In Tom Cruise's newest film "Oblivion," he's a likably cocky guy who's proficient at his job but doing it for the wrong reasons, a charmer in need of a moral wake-up call. It's a standard Cruise part, this time reprised as one cog in a big, splashy science-fiction blockbuster. As in his feature debut "Tron: Legacy," director Joseph Kosinski is more interested in meticulously rearranging two-color palettes scene by shiny scene (green and blue, blue and orange, blue and gray) than highlighting his leading man; it's a movie about clean lines of action and sleek images, not humans. Cruise accepts this, becoming a utilitarian player focused on the smooth functioning of a larger machine.
On Box Office Mojo's inflation-unadjusted list of the highest-grossing actors, Cruise is sixth. His "Oblivion" co-star Morgan Freeman ranks one spot above him by virtue of sheer hustle and longevity (he's more than doubled Cruise's 37 feature credits). Setting aside other top 10 residents who've similarly sweated out their place on the list (Michael Caine and Samuel L. Jackson), Cruise's filmography holds up well, with more notable titles sprinkled over a longer period than Eddie Murphy or (a nation's shame) Robin Williams.
Set aside the star-making first decade of his career, and a solid track record remains: tolerable-or-better commercial entertainments (the up-and-down "Mission: Impossible" franchise), working for scale and thereby ensuring that P.T. Anderson's unorthodox "Magnolia" would actually be made, sweating through two of Spielberg's most effective action films ("Minority Report," "War of the Worlds"), submitting to Stanley Kubrick's meticulousness for an increasingly beloved cult title ("Eyes Wide Shut"), enabling Michael Mann's first experiments with digital disguised as a narrative film ("Collateral"). 2011's "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" was one of the finest action films of the past decade, putting animator Brad Bird's skills in the service of cleanly delineated, extravagantly show-stopping set-pieces with minimal downtime. Cruise's Ethan Hunt got a stab of back-story, but mostly he ran, jumped and did wordless spy things in service of the greater good. (Conspicuously unmentioned: "The Last Samurai" and "Valkyrie." These things happen.)
Despite this something-for-everyone body of work, it seems to be an uncontroversial /normative sentiment for people to say they despise Cruise. Revisionist history pegs this to his 2005 Oprah couch-jump and contemporaneous heightened promotion of Scientology — both obnoxious, to be sure, but hardly events of lasting public magnitude. In 2009, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone was especially impolite when explaining why subsidiary Paramount decided not to renew its relationship with Cruise's production company, saying his behavior "turned off all women, and a lot of men," as well as potentially crippling the third "Mission: Impossible"'s domestic grosses by $150 million. (A judgment which didn't stop Paramount from making the mega-grossing fourth installment or "Jack Reacher," which cleaned up tidily overseas.)
I can understand the viewpoint of the person who, on an "Oblivion" poster in a Manhattan subway station, scrawled "Tom Cruise Scientology Illuminati Puppet" (i.e., they're a mentally ill conspiracy theorist), but this free-floating animus has long been with us from superficially more rational people. Doing some quick poking around the internet, I found an article from 2002 (!) entitled "Ten Things I Hate About Tom Cruise." (Number one: "He's short.")
Why Cruise's private life/height/ill-advised "religious" interests/tendency to file lawsuits with little provocation are such big factors in his putative unlikability (or why his potential gayness is of any real interest) still mystifies me. I could understand finding his persona — effectively the same on talk shows — off-putting, since it relies on you finding him as charming as he expects you to, rather than merely arrogant. His range is limited, but he's rarely pushed past it. That's not a knock: he's the leading man as character actor, brought in to perform a job capably and predictably, avoiding the embarrassment of watching someone decidedly failing to stretch. If that's not your thing, that's understandable, but he clearly understands his limitations.
I submit that judging the man's work by his off-movie-screen-antics is no more reasonable than any other aspect of Celebrity Culture, the fanged beast which invites people to make quick, underinformed yet remarkably strong judgments about the moral worth of the famous. Cruise produces movies which are rarely offensive, and sometimes better than that, with admirable consistency. As a producer, too, he's done worthy work, bringing in his "Mission: Impossible" titles on time/budget and enabling the latter-day directorial career of Robert Towne, a proper thank you for the man who wrote "Chinatown" (and polished the first two "Mission"s). Directors who make a Cruise film are allowed to let their personalities shine through; the "Alien" franchise aside, few long-running franchises have given their handlers as much stylistic flexibility. Cruise doesn't "need" your sympathy (or mine), but there are far more hateable personalities and actors; give the unimaginative bashing a rest and let the workhorse work.