Tom Cruise and the return of the spy movie

31 Jul 2015 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

5 mins
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Rogue Nation is the fifth film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, a series that originally began life as a hit television show in the 1960s. The series has become known for having a new director and distinct style for every instalment. First there was Brian De Palma's Hitchcockian espionage drama and John Woo's martial arts thriller; followed by J.J. Abrams' feature film debut and Pixar genius Brad Bird's first foray into live action. For this fifth entry, it's the turn of Oscar®-winning screenwriter-turned-director Christopher McQuarrie, who previously worked with star Tom Cruise on Jack Reacher.

Cruise has played Ethan Hunt in all five films, stretching over a period of 19 years. Though it's unusual for a major movie star to play the same role for such a long period of time, Cruise is not unique: Leonard Nimoy played Star Trek's Spock for over 34 years, while Christopher Lee played Dracula ten times between 1958 and 1976. The most notable example comes from another spy franchise: Desmond Llewelyn played gadget guru Q an incredible 17 times in various James Bond films, from Goldfinger in 1963 to The World Is Not Enough in 1999. It remains to be seen how long Cruise keeps playing Hunt for and if another actor takes on the role once he decides to move on.

Death-defying acts

The Mission: Impossible films have become famous for their stunt work, with each movie featuring at least one incredible set-piece performed by Cruise himself. The first film started off relatively modestly, with Hunt silently lowering himself from the ceiling dangling from a wire, hovering just inches from the ground. That may not sound particularly daring, but the sequence has become celebrated for its high levels of tension and is regularly parodied in other films and television shows.

From then on, the stunts got more daring. In Mission: Impossible 2, Cruise went free climbing up a sheer rock face in Utah, while the third film featured a magnificent set-piece in Shanghai, involving some of the city's tallest skyscrapers, with Cruise swiftly coming up with reasons to leap off them. The most recent film took things even further, with a spectacular scene involving Cruise climbing up the world's largest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. As a result of these stunts, Christopher McQuarrie compares Cruise's performances with those of the silent movie stars such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, due to their intense physicality.

For Rogue Nation, the filmmakers have outdone themselves. The opening scene sees Ethan climbing onto the side of a plane and hanging on as it takes off, without the use of special effects or a stunt double. At times Cruise was as high as 5,000ft in the air. Filmed at RAF Wittering in Peterborough, Cruise wore specially designed lenses to prevent jet fuel from getting into his eyes and had to really watch out for birds - the slightest contact would have been fatal - as well as remember the lines he had to deliver. Despite the danger, the filmmakers ended up doing the scene eight times to get it right.

2015: The year of the spy

Spy films are known for their globetrotting set-pieces and Rogue Nation is no exception. Filming took place in Vienna, Morocco and the UK, with Cruise describing this latest film as being in part a love letter to London, with one crucial set-piece taking place amidst the famous London fog.

As well as Rogue Nation, this year has already seen Kingsman: The Secret Service. Meanwhile, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (also based on a 1960s television show) and a little film called Spectre are due for release before the end of the year. Steven Spielberg is also tackling spies in his new film, albeit more seriously, with Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks.

It will be interesting to see how all of these spy films perform, and whether the genre turns into a larger trend. We can also think about what might have brought about this new interest in spy film - or is it just a coincidence?

Spy films have always been a huge draw in cinemas, however Ethan Hunt regularly does battle at the box-office with his contemporaries James Bond and Jason Bourne. Alfred Hitchcock was the master of the spy film, responsible for many classics of the genre, including The 39 Steps, Notorious and North By Northwest. Other favourites of ours include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Ipcress File (starring a young Michael Caine), The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Third Man, a film that has regularly been cited as the greatest British film ever made.

While we love all of these films, we cant help notice that they all star men in the central roles. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Zero Dark Thirty and Salt, but generally women are cast in supporting roles in spy movies. This year's Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy, was a refreshing change, albeit in a comedy turn, and we definitely think it's time there were more female centred stories, and that a woman got the chance to give Bond, Bourne and Hunt a run for their money!

Jaime Bond, perhaps?

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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