who else would make an action film the occasion to think through what it means to just hang on despite changing tastes? So many of the negative M:I3 reviews are really about this. “We now live in a post-Bourne, recalibrated-Bond universe, where Ethan Hunt looks a bit lost” (Ian Nathan, Empire). Another said M:I3 “feels like one of the more forgettable James Bond films–saddled, moreover, with a star who’s sliding into self-parody” (Shawn Levy, The Oregonian). But at least one review acknowledged a simple paradox: “Against sizable odds–a sense that the franchise is played out and its star over-exposedM:I3 delivers”(Claudia Puig, USA Today). If it’s possible to engineer a film that animates a review’s doubts and concerns to play out their ramifications, I think that film would be M:I–Ghost Protocol.

 

Hu: Now I feel a little weird about this being my favorite Mission: Impossible!

cruise ghost
Mid-Gait with Hoodie

Schnepf: Ghost Protocol tackles a topic your standard spy-action film doesn’t want to acknowledge: is the genre even viable anymore? A decade into the new millennium, I’d say this is an important question for movie-makers to broach. After all, the Mission: Impossible television series debuted in 1966. Its covert schemes, government spies, and sabotage plots only make sense in the historical context of the Cold War. Ghost Protocol makes it clear from the outset that times have changed: when Ethan’s crew is mistakenly linked to the Kremlin bombing, the American government’s alliance with Moscow leads to its swift disavowal of the Impossible Missions Force. What rises from the ruins of the Cold War is a thriving global black market, coursing with Cold War castoffs and linking everyone from underground arms dealers to Mumbai telecom tycoons. Yes, the plot still depends on securing nuclear launch codes but in 2011 the reasons for nuclear apocalypse are different. As a shady defense coordinator tells Ethan, “war is good for business.” Under conditions of unfettered capitalism, do we really need a secret agent?

Hu: That is such a good question, Jenn! The poster for the film has Cruise mid-gait in a hoodie, as if he were the leader of some internet hacking circle instead of a government agency. It’s hard to grasp what exactly Cruise stands for here too, and it’s certainly unlike anything we’ve seen so far in, really, any manifestation of Mission: Impossible. After all, Jeremy Renner ends up having to play the straight man in Ghost Protocol. I repeat: Jeremy Renner plays the straight man in this film. It’s also, coincidentally, the film where we see Tom-“Does-His-Own-Stunts”-Cruise really shines, in an almost compensatory manner.

Schnepf: The locations in this M:I are also really significant! Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai–in 2011 these cities represent the redistribution of power in the global economy. So it’s not surprising that Ethan–the Cold War holdover–is out of his depth. The world has been completely remapped. Spies never had to chase bad guys through sandstorms or navigate foot traffic in India. This film seems to know this, and isn’t afraid to suggest that a spy agency will have trouble keeping up. Things break down all over the place in this one: sticky gloves don’t stick, hovercrafts don’t fly, big red button don’t shut down satellites, channels get intercepted. As Ethan says at the end of the mission: “the only thing that functioned properly was this team.”

Hu: The humanism in this film is truly startling. There’s a famous shot in Ghost Protocol that has all the elements of a classic Tom Cruise Running Scene, except with one twist. Ethan isn’t running away from a car, a bomb, or a helicopter–he’s running away from a sandstorm. And it’s not even a War of the Worlds SciFi sandstorm! It is a COMPLETELY NATURAL EVENT that just happens to get in the way, and it’s only really after the fact that you realize the sandstorm isn’t meant to come off as a manufactured obstacle. It only looks like it is, especially since the rest of the set is unabashedly CGI-ed:

cruise running
CGI-ed!!!!!

In Ghost Protocol, Ethan Hunt outruns the weather. If that’s the kind of contingency your superhero is dealing with, then your film is bound to come out kind of crazy? But also: the storm ends at the exact moment that Ethan’s villain escapes, so, I don’t know, movies get to have it both ways? The plot of Ghost Protocol comes off as an uncannily well-oiled machine in its ability to absorb all mistakes and bad coincidences.

Schnepf: Even if Ethan doesn’t quite have it together, what’s incredible is that Tom Cruise has adapted to the world of Ghost Protocol and its global economy pretty seamlessly. The movie’s box office grossed far more than any other M:I installment and made about two-thirds of that outside of North America. Spies may not have a place in the new world order but canny celebrities certainly do.

Hu: It’s all the more impressive because I think everyone was unsure about how well Ghost Protocol would actually do at the box offices? It was coming off of mediocre sales from M:I3, as well as the critically bad Knight and Day, so the public was, I think, sincerely questioning whether this was the end for Cruise. As such, I think the production around Ghost Protocol was meant to be pretty fail safe. Part of some forty foreign film projects seeking permission to shoot in India from the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the film was banking on a reliably rising market. I mean, the thing is largely set in Dubai–The Hollywood Reporter called Ghost Protocol “a mega-budget ad for shooting in the region.” It also premiered during Dubai International Film Festival. The whole thing was supposed to be as risk free as possible, which makes the built-in narrative failures and accidents all the more prescient. All the things that go wrong in the plot of the movie become almost forms of magical thinking–a promise that everything afterwards will go more than right. So, I guess, there goes Cruise again, simultaneously preempting failure and ensuring success.

Schnepf: It’s such a funny formula and yet he’s made it work. Like a good artist, he’s taking all the doubts that seem to plague him personally and professionally and using them as endless sources of fodder for his art. While we can only hope that our thesis holds up with the release of the next film, I’m pretty certain we won’t be disappointed by it, Jane.

Hu: Jenn, there is still so much to say–I feel like we’ve just scratched the profound surface that is Tom Cruise–but shall we leave this conversation to be continued? The title of the upcoming series installment, Rogue Nation, does what any good Mission: Impossible title should: it gives a sense of urgency without actually saying anything at all. I’m going to watch it this weekend, and while I’m not holding my breath to be surprised by Cruise per se, the very passing of time itself makes him an increasingly interesting figure to watch. What does a 53-year-old Ethan Hunt look like? Is Rogue Nation secretly about Cruise threatening to leave Scientology? What does an Ethan Hunt look like in the age of the Jimmy Fallon Lip Sync rehabilitation tour?

 

Jane Hu: Theater Kid

Jennifer Schnepf: Tweets on Occasion