When a movie opens with a nuclear bomb ripping through a dream sequence, subtlety isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Nor is it suggested by an invincible spy killing Superman in a high-speed helicopter fight, or a prologue that ends with Wolf Blitzer peeling off his own face. However, all of those scenarios seem perfectly plausible for “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” star Tom Cruise, a suicidal Energizer Bunny whose most enduring franchise increasingly feels like a series of unsuccessful snuff films.
Even before he jumped on Oprah’s couch to convey his love for Katie Holmes, this small man was known for his bigness: for yelling lines that most actors might whisper, for a smile so wide and white he could light a whole multiplex with his teeth, and for landing paychecks the size of blockbuster movie budgets (he ultimately netted $100 million from “Mission: Impossible II,” which cost $125 million to make). Even his most restrained performances are defined by Cruise’s superhuman ability to contain himself; he scored an Oscar nomination for the seething anger he brought to the role of incel spirit guide Frank T.J. Mackey in “Magnolia” (a character who grows more convincing as he shrinks and implodes), while his turn as an emasculated doctor in “Eyes Wide Shut” is a marvel of repression that hinges on one man’s struggle to keep his demons and desires at bay as he tries to shut Pandora’s Box.
For almost four decades now, those have been Cruise’s two dominant modes: Larger than life and/or bursting at the seams. And while films like “Jerry Maguire” and “Vanilla Sky” forced him to plant one foot on either side of the fence, that’s a hard stance to maintain for a man who moves at a full sprint. After the embarrassment of “The Mummy” and the muted response to “American Made,” it seemed as though Cruise would be forced to make a hard decision in order to weather the storm of the post-star Hollywood landscape: Go even bigger, or embrace the arduous transition into dramatic acting.
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Naturally, he decided to do both. Because that’s the thing about Tom Cruise: He may believe that Xenu is real, and that “Battlefield Earth” was a historical epic, but the one thing he doesn’t believe in is compromise. And so, in hindsight, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that his magnificent (and utterly inimitable) performance in “Fallout” is nothing less than a do-or-die attempt to fuse together his two disparate modes. He breaks down a character he’s played for 22 years and rebuilds him over the course of an epic summer blockbuster that’s explicitly about one man’s struggle to choose between saving his friends and saving the world. The resulting film immortalizes Cruise as one of the greatest action stars of this (or any) era, while also cementing his genius for emotional expression. Not only is this his best work since the late ’90s, one of the standout performances of 2018, and worthy of serious consideration for a Best Actor nod at the Oscars (hell, it deserves to win), but what Cruise accomplishes in “Fallout” is reason enough for the Academy to finally reconsider its long-standing blindness to action movie acting. Weather the storm? Tom Cruise is the storm.
Yes, we know action movie performances never get their due, and — with all due respect to Batman fanboys — the Oscar bias against blockbusters isn’t exactly high on the list of what’s wrong with our world. Quoth Don Draper: That’s what the money is for! And yet, the fact remains that Hollywood’s blanket refusal to honor these spectacles is behind some of the most inexplicable snubs in recent memory. When “Mad Max: Fury Road” rode through awards season all shiny and chrome, Tom Hardy was hardly even considered for a Best Actor nomination. Charlize Theron, whose performance as Imperator Furiosa was already iconic by the time voting began, also didn’t make the cut in her category. Gain a little weight, wear a parrot on your shoulder, or pretend to be some dead English dude, and the gold is as good as yours. Strap yourself to the hood of a post-apocalyptic deathmobile while creating a richly expressive portrait of grief and madness, and your only consolation prize is a chance to play Venom.
Cruise has been nominated thrice before (“Born on the Fourth of July,” Jerry Maguire,” and “Magnolia”), all three times for roles that subverted his star quality. However, he also faces a hurdle that other action stars aren’t forced to clear: He’s Tom Cruise. And he’s always playing Tom Cruise. To some extent, his performance in “Fallout” relies on that fact. Paradoxically, the more nuanced and fleshed out that Ethan Hunt has become over the years, the more the “Mission: Impossible” movies have called attention to the man behind the mask. Each subsequent installment has increasingly sold itself on the premise that Cruise is performing the stunts you see on screen — that’s really him climbing that skyscraper, that’s really him clawing to the side of that plane, that’s really him jumping out of that other plane — and the franchise around him has reconfigured itself as a practical response to the visual dishonesty of the digital age.
Alas, an ironic side effect of this approach is believability sometimes comes at the expense of unbelievability; trusting the art tempts us to overlook the artistry. For the most part, “Mission: Impossible” movies ask audiences to flip between fiction and reality as they watched: You’re watching Ethan Hunt during the story bits, and Tom Cruise during the action scenes. With “Rogue Nation” and “Ghost Protocol,” the constantly changing aspect ratio almost became a backhanded way of flicking that switch. That was never going to fly with Academy voters, who are far more impressed by actors who poorly transform themselves than they are actors who perfectly become themselves.
