Celebrating the “Mission: Impossible” films. And their star.
Sometime last week, Shah Rukh Khan managed to combine, in a single tweet, escapist cinema, Victorian literature and what sounded like the motto of your local gym: “Ethan Hunt & James Bond in one film….that’s my Final Fantasy…then as Thomas Hardy wrote…. ‘I can pass away and die’ Ecstasy in Steroids.” At least with respect to Bond and Hunt, the protagonist of the Mission: Impossible films, Khan has a point. The two spies are practically twins. They never leave home without a passport in hand. Their films feature pulse-quickening theme music and high-tech gadgetry. And going by the new M:I film – subtitled Rogue Nation; it hinges on a criminal organisation called the Syndicate, something like Bond’s nemesis Spectre – both are regarded as anachronisms. By the time Pierce Brosnan entered the series, in the mid-1990s, Bond was being described as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur… a relic of the Cold War.” Here, the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), which employs Ethan Hunt and his team, is disbanded. And like Bond, Hunt makes a strong, stirring case for his relevance. If we want to step fearlessly into the light, we need people like Bond and Hunt to lurk in the shadows.
But unlike Bond – and like that other covert operative with the same initials, Jason Bourne – Ethan Hunt is played by the same star (Tom Cruise, more about him later). It’s fun to see how the three spies stack up, for in the action-film continuum, Hunt exists somewhere between Bond and Bourne. Bond, depending on the decade, is either a pun-spewing cartoon or a grave mythological being – either way, he’s not real. Bourne, on the other hand is too human, too angsty, too real. If Bond belongs in the Pantheon, Bourne belongs in a psychiatrist’s clinic. With Hunt, the stakes feel real, yet not too real. No Bond villain has exploded with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s feral menace in the third M:I instalment – for a change, we actually feared for the protagonist’s life, as if he were an ordinary man. In other words, more Bourne than Bond. And yet, here was Hunt, sprinting up the wall surrounding Vatican City, bending physics according to his will, as though gravity worked left-right rather than up-down. This wasn’t Bourne’s world at all. It was Bond’s, a world where anything can happen.
The M:I series began in 1996 – and for a nineteen-year-old franchise, it’s held up pretty well. Better than that, actually. At this exact point in the Bond series, we had For Your Eyes Only – not a bad film at all, especially considering the films that followed, Octopussy and A View to a Kill. But the star makes all the difference. Roger Moore was just coasting along, content to do practically nothing in return for a fat pay cheque, whereas Tom Cruise is still working his butt off – and his arms, his legs, his torso, even his hair, which falls just so. Moore seemed to be saying, “Hey, this is just some light entertainment, don’t take it too seriously – I certainly don’t.” Cruise is saying, “It’s the end of the world, and I will save it with every vibrating molecule of my being.”
It’s become fashionable now to make fun of Cruise’s intensity. Even the M:I films laugh at him – the villain of the second instalment quips, “He’ll undoubtedly engage in some aerobatic insanity before he’ll risk harming a hair on a security guard’s head.” But the fact that Cruise takes these films so seriously is what makes them work so well. They’re not just about impossible missions. They’re also character studies, in a manner of speaking. When the fourth M:I film was released, I wrote, “It’s the latest move in the ongoing maturation of Ethan Hunt, who flirted with a co-worker in the first film, fell headlong into love in the second, and got married in the third movie. Now, in a manner of speaking, he is separated.”
In the fifth instalment, Hunt isn’t even the main attraction. He co-shoulders the movie with Ilsa, played by an amazing new (at least to these eyes) actress named Rebecca Ferguson. What a woman. She’s grown-up, and she projects a fantastic mix of gravity and sex appeal and intelligence. Even so, Cruise commands our attention. Or maybe the word is “scrutiny”. For he’s really the last of the eighties’ stars, the ones whose films kids from my generation grew up with. If you remember what a big deal Top Gun was (and how inescapable its theme was), then you’ll be amazed how Cruise hasn’t changed at all – except maybe physically. The M:I films are as much about Hunt as Cruise. In M:I – 4, Hunt, for the first time, looks hunted. He’s vulnerable. He limps. He crawls. He winces in pain. He needs, more than ever, the people around him. The wear and tear is visible. Cruise surrenders to unblinking close-ups that highlight the furrows on his forehead, the wattle beneath the chin, the pouches under the eyes, the glint of dull silver in the stubble… He’s reminding us that we are aging too – and yet, he’s still saving the world. He’s a motivational poster to my generation. Every time I see him on screen, I come away thinking age is just a number.
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