Tom Cruise is a runner. Other movie stars have honed a look, a lean, a strut, but Cruise runs. If you have 18 minutes to spare, you can watch a supercut someone made of all the times Cruise has picked up the pace onscreen over the years — hauling ass through downtown Memphis with his briefcase bouncing at his side in 1993's The Firm, sprinting panicked through a deserted Times Square in 2001's Vanilla Sky, and galloping across a battlefield in an exosuit in 2014's Edge of Tomorrow. When Cruise runs, he pushes his chest out, pumps his arms wildly, grimaces with exertion. The uncoolness of it all is key to the appeal. Other actors can serve up a performance of running, but Cruise, never one to give less than his all, wants to make it clear that he is genuinely going as fast as he can.
The best and the most running Cruise has done has been in service of the Mission: Impossible movie franchise, now 22 years strong and counting: He's raced through tunnels and hails of bullets, up buildings and down them, and along a crowded Shanghai waterfront, yelling at people to make way in broken Mandarin. In the new Mission: Impossible — Fallout, he runs so far and so hard that you have to laugh. Simon Pegg's character, Benji, yells into his earpiece for him to go faster as he bounds across rooftops, through a busy office, and out a window.
He's more wind-up toy than man in the movie's final act, going and going and going through a combination chase and fight that's teased out to such exhilaratingly absurd ends that it's more like extreme slapstick on which the fate of millions depends. There may be leading men with fresher faces out there in Hollywood, but Cruise seems determined to prove with every second of screentime that none of them will ever work as hard as he does. Trying has become Cruise's reason for being, or at least his reason for remaining famous.
Movie stardom is not what it was when Cruise starred in the first Mission: Impossible back in 1996. Back then, when Brian De Palma adapted an old TV show into a movie that twined a barely comprehensible plot around astonishing sequences of Cruise dangling from cables and clinging to a high-speed train, action was just one of the things Cruise got to play at, just one of the things that made him one of the biggest stars in the world. He was a multipurpose A-lister who hopped easily onward to a romance that same year (Jerry Maguire) and then to working with Stanley Kubrick (in 1999's Eyes Wide Shut). Now that it's franchises more than famous names that bring people to theaters, so many of those in-between movies — ones that could be big deals without being blockbusters, ones that might nab you an occasional Oscar nomination — have gone away.
But Cruise has not. Cruise has held fast, devoting himself to action (like Jack Reacher and the maybe-kaput Dark Universe cinematic, er, universe) when that seemed to be what the studios wanted to make. When it comes to recent cultural shifts that ask for ever more authenticity (real or simulated) from celebrities, on the other hand, he's steered clear. Nothing about Cruise is authentic. He is always tirelessly on, always happy to glad-hand with fans, always a pro, his social media accounts painstakingly promotional and impersonal. Whatever political feelings he might have, he keeps to himself.
The unfathomable alienness of Cruise's life as someone who's been extremely famous for decades and swaddled in Scientology like a precious ornament for almost as long has been hinted at only in miscalculations (like Oprah's couch) and accidents (like that leaked Scientology video). At this point in his career, it is entirely possible that no one actually wants to know about the real Tom Cruise, and he doesn't seem like he's about to finally start offering up details. What he is willing to offer up is pure effort, in defiance of current trends and the terrible march of time.
Cruise leaves everything on the field in his movies, especially the Mission: Impossible ones, and because of that, they're immensely fun to watch — even as you think, Wow, he might die from this someday. Cruise is 56, though he doesn't look it. He doesn't look 53 either, the age we know his Mission: Impossible character Ethan Hunt is (this is thanks to someone in the first film, never imagining how long this series would stretch, tethering the secret agent to an actual date of birth: 08/18/64). Cruise doesn't come across as looking younger than he is so much as he comes across as someone who has managed to remove himself from the standard human timeline.
In Fallout, his too-busy-saving-the-day stubble is gray, while his hair is lustrously brown. When he is placed in deliberate contrast, at different points, with 35-year-old Henry Cavill as a brawny, destructive colleague from the CIA and with 39-year-old Wes Bentley as a rival on a more personal level, the movie displays not the tiniest flicker of awareness of either as a younger man. The Mission: Impossible universe does not acknowledge the possibility that Ethan might someday need to slow down or not be around, or that such a thought has ever occurred to him.
And at the same time, Cruise's mortality underlies so much of the marketing around how the movies are made, how he continues to do most of the increasingly outrageous stunts himself, and how the results are so much better — and they really are so much better — for it. Cruise has hung off airplanes, cliffs, and the tallest skyscraper in the world. He has, the promotional material assures us, learned to hold his breath underwater for six minutes and to fly a helicopter. In Fallout, he does a military-style parachute jump, the camera preceding him out of the plane and holding on his apprehensive face as he plummets through the air, and part of what makes the set piece so spectacular is that there's no need to cheat the shot or cut around a double. He also broke his ankle leaping off a building, footage of which was then played in multiple angles when the cast appeared on The Graham Norton Show, including a slow-motion variation in which you can see his foot bend at an agonizingly unnatural angle. He nevertheless clambered up the building and past the cameras to complete the shot. It's in the finished movie.
Fallout is thrilling in a way that is out of sync with blockbuster fashions. It doesn't try for any sort of present-day political resonance, and while it's a more direct sequel than any of the past installments, there's still nothing you really need to know in advance if you go in without having seen any of them, no larger arc being worked toward. Instead of making use of computer-generated effects, the film relies on those Cruise-enabled practical action sequences that are impeccably envisioned by Christopher McQuarrie, who also directed the previous installment, Rogue Nation.
This movie offers a straightforward sort of joy, and any streak of perverseness that might also be part of the spectacle really only comes to mind later. As Pegg quips, when he closes out a Fallout promo video that documents the five big stunts Cruise did for the film, "They're genuinely risking their lives to entertain people, which is incredibly valiant and... daft." His tone is admiring, but he's capturing a particular truth: Cruise's seeming deep need to give this much, to constantly up the stakes and try harder, is what mediates the suspicion that these movies will one day reduce him to a smear on the tarmac.
Fallout's success, you have to feel, is inextricably tied to Cruise's inexhaustible drive to please, to the point where it's even reflected onscreen in a storyline about how Ethan had to sacrifice a chance at love and normalcy because the world needed him out there on the front lines, saving the day by fighting a motorcycle duel or something. There's no reason to believe the actual world would stop spinning without Cruise in it, but there's something peculiarly endearing about his insistence that it might, and that everything he's doing is on our behalf. When he earnestly vows "I won't let you down" to another character in the movie, it feels like he's stopped just short of turning to the camera and saying the line to the audience, promising to always be there for us. And then he sets off running, as fast as he can — as if, if he just tried hard enough, he could outrun death itself. ●