Ethan Hunt: America’s Masochistic James Bond

I’ve always been a huge fan of James Bond. The cars. The women. The toys. The villains. I’ve always loved them. I think my favorite Bond film is Skyfall. I’ve always thought Daniel Craig was a great James Bond, and Javier Bardem is particularly wonderful as Silva, a rogue MI-6 agent who is on a personal vendetta against MI-6 chief M, played like a master class in acerbic acting by Judi Dench. In one scene late in the film as Bondian mayhem has ensued, Bardem says “You see what comes with all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting. It’s exhausting.”

This past week, Mission Impossible: Fallout, the latest chapter of Tom Cruise’s salute to the 1960s espionage television program, opened in theaters nationwide. As I sat watching the non-stop, edge-of-your-seat action, I can honestly say I felt a little like Silva in Skyfall. It was exhausting. And punishing. And exhilarating. Mission Impossible: Fallout is probably the most action charged film in the series, and is probably the best American made action film in years.

The previous five Mission Impossible films were, for the most part, stand alone films. Yes, there were recurring characters like Ving Rhames’ Luther and Simon Pegg’s Benji. But for the most part, the plotlines of each film weren’t interconnected. That’s probably because each of those films had separate directors. Hollywood heavyweights like Brian DePalma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird have all taken turns putting Ethan Hunt through his paces. In 2015, director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie took his turn behind the lens. Known for writing the brilliant film The Usual Suspects, McQuarrie actually worked first with Tom Cruise as the screenwriter for Valkyrie in 2008, and then directing him in Jack Reacher in 2012.  In 2014, McQuarrie wrote the screenplay Edge of Tomorrow, another Cruise film, and, in my opinion, stumbled onto the formula that would make his take on Ethan Hunt resound so successfully. The formula? Punish Tom Cruise as much as humanly possible.

In 2014, Tom Cruise was in the middle of several tabloid meltdowns, including his involvement with Scientology and his divorce from Katie Holmes. In many ways, Cruise had reached peak “I can’t stand that guy” status. The plot of Edge of Tomorrow was a science fiction mind bender where Tom Cruise’s character had to keep getting killed in horribly different ways in a time loop which he had to break out of. Ever the professional, Tom Cruise did most of his own stunts. And there was a perverse pleasure audiences took in watching all of this; let’s be honest – the only real appeal of Edge of Tomorrow was the fun in watching Tom Cruise getting pummeled in horribly different ways.

When McQuarrie was tapped to direct Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, that formula carried forward. Put Tom Cruise in an ever increasing number of insane stunts which he’ll do himself, and up the ante in the insanity of the stunts. It was almost as if the story didn’t really matter.

Mission Impossible: Fallout doubles down on that formula and brutally punishes Ethan Hunt throughout the film both physically and emotionally. (Production on the film had to be shot down for seven weeks when Cruise broke his ankle on one of the stunts jumping from one building to another.) But what is most significant in Fallout is that the plotlines from Rogue Nation all have a direct bearing on the events in Fallout. Sean Harris returns as super villain Solomon Lane, who previously led The Syndicate, an entire network of rogue double agents who set out to wreak havoc in the world. Playing Harris as a smarter-than-you’ll-ever-be Bondian villain, Harris has the right combination of ruthlessness and quirk to make him truly terrifying. In Fallout, his return marks the first such occurrence in the Mission Impossible films.

The title Fallout is completely apropos – besides the inevitable nuclear threat faced in Hunt’s loss of a suitcase full of plutonium in the beginning of the film, there are significant ramifications to Hunt’s actions from the previous film which now come home to roost. The twists and turns are dizzying, but they lend the film an emotional weight that the other films don’t carry. And there is a heavy price to be paid by those close to Ethan Hunt.

Mission Impossible: Fallout has at least ten separate action set pieces which were all filmed without CGI green screen work and they are stunning. Filmed like a random tour through Atlas Obscura, the locations are stunning and the individual jaw-dropping action shots are exhilarating.

I think there is a compelling connection between Mission Impossible: Fallout and Skyfall. The theme of Skyfall focuses on one question: have the days when we needed agents like James Bond gone the way of all things? Scene after scene features an aging Bond, an insecure Bond; a Bond who time may have passed by. An almost prepubescent Q who can “do more damage from his laptop in his pajamas before his first cup of Earl Grey than Bond can do in a year.” In the film’s most stunning sequence, as Bond tries to recapture Silva after he has escaped from MI-6’s underground bunker, M reads a section of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s epic poem “Ulysses” in response to governmental oversight of her governance of the British secret service. As M reads “We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are. One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” Bond sprints through the streets of London to stop Silva from assassinating M and everyone else in the committee meeting. It isn’t very often poetry leaps from the page to the screen in such a thrilling way.

Those verses from Tennyson are particularly salient in relation to the Mission Impossible films. How much more can be done to Ethan Hunt? How many more time bombs, real and emotional, can go off near him before he finally fails? How many times can he crash a helicopter, leap from a building, nearly drown or tear off a mask before he’s defeated? More importantly, the question the audience is left with isn’t whether Ethan Hunt is too old, but rather how much longer can Tom Cruise punish himself for our entertainment? Well, if Mission Impossible: Fallout is any indication, let’s hope Ethan Hunt never stops trying to strive, seek, find, and not yield. When all is said and written about Tom Cruise’s career, I think these films will be what he is remembered for most.

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