I’m old enough to remember a time when the idea of Mission: Impossible being a Tom Cruise action vehicle was as outlandish as James Cameron directing a courtroom drama. Such a thing just seemed to be outside the realm of the possible. Hm. Maybe that was the point. It seemed like an impossible mission to transform Tom Cruise from a dramatic actor into an action star, but that 1996 movie (and its sequels) sure pulled it off.
Now I have to ask: can Mission: Impossible survive without Tom Cruise?
I personally never watched the original Mission: Impossible TV series or the revival in the late ‘80s. But my dad was a big fan of them. So I knew that Jim Phelps should be the main character, and he should work with a crack team of spies to pull off difficult missions. The first Mission: Impossible film flipped that idea on its head, making Phelps the villain and introducing us to a new character named Ethan Hunt. There was still a teamwork mentality throughout the film, but it was Ethan calling the shots most of the time.
From there, it’s pretty much been the Tom Cruise show. People come to each follow-up film wondering what crazy stunt the actor is going to perform in his quest to constantly one-up himself in the death-defying department. Sure, many talented directors have been brought on board to leave their unique mark on each of the films in the series. But does anyone really care which one was directed by Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, or Christopher McQuarrie? I doubt it. Instead, we remember each film based on the incredible stunts performed in them.
In other words, Tom Cruise (and his daredevil attitude) is the real star of the show and has been for the last 23 years. That’s nearly the same length of time from the beginning of the original TV series to the end of its revival, 1966-1990. Cruise isn’t going to live forever. He’s going to have to pass the torch eventually, but at this point is that even possible?
In its current iteration, I don’t think it would work to simply replace Tom Cruise with another actor. There would have to be a fundamental change in what audiences expect from the series. Let’s go through some examples of successful and failed attempts to pass the torch to get a sense for whether or not this would work for Mission: Impossible.
The Bourne film series is another one that veered dramatically from its original source material right from the first film. The Bourne Identity (2002) was a solid action movie that cemented Matt Damon as an action hero. Two films later, his story seemed to be at an end in The Bourne Ultimatum. Universal tried to go in a different direction with The Bourne Legacy, focusing on Jeremy Renner. But it underperformed compared to the last two installments at the worldwide box office, so four years later they brought back Damon for one last hurrah in Jason Bourne. It made a lot of money, but it proved that there’s no future for the series if it ever tries to move away from Damon.
James Bond is the ultimate example of successfully passing the torch. Everyone has their favorite actor to play Bond, but the point is that they’re all good in their own way. And each one managed to make enough money to justify the series continuing for nearly six decades. That’s no easy feat. In this case, the character of Bond is always the star, along with the stunts and the familiar formula we’ve come to expect from these movies. It’s not a problem to switch actors as long as the character remains intact.
After killing off Michael Myers at the end of Halloween II, the series tried to do something completely different in Halloween III: Season of the Witch. It didn’t work. Despite John Carpenter’s intention for the series to become an anthology of different scary stories all happening on Halloween, audiences demanded more slicing and dicing by their favorite masked serial killer. So that’s what they got in all future sequels and remakes. The upside is that since he’s masked, it barely matters what actor plays him.
The Rocky series actually did manage to pull of a major shift by keeping Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, but making him a supporting character and focusing primarily on Apollo Creed’s son. Creed and its sequel still have the same dynamic as the original films with an underdog boxer struggling to prove himself with the aid of an old mentor, but they moved the pieces around enough to reinvigorate the formula.
RoboCop 3 would have been a disaster, whether or not Peter Weller returned in the titular role. But even when they rebooted the series in 2014 and cast another actor, it was still a disappointment. I’ve heard rumors of another RoboCop sequel in the works, but I don’t think there will be another movie quite as memorable as the original. Peter Weller will always be RoboCop.
Audiences don’t seem to have a problem with new actors filling the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne every few years. Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, and even Ben Affleck are all fondly remembered, and Val Kilmer and George Clooney have their fans. It’s just a matter of making a good film. The actor in the lead role doesn’t seem to make or break their movies.
Superman is a similar story. I don’t think people mind seeing a new actor play Superman/Clark Kent. There have been so many films, live-action TV shows, and animated iterations that it’s safe to say that the Man of Steel is impervious to casting changes. It’s difficult to say if other superheroes like Captain America and Iron Man can be recast quite so easily, but time will tell. But Spider-Man and the Hulk have survived multiple recastings, so there’s hope.
I won’t say it’s impossible for Mission: Impossible to survive without Tom Cruise, but I do think it wouldn’t survive without a major overhaul of its formula. In fact, it would probably be unrecognizable to the point that it might just be better to start an entirely new film series. But that won’t happen because it’s all about brand recognition. Mission: Impossible has a strong brand. However, I don’t envy the filmmakers who accept the mission to keep it going without Cruise.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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