Have you seen the trailer for the fourth Mission: Impossible film?
Many fans of both the original television series and film series star Tom Cruise might be forgiven for heaving a sigh as the chaotic action explodes across the screen—hammering the viewer with blink-and-you-miss-‘em shots cut against the fashionably sassy and percussive musical accompaniment of the Eminem and Pink song “Won’t Back Down”—and thinking to themselves oh, Tom, too little, too late…I’m so over ya.
That trailer got me juiced enough to take a few moments now to admit and share my unabashed man-crush on the shorter-than-you’d-expect, couch-hopping Scientologist everybody loves to snicker about. Some find him unattractive. Others think he can’t act. Many find the details of his personal life to be nearly michaeljacksonian in their strangeness.
Not me. (Well, maybe that last part) I’m a big fan. Here’s why:
The book Everything I Needed to Know About Succeeding in Hollywood I Learned from My Pit-Bull contains the Tinseltown wisdom that utterly defines the secret of Cruise’s success. This theory has been stated often and elsewhere about others, but seldom have I seen it phrased better:
You are an actor because of your ability to submerge yourself in a role that you play. You are a star because of the part of you that won’t submerge.
Who could deny that Cruise exists high up in that stratosphere of performers we call “movie stars”? Ever since his first breakthrough performance, Cruise, like Cary Grant, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood before him, has tuned the peculiar instrument of his unique personality into beautiful box office music. He is not known for disappearing into his parts. He is known for his swagger, his sharp good looks, his blistering smile, and the raw charisma he turns on with the apparent ease of flicking on the switch of a blowtorch.
More so than the performers I just mentioned, I locate Cruise in the tradition of past cinema swashbucklers, those “action stars” of yore that include the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and the actor I feel he most resembles in his appeal, Errol Flynn. I can’t imagine Tom Cruise in a contemporary remake of Robin Hood, but oddly enough, I can easily picture him starring (and delivering the Flynn performance) in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Part of Cruise’s appeal on the screen is that he articulates a fierce energy of modernity while embracing a compelling classical acting style. Cruise never delivers experimental performances (well, almost never, but more on that later); his star turns are instead cut with old-school craftsmanship and burnished by choices echoing the kind of attention to structure and well-oiled formula a writer puts into crafting a “well-told story.” In other words, Cruise’s acting does not please because he nourishes a volatile unpredictability (see: Daniel Day-Lewis), it pleases because he gives you, time and time again, everything that he knows works.
There’s nothing disrespectable about “giving the public what it wants” when you prove yourself able to do it with class over and over again. That is not selling out. It is not hackery. It is pure, expertly calculated professionalism. Of the contemporary actors who attempt to do this sort of thing, few accomplish it with his regularity.
Has he disappointed from time to time? Of course. It’s impossible to have a career as long and fruitful as his without a few misfires—though I would argue that his most talked-about “bombs” as a performer turn out to be much more intriguing than many other mainstream actors’ successes.
I think M:I:4 (officially known by the more ungainly title Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol) just might be the tipping point for the Cruise Comeback. Not that he ever really went away—but his “stock” did seem to fall quite a bit with his much-ballyhooed plunge into the revived United Artists studio and a few releases that left critics underwhelmed. And then there were the matters of his colorful appearance on Oprah’s show and his outspoken devotion to Scientology, which gave rise to the revelations of his prickly opinions about the psychiatric profession.
