In the recent Mission: Impossible movies, Tom Cruise has basically played a charismatic body under stress. While Mission: Impossible III is still the most satisfying film of the series because it takes the Ethan Hunt character and gives him personal stakes to fight for, Hunt’s main appeal has always been his charm as a humorless beast of burden. No film in the series makes this more apparent than the fourth and most recent entry in the film franchise, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Here, Cruise, who gets a prominent producer credit in the film’s opening credits, shows his age; in fact, he flaunts it. Not in an “I’m getting too old for this shit” kind of way. More like a “My body has seen better days but I’m still pretty amazing, so shut the hell up and watch me scale the tallest building in the world…one-handed” kind of way.
Okay man, sure, I just came for the movie, I swear, don’t hurt me!
Tom Cruise in Ghost Protocol is intimidating-looking. In fact, watching the grooves on Cruise’s scored face is so distracting that it’s sometimes just as thrilling as watching the film’s immaculate set pieces. The bags under his eyes are always more pronounced, the contours of his face more angular and the wrinkle lines etched into his cheeks like stone always suggest more texture than his co-stars’ features. Take note: Tom Cruise’s body hasn’t gone to seed. But Hunt’s hair is longer than usual and his face is certainly showing signs of age.
You’d have to work pretty hard to cover up that kind of wear, but that’s kind of the point of Ghost Protocol: Cruise’s Hunt is not in denial. He’s in great shape – did you not see him clean up the world’s tallest building in Dubai? Or, on foot in a sand storm, running around like a madman? Or crashing several BMW luxury sedans? Just think of Tom Cruise’s face as the portrait of Dorian Gray, which I guess makes his body Dorian Gray…except in Ghost Protocol, Dorian Gray is galloping around the world with his portrait on display. Which is…odd, to say the least.
So Ethan Hunt in Ghost Protocol is going around doing incredibly impossible missions. He’s not developed well enough to be treated like most characters, with ulterior motives and “feelings” that extend beyond the circumstantial peril Hunt is constantly forcing upon himself. So in this film, he’s just a really versatile guy that takes it upon himself to do much of the heavy lifting of tracking and disarming an evil Russian madman, codenamed “Cobalt” (Abduction’s Michael Nyqvist).
Until Hunt and his team catch Cobalt, they’re in the shit. But even though he’s working with them throughout the film, Hunt has to basically lead the group because none of them are capable of doing things with restraint, improvisatory skill or much brawn without him. He’s the Mr. T to their A-Team; if they were replaced by other actors mid-film, no one would notice or care. That lopsided team dynamic is sort of a given until the film’s last big set piece, which reminds us that the film is about a team of spies, some of whom, unlike Hunt, are actually both charismatic and capable of laughing at themselves, too.
Cruise’s Hunt has no such default setting. His onscreen persona throughout the series has been, and continues to be, pretty brittle. So it’s a very good thing that Cruise is naturally charming. The curious thing about these Mission: Impossible movies is that in them, he’s constantly trying to remind us of this by performing spy hijinks and superhuman acrobatics, like his big Dubai Spider-man act in Ghost Protocol, where he climbs up 11 stories using magnetic gloves, one of which short-circuits mid-climb. This only momentarily fazes Hunt. He keeps climbing.
Director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and Ghost Protocol’s capable stunt choreographers play up Cruise’s glassy charms by making a sight gag of Hunt’s malfunctioning magnetic gloves. After he callously shucks the glove off, Hunt soon finds the errant glove stuck to a pane of glass just a few stories below where he originally ditched it. This is a rare thing in Ghost Protocol, a joke involving Hunt’s man of action. But it should be noted that the joke is not on Hunt but rather the malfunctioning equipment that Benji (Simon Pegg), a geeky and relatively effete fellow spy, gave him. Modern technology can’t even keep up with Tom Cruise!
But in all seriousness, Ghost Protocol needs Cruise’s over-seriousness and his tendency of making himself look that much more focused, that much more determined and that much more capable than everyone around him. Even newcomer Jeremy Renner looks like a girly man compared to Cruise, like in the scene where Renner is floating around (literally, floating around) in an overheated subterranean tunnel while wearing a chain mail suit that levitates his whole body.
Yes, there is actually a sequence where Jeremy Renner, a new macho action hero for our times, is floating around with his arms outstretched in front of him like he’s Supergirl. And he’s sweating. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt doesn’t sweat, not even when he’s fighting Michael Nyqvist’s Cobalt, a villain that is so hardcore that he’d rather kill himself than let Hunt get the upper hand. Cruise’s Hunt, by contrast, is all upper body strength and an unending supply of physical endurance and facial tics when he wants to show you just how hard he’s pushing his body (note: pretty freaking hard). Without him, Ghost Protocol would be nothing.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice,Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.