Impossible 2 Changed Tom Cruise’s Career (For Better And Worse)

While it may not be one of his most critically acclaimed, Mission: Impossible 2 remains arguably the most formative film of Tom Cruise’s career. Cruise is regarded as one of the most iconic action stars of all time, but it wasn’t until Mission: Impossible that the three-time Golden Globe winner cemented himself as such. For better or worse, the 2000 spy thriller changed the trajectory of Cruise’s career.

Directed by action auteur John Woo, Mission: Impossible 2 followed Ethan Hunt as he set out to destroy a biological weapon known as “Chimera.” Woo’s involvement was notable in that it came on the heels of his success with 1997’s Face/Off, but he and screenwriter Robert Towne were actually somewhat limited in their influence on the film. Cruise, who produced M:I 2 alongside longtime business partner Paula Wagner, predetermined several stunts and action sequences before production on the film was even underway. Some of these sequences proved consequential in marketing the film prior to its release in May of 2000 and helped make it the highest-grossing film of the year.

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Mission: Impossible 2 wasn’t Cruise’s first action film – he had already appeared in the first film in the franchise, as well as 1986’s Top Gun – but it did mark a turning point for the actor. Previously, Cruise’s action roles were part of a wider body of work. He was just as likely to scale a cliffside or jump out of a helicopter as he was to give a stirring monologue. Cruise received recognition for performances in films like Jerry MaguireMagnolia, and Eyes Wide Shut. Several of Cruise’s films remain among some of the most highly regarded films of their time. Action films were the exception, not the rule. And yet, Cruise’s career has come to be defined by his action turns, and not so much by his diverse set of dramatic performances. The turning point is clearly Mission: Impossible 2, but why?

Tom Cruise’s Career Before Mission: Impossible 2

Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut

Cruise made his onscreen debut in 1981 with Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love, albeit in a minor role. His true breakthrough came in 1983, with leading roles in films like Risky Business and The Outsiders. Early on, it seemed, Cruise had cemented himself as a sort of heartthrob, appearing in several teenage sex comedies or coming-of-age dramas. But Cruise defied definition. In 1985, he appeared in Ridley Scott’s fantasy film Legend as a forest-dweller named Jack O’ the Green. He then made his first foray into the world of action with Top Gun, which saw a sequel, Top Gun: Maverick delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that he had worked with such high-profile directors as Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, and Francis Ford Coppola, however, Cruise was a hot commodity in Hollywood. He began working with several legendary directors, including Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, and Rob Reiner. He collaborated with Oliver Stone in 1989’s Born on the Fourth July, with Neil Jordan on 1994’s Interview with a Vampire, and with Stanley Kubrick on Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut. By the time Mission: Impossible 2 debuted in 2000, Cruise had appeared in everything from legal dramas to erotic thrillers to romantic comedies.

What’s perhaps most notable about Cruise’s career before Mission: Impossible 2 is the broad range of characters he inhabited. There’s a running joke nowadays that Tom Cruise tends to just play himself onscreen, and there’s certainly some truth to that when it comes to movies like Jack Reacher and The Mummy. But, once upon a time, Cruise actually inhabited some very diverse roles. In Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise played real-life anti-war activist Ron Kovic, capturing Kovic’s grueling reentry into society after getting critically wounded in a firefight in Vietnam. The Color of Money saw a much brasher version of Cruise, an acting style that would also fare quite well in films like Jerry Maguire and Magnolia. Acting alongside then-wife Nicole Kidman, Cruise offered considerable emotional depth in films like Days of Thunder and Eyes Wide Shut. Tom Cruise remains an impressive performer even today, but his penchant for action films has obviously put his stuntwork at a premium and left his emotional capacity on the backburner.

Related: Top Gun: Maverick Should Steal Mission Impossible’s Franchise Formula

Tom Cruise’s Career Post-Mission: Impossible 2

Edge of Tomorrow Featured

One glance at Tom Cruise’s filmography and it’s clear that he committed himself wholeheartedly to the action genre in the wake of Mission: Impossible 2. And who can really blame him? The sequel became the highest-grossing film of Cruise’s career until Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds replaced it five years later (Mission: Impossible Fallout now has the record by a fairly wide margin.) Cruise is a clear adrenaline junkie, and the action genre allows him to scratch that itch while still demonstrating the same natural charisma that fueled the first half of his career.

Indeed, it seems Cruise’s own personal need for thrills, and his accompanying status as an adrenaline junkie, have more to do with the drastic shift in his career than the lucrativeness of the action genre. Before Mission: Impossible 2 even netted $546 million at the box office, Cruise was already developing a reputation as an action icon. The marketing for M: I 2 focused on the unique nature of Cruise doing his own stunts in the film, such as climbing a mountain in Dead Horse Point State Park, or riding through flames on a motorcycle. More so than continuing the story of Ethan Hunt, the core selling point for Mission: Impossible 2 became the opportunity to see Tom Cruise do all his own stunts. Cruise therefore leaned into this idea, and embraced a sort of typecasting that only he could (film critic Roger Ebert even coined the term “Tom Cruise Character” to refer to the growing list of action heroes Cruise has embodied.)

After Mission: Impossible 2, Cruise appeared in films like Minority Report and Collateral. While those films are best categorized as sci-fi and noir, respectively, they nevertheless contributed to Cruise’s evolution into an action star. He eventually completed his transition with blockbusters like Knight and Day and Edge of Tomorrow, the latter of which may become Tom Cruise’s next big action franchise.

The Impact Of Mission: Impossible 2 On Cruise’s Career

Ethan Hunt being pursued as he leaves Biocyte laboratories

Cruise’s career took an irrevocable turn after the year 2000. Mission: Impossible 2 rendered Cruise the biggest action star in the world, and he hasn’t looked back. Cruise’s bank account is undoubtedly grateful for the turn in his career, but was it really the right path for the actor? Cruise undoubtedly brings everything he has to his every action performance. He famously puts life and limb on the line in each and every Mission: Impossible sequel he films. Cruise therefore delivers visceral thrill after thrill in each of his films, even when a film’s overall quality isn’t quite up to snuff (i.e. The Mummy.)

Related: Why Top Gun 2 Won’t Beat Ghostbusters: Afterlife At The Box Office

Cruise’s commitment is admirable. He never phones it in, no matter the film. Still, one can’t help but wonder how his turning point in 2000 has somewhat limited his career. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Cruise proved that he has legitimate acting chops. The action genre serves Cruise and his persona well, but it doesn’t quite allow him to demonstrate his range. In the rare occasions when Cruise has flirted with other genres in the years since Mission: Impossible 2, he has reaffirmed his talent. His legendary cameo in Tropic Thunder remains one of the most hilarious moments of his career, and American Made similarly highlighted Cruise’s capacity for comedy. Cruise even made a drastic career departure in 2012 when he appeared in the musical movie Rock of Ages as washed-up rock star Stacee Jaxx. Rock of Ages ultimately met mixed reviews, but Cruise received praise for his performance and singing ability. Nevertheless, such moments are few and far between for Cruise. Action films remain highly profitable, and fans have come to expect such films from Cruise. Incredibly, the seeds of those expectations were planted over 20 years ago, when Mission: Impossible 2 reinvented one of the biggest names in Hollywood.

Next: Did John Carpenter Change Top Gun’s Original Ending?

  • Top Gun: Maverick/Top Gun 2 (2021)Release date: Nov 19, 2021
  • Mission: Impossible 7 (2022)Release date: May 27, 2022
  • Mission: Impossible 8 (2023)Release date: Jul 07, 2023

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