Fun fact: it took me a long time to get over the death of Josh Holloway‘s Trevor Hanaway in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. I’m not talking about The Last Jedi levels of fan entitlement, just a low-key bitchiness about the introduction – and subsequent death – of my favorite non-Ethan Hunt character in the Mission: Impossible franchise. In fact, it wasn’t until this past week that I finally rewatched Ghost Protocol and began to see some beautiful symmetry in how the franchise kills off some of its best supporting characters. The only true constants in the Impossible Missions Force universe are death and the madcap energy of Tom Cruise, and that’s probably just the way things should be.
First, a little background. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation represented a restart of sorts for Holloway’s career. By his own admission, Holloway’s focus in 2011 was putting a little bit of distance between himself and his breakout role on Lost. The actor cut his shoulder-length hair for his role in Mission: Impossible and was candid in interviews about turning down television projects in favor of moving into feature films. At that point in his career, the consensus was that the then-41-year-old actor was a touch too old for Hollywood to gamble on as a franchise anchor, but projects like this one allowed him to show off his chops as an action star for future projects in the pipeline. If Mission: Impossible gave him a good character to work with, it might allow casting agents to think of him as more than just Sawyer.
Thankfully, Trevor Hanaway was a very, very good action character – so good, in fact, that we are treated to his death sequence twice in the film from two different perspectives. The film opens with Holloway’s dramatic rooftop plummet while trying to escape two rogue agents; moments later – before we’ve had a chance to see anything but the Bad Robot logo – he’s shot in the chest and left dying on a street corner. Ghost Protocol will double back to his character later in the movie, giving us a prolonged replay of how Hanaway and his team were double-crossed, but the character had already proven that Mission: Impossible III was no fluke for the franchise. Holloway revealed himself to be a more stylish action star in his few minutes onscreen than Jeremy Renner would in his entire turn as Ethan Hunt’s reluctant collaborator. Would that Abrams and company had seen fit to switch the two roles.
Of course, dedicated Mission: Impossible fans weren’t exactly surprised to see Hanaway murdered before pretty much out of the gate. One MTV article even included a trailer breakdown – a little ahead of the curve, those folks at MTV – with the bold prediction that Holloway’s Hanaway would meet an “an unfortunate, and quite possibly bloody,” end. As that article pointed out, it was easy to note the parallels between Hanaway and Keri Russell‘s Lindsey Farris in Mission: Impossible III. That character, the first true protege of Hunt’s career, was meant to show the burden that Hunt carries with him as a field agent. While Hanaway’s death does not fall on Hunt’s shoulders, he understands the weight others carry as a result of their loss. The death of IMF agents – trained to be the best and disavowed and cast aside at a moment’s notice – helped set the stage for films like this weekend’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
And maybe that’s the second biggest through line for a franchise whose continuity is barely held together by Tom Cruise’s star power. The very first film in the franchise made a splash by killing off half its cast in the first act; with all apologies to Emilio Estevez, that film’s surprising death came in the form of Kristin Scott Thomas, who herself was months shy of an Oscar-nominated breakout role in The English Patient. As the Mission: Impossible franchise has moved towards its most explicit sequel in the last two decades, Christopher McQuarrie and company can connect the dots between movies to show Ethan Hunt as a character who feels he’s always one false move away from losing those around him. That’s what makes Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Foust such a welcome addition to the franchise; like Hunt, she’s a survivor, something in short order in the man’s life. That’s also why characters can claim that Hunt is on the verge of snapping and it makes perfect sense.
The truth is that entire action franchises try and fail to create characters as instantly likable as Trevor Hanaway and Lindsey Farris; the Mission: Impossible movies have been somberly killing them off since the days when Brian De Palma was considered a bankable mainstream filmmaker. Like Russell before him – and like Scott Thomas before that – the Mission: Impossible franchise has never been cavalier with its deaths, but it has always treated them as the one constant in Ethan Hunt’s life. Jason Bourne and James Bond each have the death of a loved one to mourn; the Mission: Impossible franchise was smart enough to introduce multiple characters who resonate with the audience before killing them off unexpectedly, giving Hunt a burden to carry beyond that of any contemporary spy franchises. In the end, Tom Cruise and death are all we really need.