Celebrating the Return of Cruise

I want to celebrate the return of a particular movie star. Maybe the marrow of that moniker, “movie star” has degenerated a bit. We’ve spent the last decade or more considering the value of today’s movie star and comparing that determined value to decades past.  We’ve stopped to consider whether this or that actor or actress is a star or not. With Tom Cruise there has never been a question. Ever since he slid onto the scene sporting a pink-striped shirt and some tighty whities (1983’s Risky Business), he’s been one of the most bankable actors on the planet. But it was only five years ago that some predicted the end of Thomas Cruise Mapother IV as a box-office power. He’d seemingly flipped his gourd with appearances on Oprah (too happy), the Today Show (too snippy) and a resulting media run-in with Brooke Shields (too Scientology-y). He had writers racing to their keyboards for a snarky use of the word “glib”. Cruise became a late night punch line. The Kidman era ended abruptly some years before. The Penelope Cruz thing never quite felt right. And when they split, he was on his own – for about five seconds before he creepily declared his love for Katie Holmes.

He’s shown some vulnerability at the box office, but his only stinker was 2007’s Lions for Lambs. I don’t want to get bogged down in the minutia of the box office game but it is at least clear, with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’s mammoth winter, that Cruise is back in control. After all, the last Mission movie – released during Cruise’s Dark Ages – didn’t perform nearly as well, despite being what many considered the best of the franchise at the time.

You could make the argument Cruise’s decision to play Les Grossman in 2008’s smash comedy Tropic Thunder started the healing process. Cruise never played such a broad, comedic role before and he nearly steals the movie with minimal screen time. But throughout his career he’s zigged and he’s zagged. Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Interview with the Vampire, Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Tropic Thunder all of these films and/or performances were unconventional choices at the time. He’s been a smart careerist, but he hasn’t played it safe or coasted on his toothy smile. He’s challenged himself and proved to be a thinker outside the box. He pulled J.J. Abrams out from TV land and gave him the reins to one of the biggest franchises in the last 15 years. And his decision to hire Brad Bird – who has never directed a live-action feature before – for the fourth film has proven to be an incredibly savvy move.

Cruise has always been an underrated actor with a real knack for playing jerks. I’m not sure people realize how many of Cruise’s roles are a-holes he somehow gets us to like or fall in love with. Flyboy Maverick, pool shark Vincent Lauria, bartender Brian Flanagan, NASCAR driver Cole Trickle, Naval Lt. Daniel Kaffee, billionaire playboy David Aimes and sports agent Jerry Maguire are all versions of the cocky rascal Cruise has made a great career of playing. Some more nuanced, some more fleshed out than others, but all cretins we come to love.

Charlie Babbitt – brother to Raymond – was a humorless, selfish, materialistic being who – like the best of Cruise’s characters – becomes a better person but he does so kicking and screaming. Ray Ferrier is one of Cruise’s sneaky-good performances. He’s Charlie Babbitt without the glamour and before the life lessons, a bad father forced to be a better one only because the world appears to be coming to an end. The vampire Lestat was cocky, but also menacing, even more so than the cold, calculating hitman named Vincent, one of cinema’s more interesting killers whose soul we watch in decay. The infomercial chauvinist, Frank T.J. Mackey, is one of Cruise’s most interesting frauds, cocksure but hurting more deeply, like the self-loathing John Anderton of the Pre-crime Unit and Civil War vet Nathan Algren, all in search of redemption and peace. Mackey was just as out there, just as brave a performance as Les Grossman. And just as funny.

When I look at the evolution of Ethan Hunt, it’s almost analogous to Cruise’s career. In the first Brian De Palma entry, Hunt was younger; all brash and swag. In John Woo’s sequel, there was a heightened level of arrogance. He was no longer simply a clever, capable agent. Hunt was transformed into a superhero,  with stylishly longer hair, tons of slow-mo and super-human feats of hilarious degree. Maybe it was inevitable both Hunt and Cruise would be taken down a notch. And so it went in the post-Kidman, post-Oprah, post-glib era, J.J. Abrams tortured Hunt, making the third Mission film the most personal and intense of the franchise. Hunt never appeared so desperate or pathetic as when he’s caught begging a frosty, shark-eyed Philip Seymour Hoffman.

In between the last two Mission movies, Cruise played one of my favorite roles in his recent career as Roy Miller in the underrated James Mangold action-comedy, Knight and Day. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Cruise so carefree, so likable. And while it appears on the surface to be just the sort of role Cruise excels at, it made me realize the actor doesn’t mistake cockiness for confidence. In the past, his characters leaned more towards the former to fill the void of the latter. But unlike most of his creations, Miller isn’t cocky, he isn’t a jerk, and he doesn’t have much in the way of demons. There are natural comparisons to be made between Ethan Hunt and Roy Miller. Both are cinematic super-spies. But Miller can only truly compare to the post-Abrams Ethan Hunt because with Roy Miller, Cruise is mocking the Superman image John Woo built up in the second film; the same superhero J.J. Abrams brought to its knees and humbled in the third. Perhaps Cruise has been humbled as well and perhaps that played a role in playing Roy Miller.

Cruise is nearing 50. Like Hunt, he’s run the three-act gamut, now with a comeback epilogue. Like the Ethan Hunt in the current Mission blockbuster, he’s taken a larger share of hits than he’s normally accustomed to and maybe that’s why he’s finally appearing to age. But he’s got 50 years of bruises and a rock-bottom tale in his pocket. That which does not kill you makes you stronger. The early rumors were this would be Cruise’s last Mission movie and the franchise would be handed over to Jeremy Renner. I’m not so sure Hunt is going anywhere quite yet, but it definitely looks like Cruise is here to stay.