Not of much interest to me. I’m officially jazzed to see him (hopefully) returning to form. In that spirit, let’s cruise through some of the unforgettable appearances that no doubt put him in good stead with Xenu—not to mention his few hundred million fans around the world:
Risky Business One of Cruise’s earliest remains one of his best. It may not enjoy quite the status of The Graduate in terms of defining a sensibility and an era, but I have little doubt that the film’s profile will only continue to rise with the passage of time, and come to be seen as perhaps the definitive 1980s picture. Cruise plays Joel Goodson (a brilliantly simple, symbolically charged name), the high school kid left home alone long enough to get into lots of funny, scary, and sexy trouble. I say with absolutely no irony nor overstatement that his now-legendary solo dance bit is as iconic as anything by Astaire, Kelly, Travolta, you name it:
A Few Good Men People tend to think of Rob Reiner’s courtroom thriller (based on the Aaron Sorkin play) as Jack Nicholson’s film (“You can’t HAN-dle the truth!”). That’s wrong just as a matter of fact—the story indeed belongs to cocky Navy JAG lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee and the murder trial that guides him from cynicism to idealism—but it’s also not so true that the venerable Jack steals the film out from under Cruise with his delicious chomping of that cigar (and the scenery). If you want to see a sterling example of acting craft at its best, I’m recommending not that you take another look at the scene where the drunken Cruise storms around his apartment in that made-for-Oscar moment, but instead revisit the more subtle scene much earlier when Cruise travels to Cuba with associates Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak for their first meeting with corrupt colonel Nicholson at Guantanamo Bay, hoping to get clear answers to some “standard-issue” questions surrounding the suspicious death of a lackluster Marine.
Their breakfast interview session turns into an ugly confrontation where Jack takes things a little too far, assaults Cruise’s manhood (“What I do want is to see you stand there in that faggoty white uniform and with your Harvard mouth extend me some f**king courtesy.”) and makes exactly the wrong enemy. Colleagues on the set with Gary Cooper used to fear he was delivering horrible performances because he didn’t appear to be “doing anything,” but once they saw the rushes, they realized that what “little” he did actually delivered quite the opposite effect, the camera picking up the smallest nuances of performance that resulted in terrific emotional power. Cooper wasn’t doing a lot of indicating (like stretching your arms and yawning to demonstrate “I am tired now”), and that remains one of the keys to great screen acting. This is exactly what Cruise does well often, and especially in this moment: We see the tumblers quietly spinning around in Kaffee’s head, and it’s riveting.
The Firm Casting Tom Cruise as the star of a John Grisham legal thriller was inevitable, given their shared status as “best sellers.” Lucky for us, he landed in what seems to me (admittedly, never having cracked the pages of a Grisham tome) to be the most effective of any of the movies derived from his books. But then, Cruise is backed up by the extremely reputable Sydney Pollack sitting in the director’s chair, and receives the gift of Gene Hackman in a you–love-him-you-hate-him supporting role every bit as colorful and nuanced as his Oscar-winning turn in Eastwood’s Unforgiven the year before. Cruise would further capitalize on the integrity-fueling-the-plot thing in Jerry Maguire a few years later, but here, the notion of literally saving your life by way of some creative moral thinking is made particularly exciting.
Mission: Impossible The best James Bond movie released in the 1990s was what Brian De Palma gave us with this stylized updating of the popular ‘60s adventure series. As a cosmopolitan caper, it was so accomplished it made you question the Bond producers’ dictum about never hiring a director whose style would overwhelm the franchise. On the other hand, Mission Impossible: 2 showed exactly how that rule works well, because for all of John Woo’s magnificent talents, his readily identifiable approach seemed genuinely alien to the brand. The common touch brought to all the M:I films, however, is the presence of Cruise as the debonair man of action. His credibility as the agent who accepts impossible missions was cemented perfectly in the discussion of the plan for the NOC list heist (“We’re going to do it.” Cue pulsating opening hits of Lalo Schifrin’s M:I theme!), not to mention the mission itself, where De Palma orchestrates the suspense with yes, Hitchcockian brilliance.
Magnolia Much was made of Cruise satirizing his own public image in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ensemble drama. He delivers one of the finest, most audacious “meta” performances I’ve ever seen, playing a luridly profane and overconfident self-help huckster selling feminized and self-castrated men on the idea that the secrets of masculine strength are transferable, as salable as lunchmeat across the counter. This is Cruise deconstructing the alchemy of his superstardom for all to see, a revealing assault on not only the entire “How to Get Girls” scam, but also the psychological machinery that keeps Hollywood mythmaking like his alive and well.
