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“Be honest,” the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Josh Olson asked on Twitter yesterday. “Without looking it up, can you remember the name of Tom Cruise’s character in the Mission: Impossible movies?”
The answer, obviously, is Ethan Hunt – aka “the living manifestation of destiny,” as Alec Baldwin snarled in the series’s fifth instalment. Olson’s underlying point, I think, is that Ethan Hunt isn’t a distinctive name for a man whose athleticism and daring makes him one in seven billion – it doesn’t stand out from the crowd like, say, Norville Quinge. (“Quinge is the living manifestation of destiny!” “This isn’t Mission Difficult, Mr Quinge, it’s Mission Impossible!”) Yet it has always struck me as one of cinema’s great action-hero names, and its smooth simplicity might be its greatest asset.
The character of Ethan Hunt wasn’t part of the original Mission: Impossible TV series, but first surfaced in 1996 in the Brian De Palma-directed franchise opener. At this point in his career – think A Few Good Men, The Firm, Interview with the Vampire – the 34-year-old Cruise wasn’t primarily known as an action star. But tastes were changing, and the glistening, pumped-up bodies of the 1980s were a fast-receding memory.
A decade beforehand, action heroes were called things such as John Rambo, John Matrix, John McClane, John Connor, John Spartan, John Kimble: eagle-eyed readers may notice a pattern. One authoritative, no-nonsense, single-handed syllable to start with, then a one-two punch surname – even the baptisms must have sounded macho.
But a seismic cultural change occurred in 1991’s Point Break, which – with an outrageous disregard for convention – called Keanu Reeves’s hero Johnny Utah. Here was a softer name for a more sensitive breed of hunk: one who could plausibly serve as a lover as well as a fighter, and might even be susceptible to bromance. Over the next few years, the same went for Will Smith’s Steven Hiller (in Independence Day), Nicolas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed (in The Rock) and Cameron Poe (in Con Air), and Bruce Willis’s Korben Dallas (in The Fifth Element) – as well as all of those playful and resourceful-sounding Jacks – Ryan, Traven, Sparrow, Bauer, Reacher and so on – who sprung up like Jack Russells, or Jacks-in-boxes, rather than clumping in Johnishly to sort things out.
Cruise’s Ethan Hunt was at the heart of this shift. In the De Palma film, Hunt was a capable but still fallible spy, rather than the invincible one-man secret service he would become in later instalments. And “Ethan” had a vulnerable, sensual ring to it, not least when purred or panted by Emmanuelle Béart. As for “Hunt” – well, that’s what the man does. Like its tireless, aeroplane-clinging owner, the name does its job with superhuman efficiency: it almost doesn’t matter if you can consciously recall it or not.
If the value of a succinct, evocative name should be obvious to anyone, it would be the actor born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. And a mere six years before Mission: Impossible, in the stock-car drama Days of Thunder, he found himself playing one of the most unappealingly styled screen-heroes of all time: Cole Trickle. In fact, this one was pretty authentic: the name was inspired by the seasoned Nascar racer Dick Trickle, which is one way of saying it could have been worse. Yet in terms of euphony, it’s barely a rung above Forrest Gump, and sounds like something the Coen brothers might have chucklingly come up with for a peripheral nebbish or sap.
Coen names are things of cracked, capricious wonder – and once heard, they always stick. When it comes to their heroes, entire personalities and even destinies are contained within: HI McDunnough, Barton Fink, Marge Gunderson, Larry Gopnik. Their supporting characters too, come to that: Hail, Caesar! alone gave us Hobie Doyle, Burt Gurney, DeeAnna Moran, Laurence Laurentz, Baird Whitlock and his stunt double Chunk Mulligan, and the identical-twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Here and elsewhere, the Coens are carriers of the torch lit by their filmmaking hero Preston Sturges, the screwball maestro and christener of Trudy Kockenlocker, Charles Poncefort Pike, The Princess Centimillia and Judge Alfalfa J O’Toole, among others.
One can only imagine what Sturges might have come up with, had he been asked to write an action movie – though perhaps we don’t have to, since in Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro basically got there first. If you want to capture all the wide-eyed earnestness of classic Saturday-morning cartoons, but reassure the audience they’re allowed to relax and have fun with it, there may be no better way of doing so than by casting Idris Elba as a charismatic general called Stacker Pentecost.
This article is an extract from The Telegraph’s Film newsletter. Sign up here to have exclusive insights from our chief film critic, Robbie Collin, delivered direct to your inbox every Friday.