Can We Have More of Tom Cruise the Actor, Please?

Tom Cruise continues to deliver in blockbuster movies: but it can't just be us who'd love to see him making a few more leftfield choices.

Over the weekend, we got the release of the trailer for 2017’s The Mummy movie. In it, as many were quick to point out, Tom Cruise is soon running again. Few actors run with the speed and intensity of Tom Cruise on the big screen, and few actors seem committed to the productions they take on in the manner that Cruise is. Whenever we’ve interviewed anyone to do with a Tom Cruise movie, they all volunteer just how far the man goes out of his way to have a chat, make them feel settled, and make them feel part of things.

Appreciating it’s internet law, it seems, to bash Tom Cruise – more for his religious beliefs than his work – I do find myself just a little frustrated by his choices for his last eight released movies. For I’m firmly in the camp of those who think Tom Cruise is a very good actor, and occasionally a great one. Yet he’s gone through a run of blockbuster after blockbuster, without – as he used to do – stopping to take on a slightly more leftfield role.

Some of the blockbusters he’s chosen are excellent (and in some he’s excellent in them, too), and some simply wouldn’t get off the ground without him. I greatly enjoy the Mission: Impossible films, I think Edge Of Tomorrow is great, I have a lot of time for Oblivion and I can barely remember anything about Knight And Day. But conversely, I can utterly remember sitting down to watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s stunning Magnolia, and having my socks blown off by Cruise’s flat-out excellent turn as Frank TJ Mackey.

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Cruise was Oscar nominated for the role, losing out in the Best Supporting Actor category to Michael Caine for The Cider House Rules. But that notwithstanding, there’s a segment in Magnolia where an interviewer punctures the bravado of Mackey, and the character responds by just sitting there, and sitting there, and sitting there. Appreciating he’s been shredding his movie star image by playing a character spouting a mantra of “respect the cock” to this point, it’s a real moment, that requires Cruise to be contained, completely in character, and part of an ensemble. He really delivers.

But then, whenever he takes a role a little off the usual track, he does.

In the earlier stages of his career in particular, Cruise was a movie star willing to take genuine risks, and more often than not, he won his gambles. He broke through heavily, of course, with Top Gun (having made people sit up and take notice in Risky Business before that), but look at the choices he made after that. He held his own against Paul Newman in Martin Scorsese’s The Color Of Money. His co-starring role in Rain Man, the film that saw Dustin Hoffman take home an Oscar, rarely gets the credit it deserves. And then Oliver Stone saw something in him to cast him as the lead in Born On The Fourth Of July. A richly deserved Oscar nod followed.

Throughout the 1990s, Cruise would then veer primarily towards commercial fare, but even then, he wasn’t averse to a hard left. It seems odd now to recall just how controversial the casting of Cruise was in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of author Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire. It’s a well-trodden story, but so against the casting of Cruise was Rice that she said in the Los Angeles Times that “I was particularly stunned by the casting of Cruise, who is no more my Vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler.”

Cruise won his doubters over, including Rice (who took out a full page advert to extol his leading performance), but all of the chatter over his casting overlooked the gamble he’d take with his career. Here was a Hollywood movie star, a genuine one, coming off the back of two of his biggest hits in The Firm and A Few Good Men. There is fine running in both of those films. And at that stage, he used his clout and rolled the dice, significantly, on an R-rated vampire movie. I still argue that Kevin Costner was the boldest movie star in his choices in the 1990s, but Tom Cruise, for a while, wasn’t far behind.

But this all came to an end towards the end of the 2000s. Granted, spending two years filming Eyes Wide Shut with the late Stanley Kubrick must have left Cruise feeling he’d paid a few dues, and he practically zoomed from the wrap of that to the Australian location for Mission: Impossible II. But even then, his star wattage got the challenging Vanilla Sky made – reuniting him with his Jerry Maguire director, Cameron Crowe – whilst his turn as a hitman in Michael Mann’s thuddingly underrated Collateral has cause to be regarded as up there with his very best work.

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I wonder if Lions For Lambs and Valkyrie were a bit of a turning point, though.

These were the first projects in a new attempt to get the United Artists company moving in the 2000s, and Cruise was one of the key partners, along with his then-longtime producing partner Paula Wagner, and MGM. Cruise, in fact, owned a percentage of the new United Artists, at least until 2011.

Lions For Lambs came first from the new UA, and Cruise took a supporting role in Robert Redford’s ultimately little-seen war drama. It was more Redford’s gig than Cruise’s, but the latter, around the time, was reported by MSNBC to be concerned about the impact on him were the film to flounder. There was merit to the concern, as the film attracted little in the way of positive reviews, and little in the way of box office cash.

Cruise’s second, and final, United Artists venture would fare a little better. This was Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, a gamble for Cruise in which he was front and centre. In it, he played Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a German army Colonel who was plotting to kill Adolf Hitler. Valkyrie, though, found itself bouncing around the release schedules. It would finally open in December 2008, earning solid reviews, and decent box office. Not traditionally Cruise-like levels of box office, but decent box office nonetheless.

Yet it would also spell the end for that particular chapter in United Artists’ life. Partner studio MGM was in the midst of its deep financial crisis, and Cruise had met a lot of resistance from German authorities when the film tried to shoot in Germany, due to concerns over the actor’s religious beliefs.

Whatever your view on them, incidentally – and I’ve no urge to spring a conversation here – it is interesting how much they follow him around. On the red carpet for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back in London, for instance, one outlet, in a live video, asked a pretty blatant Scientology question after being asked not to. Cruise handled it politely – and he’s renowned for spending a lot of time on the red carpet meeting as many fans as he can – but the ensuing interviews were curtailed.

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What seems clear is that the back end of the 2000s marked a turning point, for whatever reason (be they professional or family). Don’t forget too that this was when he appeared, virtually unrecognizably, and stole the show as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder.

For the last six or seven years then, it’s been a far more commercial path that Cruise has thus followed. The performances have been good, as they always are, but there’s rarely the sense that he’s being stretched as an actor, Edge Of Tomorrow aside. He’s certainly being stretched as a human – hanging off the side of a plane in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and holding his breath for minutes in the same film – but those are the moments about spectacle more than intricate performance.

And I dearly wish we can see the latter part of Tom Cruise’s work again. Thankfully, it looks like we might get a chance. He has two films out in 2017. The Mummy certainly looks fun, and Tom will certainly run in it, but I’ve got my eye on American Made.

This is the film that reunites him with his Edge Of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, and it’s a much darker crime thriller. In it, Cruise is playing Barry Seal, a man who went from being a commercial aviation pilot to drug smuggler, before being recruited by the CIA. We’ve not had footage from the film yet, nor is it entirely clear what tone Liman is taking with the movie. But already, my ears have pricked up. That this is a character based on the life of a real person, and that’s instantly going to place different challenges on Cruise.

For much of his career, to his credit, Cruise has counterweighted his commercial work with meatier acting roles, occasionally overlapping both. And again, he remains one of the few stars with the clout to actually get a project off the ground. I just wonder and hope now if we can see him taking on more testing acting roles, where the demands to bring in at least $300 million at the box office are set aside, in favour of the kind of parts that he could clearly tackle, but would push him a lot harder.

Mind you, I’m still buying a ticket for The Mummy. That man can run

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