But Cruise does both in “Fallout,” and he does them both well. The whole story — which writer-director Christopher McQuarrie often reconstructed on the fly — is anchored to the idea of melding Tom Cruise and Ethan Hunt into one, but the details are where it really begins to take root. Nowhere is that ambition more painfully (if inadvertently) clear than in the chase sequence along the rooftops of London. A frazzled Hunt throws an office chair through a plate-glass window, and scampers outside. A sprinting Cruise tries to leap from one building to another, only to fall short and break his ankle. But when he pulls himself back up to the roof and hobbles towards the camera, injured but still determined to get the job done, something has changed.
For the first time in this franchise, viewers can’t be certain who they’re watching. Is that Hunt, or is that Cruise? It’s obvious who slammed into that wall, but unclear who survived the impact. Illustrating why he’s one of the cinema’s great non-verbal performers, Cruise does everything in his power to blur the line. He doesn’t just grit his teeth and clear the frame, he moves with purpose. His eyes are up the whole time; his body gripped by the same desperation that got him to the top of that building in the first place.
That moment is one of the many in which “Fallout” asks you to think about the relationship between actor and performer, rather then accept them as mutually exclusive personas. The movie draws attention to a balancing act that both its hero and its star have struggled with for a very long time. Hunt and Cruise are empowered and beholden to their identities in equal measure.
Hunt once tried to be a husband and a spy, and his cold heart softened into an Achilles’ heel when he fell in love with Julia (Michelle Monaghan) three films ago. He made the irreversible mistake of giving himself something to lose and his empathy has been easy for the bad guys to exploit ever since. From the start, “Fallout” is propelled by a single question that underwrites all the others: Will Ethan Hunt ever be free to become someone else?
Cruise, whose death-defying stunts require you to know that it’s really him up there, is likewise bound to his legend. And the more times he plays this part, the easier it becomes to conflate him with the character (or vice versa). The guy was never going to be a chameleon; his energy was always too fixed to compete with Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis. And he’s never deluded himself into thinking otherwise; if anything, Cruise parodied the idea in “Tropic Thunder.” The engine for all of Cruise’s best performances is not how he resists his screen image, but rather how he uses it as a shorthand to get more out of the story. The genius in his latest portrayal of Ethan Hunt is that the character’s defining crisis dovetails with his own. Sure, the spy’s dilemma is built on the backs of five other films, but it’s the rest of Cruise’s career that resonates here. Finally, in his mid-50s, Hollywood’s last true movie star is given a chance to confront the baggage that comes with that status.
And he doesn’t waste a second of it. From the dawning realization that creeps over Cruise’s face in the opening dream sequence, to the way he crumples over that sad little desk in the Belfast safe house where Hunt wakes up, the anguish of what’s at stake for both men is palpable. And McQuarrie, more attuned to what his star is doing than any previous “Mission” director, always finds a way to highlight Cruise’s performance. Sometimes, that’s as simple as shooting the actor in close-up as he HALO jumps over Paris, so that Cruise (who did the stunt hundreds of times in preparation) can convincingly pretend to be as anxious as a lesser man (like, say, a legendary super-spy) might be in that moment.
Other times, McQuarrie just makes sure that Cruise is in focus. Even in the middle of a vicious fight to the death in a nightclub bathroom — even in the middle of a movie that everyone knows will end with his character saving the world — Cruise is always exuding Hunt’s fallibility. He makes it all look so easy, but never lets us forget how hard it must be for the man he’s playing. The meta-textual elements of the piece only work because Cruise gives a head-to-toe performance, the actor distilling several decades of built-up pathos into a clenched jaw or a furrowed brow.
But the highlight of his Ethan Hunt — and the moment that, in a just universe, would cement Cruise’s place alongside Bradley Cooper, Viggo Mortensen, and other more axiomatic nominees — comes at the end of the film, when the spy runs into his beloved ex-wife in Kashmir as he’s racing to defuse several atomic bombs. (We’ve all been there.) The scene that follows aches with a degree of restraint on par with the endings of “Roman Holiday” or “Brief Encounter” (or “La La Land,” at the very least), as Julia’s new husband comes up, and Hunt has to play it off like he just happened to be in the area.
Ambushed by a moment that will define the rest of his life, Hunt is suddenly forced to reconcile the disparate, incompatible parts of his identity. Does he protect Julia, or does he save the planet? There’s a breathless pause at a time when every second counts, and despite (or because) it being a beat that only Cruise could pull off, his character has finally become real enough to make us forget about the man playing him. And so Hunt realizes that he doesn’t have to choose; that he protects Julia by saving the planet. “It was good to see you.” And just like that, in one of the year’s funniest pivots, he scampers off at a dead sprint to catch the bad guy.
By that same token, being an immutable icon isn’t what prevents Tom Cruise from being a great actor. In the right circumstances, it’s what allows him to be a great actor. Big and small at the same time; subtle on an IMAX screen; heartbreakingly real and heroically ridiculous all at once. It’s just up to audiences — and the Academy — to appreciate what he’s doing.