It’s hard to find a straight up action movie these days. Where the 80s and 90s were a heyday of action extravaganzas, today’s cinematic landscape is populated by comic book and video game adaptations, sci-fi adventures, and whatever The Rock feels like doing, while the one-time kings of action cinema are largely relegated to DTV and limited release fare. That’s not to say great action movies don’t happen, but the realm of action franchising is short on name-brand heroes that don’t come with a superpower attached. We haven’t seen John McClane since 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard (which is probably a mercy) and Lethal Weapon is a network TV show now, for goodness sake. Which is what makes Tom Cruise’s 20+ year tenure as Ethan Hunt such a spectacular cinematic staple.
With Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Cruise confirms what I’ve long believed: Ethan Hunt is the action hero of a generation. He’s an unstoppable force of nature, or as Alec Baldwin’s CIA director Alan Hunley described him in Rogue Nation, “The living manifestation of destiny,” and there’s nothing and no one that can get between Hunt and his mission accomplished. Over the course of six films, Cruise has delighted us with insane stunts; sending Hunt repelling into Langley, free-climbing off cliffs, and dangling off the side of the Burj Khalifa. He’s thrown more punches than Rocky and fired more bullets than Dirty Harry. He’s traversed the globe and saved the world again and again. And somehow it never gets boring. In fact, against the laws of man and nature, Cruise’s physical abilities and dedication to stunt work increase with each film.
Part of what makes Hunt such an enduring figure is his malleability — not just physically, though God knows these movies have tossed, twisted and put Ethan through the ringer in every way possible — but as a character in general. Think of what you know about Ethan Hunt. Not much, right? The first film referenced his family and their farm, a detail that was wisely abandoned for the sequels, and we’ve seen him fall in love as it relates to the plot of the film, but Hunt is above all defined by the circumstances he’s in and the people he’s with. It’s pure show, don’t tell. We don’t need to know what he does between movies; his character is revealed to us through action. Because ultimately, at his core, Hunt is through-and-through a hero.
Ethan isn’t worried about the greater good, he is just plain good. His priority is always preserving innocent life in any given moment, valuing the sanctity of the real life in front of him over the theoretical lives he could save by sacrificing it. That pure-hearted drive has been a trademark of his core personality since the beginning and only grown with time. “He’ll no doubt engage in some aerobatic insanity before he’ll risk harming a hair on a security guard’s head,” says the villainous Sean Ambrose in Mission: Impossible II, correctly anticipating Ethan’s no-casualty approach. He gave up the woman he loved to keep her safe. In Fallout that instinct becomes the drive of the film. Hunley tells Ethan that there’s something in him that won’t allow him to “choose between one life and millions”, and Ethan spends the film contending with the fallout from that credo. He’s one of the good guys, through and through, never willing to compromise on his morals for the sake of a theoretical victory.
That’s why he’s constantly diving headfirst, eyes-open into danger from minute to minute — Ethan is always finding a way to deal with the repercussions of his valorous decisions, another element that makes him such an engaging action hero to watch on screen. Hunt never hesitates and never surrenders, not even after dying. Which he’s done twice. Nope. Restart Ethan Hunt’s heart and his first move is to pick up a gun or get behind the wheel and race through the streets of Morocco. He may grimace about it or stumble a bit more than he did in his cocky, swaggering days—Mission: Impossible III humanized him, but he’s still sprinting at that Tom Cruise breakneck to unfuck whatever needs to be unfucked. He’s got pure intention, unstoppable drive, and of course, a lot of luck. Hunt is so lucky in his “wanton acts of mayhem,” (another Hunley gem) that it’s become a running point of commentary through the films, and each time the roll of the dice goes his way, it’s a visceral thrill for the audience, who gets to experience a little of that luck second-hand.
It’s a fascinating, kinetic character, capable of evolving and deepening with each film and were it not for the laws of nature, Cruise could probably keep this blockbuster franchise running forever. As long as we’re excited to watch Ethan dive head first into chaos and as long as Cruise keeps teaming with exciting filmmakers (you have to admit John Woo was an exciting choice, even if the results were less than stellar), the Mission: Impossible franchise knows no bounds. Because Ethan Hunt is the perfect action hero, a vessel of good fearless intention ready to pour himself into the shape and structure of whatever filmmaker’s vision comes along next.