Pity poor Tom Cruise. No, seriously: do you know what kind of hell he selflessly puts himself through so that you can have your entertainment? He has sacrificed an ordinary life for himself so that you may be diverted and amused by his charming celebrity hijinks both onscreen and off. And it’s not that he doesn’t love you — for, indeed, why would he forfeit the joys of anonymity voluntarily if he didn’t love you? — and it’s not that he doesn’t really and truly love what he does for you, but oh, he can almost taste the sweetness of normality. You can see it in the rabid desperation in his eyes when he’s jumping up and down on sofas on talk shows, in the wild yet somehow methodical public assembly of a sham of a regular life around himself. He so very badly wants to believe he can have it, even as a little voice somewhere deep down inside him tells him he can’t.
He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very much like IMF agent Ethan Hunt, actually. Ethan, see, he yearns for the simple pleasures of a suburban home with a station wagon in the driveway and a gentle and supportive wife at his side, and he’s trying, he’s really trying, with kind and lovely Julia (Michelle Monaghan: Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), with whom he is celebrating their engagement to be married as Mission: Impossible III opens. Of course, she must never know what Ethan does for a living — she thinks he works for the Virginia Department of Transportation analyzing traffic patterns. And he is, yup, rabidly desperate to protect this charade, this pretend-ordinary life. (And you know what? That same almost feral familial urgency fueled his performance in War of the Worlds, too, didn’t it?)
But it cannot last. One of his IMF teammates, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames: Dawn of the Dead, Dark Blue), says flat out: “A normal relationship isn’t possible for people like us,” what with their “baggage” and their “lifestyle.” Julia knows something is up, too: “Tell me it’s real,” she pleads of him, “I mean us,” when she begins to sense that he’s not being straight with her. But he continues to fake it — whether he actually loves her or not, he definitely loves the idea of her — and finds himself in a mad race literally around the globe to maintain the farce when Julia’s life is threatened by a villain who knows he can use her to get to Ethan.
And who is that enemy? Why, it would be someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Along Came Polly) and his arms dealer Owen Davian, wouldn’t it? Like a smack in the face, like a taunt, like a ghost of Christmases that might have been, here is someone not celebritified and tabloidized, someone who clearly feels no need to shout from mountaintops how in love he is as if he had to justify himself, someone with a shiny new Oscar, someone not movie-star-plastic but handsome in a down-to-earth way… someone who’s a Real Actor. Which, questions of talent aside, Cruise is not — he’s a Movie Star. (Hoffman, by the way, is a hoot here, all smarm and biting, juicy nastiness.) Cruise might have gone the character-actor route — Collateral proved he has the goods — but he chose the other path. Or perhaps had that mantle of Hollywood responsibility thrust upon him in the great hour of need that was Risky Business, and accepted the burden for the good of us all. Either way, he’s stuck with it now, and that’s fine… except, geez, it’d be nice to kick back with a beer on the just-mowed lawn once in a while, maybe wave to the neighbors.
Look, I realize that it can be hard to distinguish from dry snark, but I swear to god I am being 100 percent totally and sincerely sincere when I implore you to feel Tom’s pain. Maybe. Clearly, the boy ain’t right: he’s either, like Troy McClure, more into fish than people, or there really is a 70-million-year-old alien inhabiting his body, and yet he still feels compelled to attempt to pass for human instead of just saying, Fuck you all, this is who I am. Or else the entire phenomenon that is Tom Cruise is just one giant work of performance art and he’s giggling at us as much as we’re giggling at him, and that would be weird, too.
But the impossible mission here is to watch Mission: Impossible III and not see very distinct parallels to the public spectacle that Cruise has become. Because he is not a Real Actor, he doesn’t disappear into a role — the role becomes him, and lately, he’s Tom Cruiser than ever. And because this is not merely a dumb action movie — J.J. Abrams brings a lot of the same literary smarts that imbue his Lost and Alias, and there is much that is clever and witty, visually as well as verbally, here — it’s hard not to see some of these parallels as deliberate. This is a deeply cynical film in a lot of ways, bitter about the wages of dedication and the pressures of conformity (one character speculates that the MacGuffin everyone is after is a superweapon that would render all uniqueness out of the whole world, boil it down into a featureless goo). And if it is indeed yet one more outward expression of Cruise’s inner turmoil, might its assured blockbuster success be a kind of self-flagellation?
Pity poor Tom Cruise.
• Mission: Impossible 2 (review)
• Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (review)
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