Welcome to Back to the Movies, a special series of articles in which we’re exploring how we feel about returning to movie theaters after the pandemic. For this entry, Aurora Amidon showcases the big screen necessity of the Mission: Impossible franchise.
In 1996, a cinematic movement launched that would go on to define an entire generation of moviegoers. That movement was the Mission: Impossible franchise, a series of high-stakes, high-entertainment spy films (based on a hit TV show from the ’60s and ’70s) that truly live up to their name, defined by their impeccably choreographed fight scenes, dazzling visual effects, and, most of all, stunts.
Indeed, it is virtually impossible to divorce the franchise from its leading, thrill-seeking actor, Tom Cruise. Famously, Cruise has insisted on performing all of his own stunts since he first started playing the character Ethan Hunt twenty-five years ago. And previews of the franchise’s next installment, Mission: Impossible 7, which is slated to make its big screen debut next year, assure us that he’s not planning on winding down anytime soon.
Not only is it impressive that Cruise has consistently done all of his own stunts, but he’s also arguably doing some of the best action stunts out there today. In Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), he performs a rock-climbing feat that essentially guarantees you a fear of heights. And then he later topped that in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) by scaling the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
Doubling down again, in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), he hangs from the edge of a plane with the landscape a nauseating distance under him. And who can forget Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), in which he performs a terrifying HALO jump?
While these remarkable stunts surely speak for themselves, there’s also a clear love for and commitment to cinema that shines through in Cruise’s daring choices. Each year, an actor doing his or her own stunts becomes increasingly rare. Dissuasion from insurance companies and advanced special effects have a lot to do with this, but a lot of actors just don’t see the point anymore.
But an actor performing his own stunts in this day and age, despite the serious risk (Cruise famously suffered a major injury while filming Fallout), is an impressive homage to old Hollywood. It is also an act of preserving the glory of the movies at a time when the moviegoing experience is changing rapidly — many believe for the worst.
Stunts represent a lot about why we love movies. They’re authentic, they’re exciting, and they show a commitment to the art of film that makes us feel like we’re being communicated with through the silver screen. When we watch an actor perform a dangerous stunt for the sake of a scene, it’s as if he’s saying “I love movies so much that I am willing to put my life on the line for them.”
Ever since people started making movies, stunts have been tied closely to the spirit of what makes film such an exciting medium. Buster Keaton championed the craft in the early 20th century with silent comedy films such as Sherlock Jr. (1924), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Of Keaton, Roger Ebert once wrote: “The greatest of the silent clowns is Buster Keaton, not only because of what he did but because of how he did it. Harold Lloyd made us laugh as much, Charlie Chaplin moved us more deeply, but no one had more courage than Buster.”
The courage that Ebert refers to is one of the main appeals of the art of stunt work. From Steve McQueen, an A-list actor who famously risked it all to perform a six-foot-high motorcycle jump over a fence in The Great Escape (1963), to Jackie Chan who essentially forged a career out of his dexterous exploits in movies like Police Story (1985) and Rush Hour (1998), this fortitude has been vital to the candor of the business of making and watching movies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously damaged the film industry. Social distancing measures made attending cinemas untenable for a long time, and they are only just reopening after being shut down for over a year. Cinemas — especially small, privately owned theaters — have always struggled to make money. Unsurprisingly, many were forced to close permanently after they lost business for a couple of months. The pandemic not only caused fewer movies to be released and, in turn, an economic hit to the film industry, but it also struck many people on a sentimental level.
As the pandemic dragged on, more and more theaters closed — historical landmarks like The Dome in Hollywood, for example. For many, this was incredibly discouraging. It felt as though we were losing a part of the art we love so dearly that would never be replaced.
But the truth is, that’s been the case for years. Independent movies are harder and harder to come by each year, and it often feels as though the widely distributed movies lack the spark of, say, The Great Escape. It’s a feeling that people have been wrestling with for years now, but the past year has finally forced people to confront that feeling head-on. What would we do without the movies we love? Would we survive? Would we want to survive?
Perhaps those options sound dramatic, but then again, for over a century now, actors have been jumping off perilous heights to get the perfect shot. Fortunately, there’s good news. There are still people out there like Tom Cruise, who will do whatever it takes to preserve exactly what we love about cinema. And he’s not going anywhere, no matter how many bones he breaks in the process.
More than just a thrilling action film, Mission: Impossible 7 will be the perfect film to look forward to getting back to the big screen for — and to kickstart a new generation of moviegoers and movies, too. A generation that will remember that year when we thought we were going to lose the industry altogether, a generation that will never forget why that would have been so devastating.
Related Topics: Back to the Movies, buster keaton, Jackie Chan, Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise