There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Tom Cruise was an actor who showed off his own diversity, mixing smaller dramas and character studies in with his stratospheric blockbuster epics. He was not always the best at everything, running from destruction and staking his entire career on doing his own stunts. Sometimes he played a broken man, an actual human being with a fragile psyche and an arc that didn’t involve hanging from an airplane or pirouetting outside the 130th floor of a skyscraper.
Tom Cruise isn’t really into acting anymore as much as he’s into having fun, delivering the goods for the masses in middlebrow action spectacle instead of working on emotionally challenging roles. His work has been gentrified to hit as many important demographics as possible and sell all the tickets.
And that is perfectly fine of course (not that my approval matters). I enjoy the Mission: Impossible franchise as much as the next person. Edge of Tomorrow is a terrific film, The Mummy looks ridiculous but fun, etc. etc… It’s not necessarily that Cruise should get rid of these big dumb awesome action movies; he never has. But why hasn’t he tried, somewhere in between these movies, to dive deep into a role again, to show an ability to act within himself, to pour his heart and soul into a performance the way he used to?
I blame Magnolia.
But first, let’s back up. The 80s version of Tom Cruise was just getting started, so his career was mixture of movies big and small. He had his big break with Risky Business; from there he worked with Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese and, in 1986 he blew the doors off the box office with Top Gun. In 1988, he worked with Barry Levinson on Rain Man. His Charlie Babbitt character thought he was hot shit, but the entire picture focused on the destruction of his ego as he learned how to love another human being, his brother Raymond.
Two years later, Cruise kicked off his epic 90s run with an Oscar nomination in Oliver Stone’s Born on The Fourth of July, where played paralyzed Vietnam Vet Ron Kovic. This would begin a decade where there was no bigger star on the planet than Cruise, who would dominate the box office in movies like Days of Thunder, A Few Good Men, The Firm, Interview with The Vampire, and Mission: Impossible. Jerry Maguire would earn Cruise his second Oscar nomination, cementing his status as THE leading man. But look at the run of success here… a big-budget Tony Scott racing movie, a courtroom drama from Rob Reiner and written by Aaron Sorkin, a horror movie where he was the villain, and an epic franchise starter DIRECTED BY BRIAN DE PALMA! Jerry Maguire was Cameron Crowe at the height of his powers, where Cruise played a phony Master of The Universe whose ego was systematically broken down. Tom Cruise showed diversity in his selection of roles, and he showed an incredible range; we all know about the work he put in on Stanley Kubrick’s (STANLEY KUBRICK!) final film, Eyes Wide Shut. And then, the pinnacle of Cruise’s diversity came in a supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnum opus.
As Frank T.J. Mackey, the crass male self-help guru in PTA’s Magnolia, Cruise was one of a handful of captivating performances. But his portrayal of broken maleness inflicted upon him by the sins of his father was the standout role. Cruise was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and seemed to be a shoe in at the Academy Awards that year. But then, he was beat by Michael Caine for Caine’s turn as an ether-addicted doctor in the widely forgotten The Cider House Rules. This loss just may have broken Tom Cruise’s desire for diversity.
He did try his hand at heavy dramatics for a few more years in Cameron Crowe’s bizarro pop nightmare Vanilla Sky, in the Dances With Wolves redux The Last Samurai, and as the silver-haired assassin in Michael Mann’s brilliant Collateral. But for whatever reason, Cruise has had zero interest in stretching himself as an actor for about a decade.
After Collateral, arguably his last intimate performance, came War of The Worlds, M:I 3, Jack Reacher, Oblivion, action movies and running and explosions and stunts galore. He no longer works with auteurs like De Palma, celebrated directors like Spielberg, or brilliant visual masters like PTA. The director has been secondary to what sort of elaborate stunt Cruise can pull off. Which, again, is perfectly fine. It’s fun to see what Tom Cruise can do on the screen because the audience has no doubt that it’s him risking his life for these stunts. But I, for one, miss the days when Tom Cruise was still trying to execute emotional stuntwork in between his physical theatrics.
Cruise doesn’t look to be changing course anytime soon. Mission: Impossible 6 is on the way (awesome), a pair of Doug Liman action films are in some form of pre-production (iffy) – the first one being American Made, which got an interesting but uninspiring trailer yesterday. and we are getting a sequel to one of his biggest hits, Top Gun (a groan-inducing announcement if ever there was one). Perhaps one day the right director will get their hands on Tom Cruise, and push him back into emotionally challenging work. But for the foreseeable future, it appears The Cruiser will keep running and running and…