The power of the surprise cameo

Has Tom Cruise just resurrected his career with a single cameo performance? It's just the latest example of when cameo appearances go very, very right....

Danny DeVito as Mini Me. Cameo heaven...

This weekend, Tom Cruise has been enjoying some of the best press of his recent career. While the last few years have tended to concentrate on the likes of his beliefs, his marriage to Katie Holmes, and his insistence on testing the springs on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa, there’s been very little talk about, well, his films.

After all, his last movie, Mission: Impossible III, didn’t do the level of numbers expected, and the studio head concerned laid the blame for that solely at the front door of Cruise. Meanwhile, Valkyrie, his next feature, has been bumped around several release dates as if it’s been caught on a pinball table. Currently, it’s snuck back into this year, with some thinking that it may be due to possible recognition from the Academy Awards. Others believe that nobody has much of a clue what to do with it.

And then Tropic Thunder came along. Ben Stiller’s comedy, which at the time of writing is sitting atop the US box office, has given Cruise a cameo role as a studio head that’s been getting him reviews that he hasn’t equalled since his stunning supporting turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. As our own Ron Hogan wrote in his review, “Not only is Cruise unrecognisable behind his padded suit, bald cap, and chest hair, it’s also his funniest performance ever. If you see this movie for one reason, make it Tom Cruise. Seriously, he’s that good, and this role will hopefully go a long way in erasing the memory of couch-jumping from our collective consciousness”.

What’s perhaps the most remarkable about Cruise’s cameo role, though, is that in the Internet age, images of him didn’t leak out. Sure, attempts to keep his involvement in the film a secret failed, but even so, his appearance is still likely to be a surprise to 80% of the people who buy a ticket.

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But then that’s the joy of the surprise cameo. There’s something in it for the star, who can just turn up and do a bit of filming with no pressure on their shoulders. And for the audience, when a cameo role works, it can be either something unexpected, or even a real delight.

There are several examples that fit into both camps. Take Arnold Schwarzenegger, erasing memories of his awful cameo in Around The World In 80 Days by subtlety passing the action movie mantle over to The Rock in The Rundown/Welcome To The Jungle (he also popped up in the Ivan Reitman comedy Dave, once upon a time). And what about Danny Glover’s majestic appearance in Maverick? The moment where he and Gibson stop for a minute to look at each other as if they should be breaking into a Lethal Weapon exchange was pure genius. What’s more, it was a quick moment that didn’t burden the film in any way. And it was damn funny.

One that worked to devastating effect, although whether you bill it as an unbilled role rather than a cameo is open to debate, is the surprise appearance of Kevin Spacey in Seven. This was a genuine bolt from the blue when it happened, and again, you question whether it would work in the Internet age. And what about Alec Baldwin, proving his acting chops against some absolute legends in Glengarry Glen Ross? Who saw that performance coming?

Cameo appearances are particularly suited to the comedy arena. The Austin Powers movies are fond of shoehorning a few familiar faces in there, but the opening of Goldmember not only again features Tom Cruise, but there’s the delightful sight of Danny DeVito as Mini-Me (and a few other familiar faces in there, too). Inspired, and funnier that 99% of the rest of the film.

Hot Shots! Part Deux meanwhile drafts in Martin Sheen, purely to do an Apocalypse Now gag that a good proportion of the target viewing audience was unlikely to appreciate. That didn’t stop some weighty guffaws from those that did. Steve Buscemi, meanwhile, has notched up some terrific supporting turns in his career, but for sheer comedy genius, can any match his scene-stealing cameo in The Wedding Singer? Granted, this was less of a surprise, but it didn’t stop you willing his character to reappear more than it did (Jon Lovitz also pops up in a cameo role in the same film, as does Billy Idol near the end).

Kevin Smith loves his cameos, too, not least for having appeared with Jason Mewes as Jay and Silent Bob in Scream 3. But it was in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back that he threw in some belters. Mark Hamill and Matt Damon may have been the more obvious, but we always chuckle at Gus Van Sant sat in the corner of the room counting his money. That was simply inspired.

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Ben Stiller movies outside of Tropic Thunder have a habit of introducing a few familiar faces of their own (and Stiller himself appeared unbilled, as did the likes of Jack Black in Anchorman). David Duchovny in Zoolander is perhaps the most celebrated, and arguably rightly so. But, again, we have a soft spot for the shoehorning in of Chuck Norris into the back end of Dodgeball. We’re not quite sure why he was there, but heck, it still worked.

Outside of the comedy genre, there are also the moments when a perceived comedic star tests their dramatic mettle in a small role, or is used in a way that plays against their usual manner. Robin Williams in Dead Again was perhaps a precursor to his more serious fare of late, while Rodney Dangerfield in Natural Born Killers was brilliantly uneasy. The film may be a flawed muddle, but Dangerfield’s segment was tonally quite superb.

The less successful cameos, meanwhile, are the ones that serve little purpose save for entertaining the people involved in making the film itself. Bruce Willis’ surprise turn-up in Ocean’s 12 must have been japery personified when they were filming it, but what on earth did it add to the film? In fact, quite the contrary, it did it more damage than good. Much though we like Stan Lee, could it be his regular appearance in films of his creations is beginning to grate a little? Especially when they start giving the great man lines. He got away with it very well in Mallrats, but a film actor the comic book genius is not.

However, while the cameo role may be flourishing, the lack of surprise is the modern day trade off. Remember when Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves first played, and Sean Connery turned up as King Richard right at the end? Not many in the screening this writer attended saw that one coming (even if it had been reported, months before, that Connery was getting a hefty cheque for turning up in the film). Yet today, even if Connery’s involvement had been kept secret, unless you saw the film on opening day, the chances of someone blabbing and spoiling it for you would grow substantially. Compare it to this year’s high profile appearances of Samuel L Jackson in Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr in Incredible Hulk – both were great fun, but neither was much of a shock by the time the world and their wife had told you about them.

And that’s all a bit of a pity. Because the very best cameos aren’t the advertised ones, or those that are stuck in the trailer to try and get a few more bums on seats. They’re the genuinely unexpected appearances, the moments when someone appears who you had no idea was going to. Then they do something that adds something to the film, and disappear again.

That’s, surely, the best way for it to be, and if done properly, a quality cameo can get people talking, and suddenly add fresh fuel to a career that may have been floundering a little.

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Just ask Tom Cruise.