A veil has not been pulled back with this much potency since the Wizard warned us not to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain. Plus, it has the benefit of being unbelievably funny. Warning, some bad language ahead:
How sorely tempting it is to include each and every segment of the “Seduce and Destroy” seminar here, as each and every second of these scenes is pure movie gold. This is a comic (yet nakedly honest) performance fully worthy of his third Oscar nomination—to date, the last time he has been so honored. Was it his best shot at a “legitimate” win? I submit that Cruise is far from being out of gas.
Cruise appeal was so strong it led the world’s most powerful film director, Steven Spielberg, to break with his “the movie is the star” casting philosophy—twice—to have Tom topline the provocative and vigorous sci-fi thriller Minority Report and participate in his utterly perplexing decision to revisit War of the Worlds. I don’t have a knee-jerk disapproval of remakes, but I found the WOTW update to be utterly superfluous, destined to be remembered mostly as one in a series of big-budget films that saw Hollywood uncomfortably working out America’s collective neuroses over 9-11, Toho-style, by fusing images of mass destruction into fantasy-based plotlines, ever in search of gravitas or at least added frisson.
When Cruise “fails,” though, it’s unlike the failures of other stars in that his work still often becomes what they used to call watercooler talk (we call it viral now). Hate his turn as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire? I will allow that his casting overshadows the movie in a way that Brad Pitt’s does not, but Cruise challenged himself by accepting the part. It requires some effort to forget you’re watching Tom Cruise in a role Tom Cruise probably shouldn’t be playing, but, once you’ve done that as much as you can, his contribution to the film has its genuine pleasures and completely fits, in a weird way, snugly into the generally subversive vibe of the Rice novel.
He went all Woody Allen on us and allowed audiences—and Stanley Kubrick, of all people—into his bedroom by starring in the surreal sex drama Eyes Wide Shut with then-wife Nicole Kidman. The film is equal parts hypnotic and aggravating, and, like most of Kubrick’s work, it demands multiple viewings to even begin to successfully comprehend. To sign on to a Kubrick film means you’re no coward, and simply having this credit brands Cruise as a performer of uncommon judgment and daring.
Ditto his decision to venture into the turbulent waters of studio management (or mismanagement, as some might say) with United Artists. Lions for Lambs may not have made Cruise any new friends in the heartland, but his portrayal of an overzealous conservative politician has more nuance to it than he’s been credited for in a film that is yes, preachy, but preachy in a way that recalls the lively cinematic activism of the 1970s. (Which is why it should come as no surprise the film marked one of Robert Redford’s rare returns to the director’s chair.) And while the movie is overly didactic, the fact of that also demonstrates how Cruise can navigate his way through films with big agendas just as well as he can those with no agendas.
I haven’t seen every Cruise picture. In fact, I’ve missed a few that many readers might feel represent the core of his curriculum vitae—which is to say I never watched Cocktail and Days of Thunder. My Cruise fandom got off to a rocky start mainly due to Top Gun, which I vaguely remember believing was as grossly idiotic, empty, and pointless an ode to the jock mentality as I thought it would be after seeing the trailer, then the film, and disparaging its popularity to anyone and everyone who would listen back then to my proto-emo rants.
I could go on about my fascination with the Cruise filmography: I realize I haven’t said anything about his solid turn in Rain Man, his partnerships with power directors Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Michael Mann, or the good-natured silliness of his Tropic Thunder mega-cameo. What could I possibly offer by way of a bite-size appraisal of Vanilla Sky? Impossible, but we’ll meet at the watercooler if you like.
Meantime, I have some catching up to do. I balked at seeing Valkyrie, perhaps unduly persuaded by lukewarm responses to it and my worry that perhaps Cruise was now stretching his limits a bit too far with the whole Nazi/eyepatch gig. I feared he would fall out of my favor—but what way is that for a fan to demonstrate his loyalty?
Cue it up, because I intend to lead by example and encourage anyone who may have written off Cruise due to his tabloid-friendly “issues” to give the top gun a more committed look.