Our last remaining movie star has made the latter half of his career into a showcase for white-knuckle thrill rides that successfully distract from the more unsavory parts of the Tom Cruise mythology.
Tom Cruise hit rock bottom on May 23, 2005. In the middle of the War of the Worlds press tour, he made his now-infamous appearance on Oprah, a loudly exuberant display of performative affection for his new girlfriend Katie Holmes. Outside the screeching confines of Oprah’s studio, there was an almost immediate backlash. Audiences were tired of Cruise’s tabloid exploits. On the strength of his partnership with Steven Spielberg, War of the Worlds managed to scrape its way to almost $600 million worldwide, but Cruise’s star was close to tarnished.
A year later, the tidal wave of Cruise backlash hit with full force. Mission: Impossible III came to theaters a month after the tabloid fever pitch of the birth of Cruise and Holmes’ daughter. It underperformed, dropping almost a full $100 million from M:I2‘s franchise-best domestic total. Cruise’s overwhelmingly PR-driven love life and dedication to the increasingly sinister-looking Church of Scientology had taken their toll on his star image. In 2007, he made a stab at awards contention with the Robert Redford-directed Lions for Lambs. The film –and Cruise’s award hopes– failed.
But a little more than ten years later, Cruise is once again on top of the world, our last remaining movie star, one of the few people on the planet who can drag audiences into theaters with his name alone. 2018 Tom Cruise isn’t without his setbacks, but the star’s narrative is no longer devoted to silly talk-show appearances and divorce gossip. Even less ink is spent on investigating the movie star’s close relationship with Scientology, a “religion” that continues to be linked to horrific human rights abuses. Cruise is the most notorious face of Scientology, and his passionate defense of the organization on the War of the Worlds press tour allegedly ended his relationship with Steven Spielberg. These should not be easy issues to dodge, and yet dodge them Cruise does.
In 2018, the most predictable news story upon the release of a new Tom Cruise movie is one about the actor putting his life in danger in pursuit of a death-defying stunt that will serve as the centerpiece of a new film’s marketing campaign. Even on last year’s notorious Dark Universe debacle The Mummy, Cruise filmed 64 takes in zero gravity, for a plane crash scene that was best remembered for a bizarre sound editing error that became a meme. Even in one of his few late-career failures, Cruise emerged unblemished. And that’s how Tom Cruise escaped the deepest pit of Hollywood obscurity: He just decided to be really, really good at his job.
The dedication Cruise has to his craft is undeniable. For the Mission: Impossible franchise alone, he’s climbed the tallest building in the world, clung to the outside of an ascending airplane, and broken his ankle leaping from building to building mid-chase scene. It seems inevitable that at some point in the future, the screenwriter of Mission: 10possible will have to frantically rewrite their film in the wake of a tragic spaceship accident, and it seems equally inevitable that Cruise will want it all to end that way. This is the path he’s chosen for his career: not the desperate dive into Oscar-bait that other actors of his age might pursue, but the path of a much younger, much hungrier man.
There are bigger moral issues with Cruise that this piece can only brush against; the allegations against the Church of Scientology are sprawling and repulsive in a myriad of ways. Cruise’s awareness of the Church’s darker side figures into many of these allegations, and it’s difficult to deny that he must know something; Church leader David Miscavige was the best man at Cruise’s last wedding. Cruise is in deep, and his single-minded dedication to doing his job as best as he can reflects a similarly single-minded desire to escape difficult questions about his motivations and his knowledge of the Church’s inner workings.
It’s hard to deny that this brand of movie star antics is good for audiences; in the middle of a studio-era defined by loud CGI explosions and rubbery superhero acrobatics, tactile stunts with a dedicated action hero in the driver’s seat go a long way. And for Tom Cruise the person, this marketing strategy has been overwhelmingly effective, making for an easy escape from the previous media deep dive into his personal life and shady connections to a violently offensive mafia-styled cult. But for Tom Cruise the movie star, this is a temporary solution to a larger problem: Tom Cruise can’t be an action hero forever, no matter how hard he tries.
There’s a simple, non-ego-driven reason that most actors Cruise’s age are angling for awards recognition rather than big box-office dollars. At a certain point, it becomes unsustainable. Matt Damon has wound down his participation in the Bourne franchise; Robert Downey Jr. is a year away from taking on a role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that will presumably require a little less running and jumping. Tom Cruise, if anything, is ramping up his action-movie persona because it’s the only thing that maintains his curated “hardest-working man in Hollywood” narrative. In the short run, it’s been effective, and the movies are consistently good enough that it’s hard to sit down and have a real conversation about the problematic parts of Cruise’s persona. We don’t want our fun to be spoiled; we want to watch Tom Cruise dangle out of a helicopter in IMAX.
There’s one other thing that late-career Cruise films have in common: They tend to portray the actor as he’d like to be perceived, as a larger-than-life, almost godlike figure who can do no wrong and right all wrongs. His ghostly defender of justice in Jack Reacher is only a few degrees away from Mission: Impossible‘s Ethan Hunt, described in one of the films themselves as the “living manifestation of destiny.” Even when he’s playing a roguish cad, as he did in the impeccable Edge of Tomorrow or last year’s underrated American Made, he is always incredibly good at his job. It’s fun to watch, but it doesn’t always ask much from Tom Cruise, a man who is very good at his job. In his pre-couch-jump work, Cruise was often called to stretch his acting muscles a bit farther. His manic salesman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is openly repulsive. War of the Worlds comes close to a moral gray area that the actor hasn’t approached since. In Collateral, he plays a ruthless contract killer. Today, Tom Cruise can’t flirt with darkness on the big screen. It’s too dangerously close to reality.