The only thing I love more at the movies than a new Mission: Impossible movie is a triple entendre title. (See also: Spider-Man: Homecoming.) The latest installment, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, gave me both, and I couldn’t be happier. The title works at least three different ways. First, there is “nuclear fallout,” an imminent threat in this mission. Secondly, the plot revolves around the “fallout” from the previous film, Rogue Nation, which remains the franchise’s best and most underappreciated entry. Fallout is the first M:I movie to position itself as a direct sequel, and the first to bring back a director. Lastly, the title playfully hints at the movie’s biggest stunt, where Ethan Hunt literally “falls out” of a plane at high altitude and opens his parachute low to the ground. This play-on-words is highlighted in the movie’s 3-D/IMAX poster.
Fallout takes everything that came before it in the first five films, cranks them up to 11, then breaks off the knob so no-one else can ever turn it back down, (The knob, of course, then self-destructs in five seconds.) The movie has as much action and as many stunts as three Mission: Impossible films put together, references every previous entry without alienating newcomers, and still has room to tell a compelling story about a compelling character. More than any previous mission, Fallout explains a bit of what makes Ethan Hunt tick and why he is always at odds with not only the villains but also his allies. Hunt refuses to sacrifice one innocent life for the sake of many, and while this constantly puts the world in danger, he will always opt to save the innocent life then “figure it out” later as to how to save the rest.
Interestingly, this is the same dilemma that Captain America faced in Avengers: Infinity War. It didn’t work out as well for him. Morality is somehow always playing out the weighing of these two options, whether in classic film-tropes or ethics thought-experiments. As Christians who believe in an all-powerful God who died to save all, we have an interesting angle on this classic debate. Maybe we yet can’t answer whether you ought to save one life or save many, but we know that God has called some to lay down their lives for others willingly and led by example. Captain America wouldn’t allow another Avenger to make that sacrifice. Ethan Hunt was, and always is, making that call with his own life and body.
In fact, for more than 20 years, Ethan Hunt has been protecting the world from the forces of evil and destruction. He has saved our undercover agents from having their identity exposed; he saved us all from the Chimera virus; he saved us from the “rabbit’s foot,” a doomsday device that we may never know the capability of; he saved us from a nuclear missile; he took down The Syndicate, a global terrorist organization bent on chaos; and most recently he saved us from two more nukes (and Henry Cavill’s atomic biceps).
I use “us” playfully, but not flippantly. For 20 years, audiences have had a personal stake in watching Ethan Hunt save the world, and I think the reason is quite clear: Tom Cruise is just the best at this.
We believe Ethan Hunt’s relentless passion to save the world because we see it reflected in Tom Cruise’s insane passion to entertain the audience at extreme risk. Tom Cruise will attempt any stunt to entertain an audience, whether it means breaking his ankle jumping from building to building, spending 2000 hours training to become a helicopter pilot so he can do a move that the stunt pilots are uncomfortable with, or attempt a HALO jump. (Basically, a HALO jump is the most dangerous way to jump out of an airplane, short of jumping with no parachute.) These are just the things he did in this entry in the series, at 56 years of age. If Tom Cruise will do that, for a movie, then it’s not hard to believe that Ethan Hunt would do that to save the world.
It’s not quite method acting, where an actor becomes so immersed in a role and its world that the two are inextricable. Rather, it’s a 20-year-long exercise for an actor who for years has been shrouded in mystery and tabloid secrets, with a singular goal of seeking thrills and defying death, channeling and exaggerating those same qualities into a character saving the world. It all works because Tom Cruise makes it work. It’s unprecedented and shouldn’t be overlooked. More credit ought to be given to this man, who chose to accept a 20-year mission to entertain the world and still hasn’t stopped.
Though he is a polarizing figure for a lot of good reasons, Tom Cruise is at least an exemplar for devotion to his craft. I know of only a handful of people who devote themselves as fully to their vocation and calling as Tom Cruise does to acting and moviemaking. I hope one day to be counted among them, and am thankful for each of their examples – even the ones that are “just movies.”