Thomas Cruise Mapother IV turns 50 on 3 July. And if three decades of Tom Cruise movies have taught us anything, it’s that this Catholic-turned-Scientologist long ago ceased to be a film star and has instead metamorphosed into a kind of movie deity. Albeit one that loses wives with alarming regularity.
More than any actor since Arnold Schwarzenegger, he is somehow just not credible as a regular guy. Even when he is miscast as one in Eyes Wide Shut or War of the Worlds, you suspect the everyman exterior is simply a disguise assumed by the sort of super-agent he more succesfully embodies in Knight and Day.
Cruise is always facing danger, yet never truly appears vulnerable. We may fear he’ll burst a blood vessel when he runs very, very fast, but we never fear for him.
Perhaps his biggest failing as an actor is that he never loses control, rendering his drunk scene in The Last Samurai embarrassing, and his portrayal of a ‘dissolute’ rock star in Rock of Ages affected and jejune. You can barely imagine him taking anything stronger than an aspirin, nor imagine him ever having sex with a woman, though it’s feasible he might visit her in a shower of gold. Clearly Katie has finally grown tired of that control.
Whether dancing in Y-fronts to Bob Seger in Risky Business, potting pool balls to Warren Zevon in The Color of Money, or singalonging to the Righteous Brothers in Top Gun, the pre-Born on the Fourth of July Cruise was defined by party pieces that showcased his trademark cocky charm – something he still possesses in spades (though what may have appeared endearing in a 21-year-old may seem a bit sinister in someone more than twice that age).
Another recurring motif of his early years was the mentor movie, in which Paul Newman or Dustin Hoffman or Robert Duvall graciously allowed their accumulated experience to rub off on their younger co-star, though the run of éminences grises skidded to a halt when Jack Nicholson wiped him off the screen in a single scene. Who now remembers that Tom Cruise was even in Aaron Sorkin‘s A Few Good Men?
There are noticeably few occasions on which Cruise has returned the favour by sharing his own limelight with the sort of up-and-comer he himself used to be. His record there might have appeared more generous if Cuba Gooding Jr’s career hadn’t gone down the plughole after Jerry Maguire.
Where, for example, Bruce Willis has allowed the likes of Josh Hartnett or Justin Long to take pole position, or took a gamble on a then-unknown director like M Night Shyamalan, Cruise has stuck with established film-makers and taken few risks with his star status.
Even cameos such as the shouty studio exec in Tropic Thunder seem to be attempts to hog attention and exhibit a sense of humour by someone who doesn’t have one (though he has inspired at least one classic stand-up routine) rather than genuine expressions of ensemble solidarity.
Cruise doesn’t play well with others. You’d be forgiven for not realising Mission: Impossible started out as a TV show about teamwork, since in the film franchise all the juiciest lines and most thrilling stunts go to the star, with his supporting cast reduced to stooges.
A plausible psychopath
Where Cruise rules, however, is when he’s playing psychopathic. He is so plausible as the foppish bloodsucker in Interview with the Vampire or the greasy-haired cock-worshipper in Magnolia or the icy contract killer in Collateral that you begin to feel extremely thankful he’s a film star instead of, say, a politician or professional criminal. The last thing we need is someone like Tom Cruise roaming the streets, unchecked.
So whither the Cruiser as he embarks on his second half century? His 50-year-old torso, much flaunted in Rock of Ages, may not be rock-star skinny by Iggy Pop or Keith Richard standards, but is impressively toned and trim. Decrepitude isn’t creeping up on him just yet.
But is he doomed to spend the rest of his career alternating between increasingly superannuated secret agents and show-off cameos?
If only he’d been about a foot taller, that air of invulnerability might have made him perfect casting for Jack Reacher in his forthcoming Lee Child adaptation. It’s being produced, like most of his star vehicles, by the production company he founded in 1993 with former casting agent Paula Wagner.
But most of the other future projects to which his name is attached are remakes, or trading on past glories: Top Gun 2, Mission: Impossible 5, The Magnificent Seven, A Star is Born, a couple of Avatar-esque sci-fi action pics and a Ludlum adaptation. Nothing risky there, then.
For a while, though, he was attached to star in Guillermo del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness. But that is apparently floundering in development hell, alas, since a combination of Cruise and HP Lovecraft sounds just batty enough to be irresistible.
I’ll tell you what I think Tom Cruise should do. He should give his Mission: Impossible co-stars more to do. He should share the screen with more young up-and-comers who would benefit from his experience, the way he himself benefitted from the likes of Newman and Hoffman. And he should be willing to star in films directed by untried but promising first-timers who could do with his industry clout to get things made.
And maybe, once in a while, he should allow himself to lose control. It might help him hang on to a wife at least.