Cruise-ing into bland­ness

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - ENTERTAINMENT - CALUM MARSH

“Of course, I’d rather be known as a great ac­tress than a movie star,” Naomi Watts con­fides in Mulholland Drive, as as­pir­ing screen in­genue Betty. “But, you know, some­times peo­ple end up be­ing both.”

At that time, right around the turn of the cen­tury, Tom Cruise was both. He was a celebrity of mon­u­men­tal fame and an ac­tor of in­con­testable tal­ent. He made big, spec­tac­u­lar ac­tion pic­tures, hun­dred-mil­lion-dol­lar block­busters that cast his face on screens across the planet. He made dif­fi­cult art films for di­rec­tors in­tent to draw out his tal­ent. (He pro­duced movies too — small projects of dis­tinc­tion, like Shat­tered Glass.)

There was a stub­born strain of de­ter­mi­na­tion in Cruise in those years, in­sep­a­ra­ble from his star­dom. It was as if he couldn’t help but seize any op­por­tu­nity to flaunt his range. In 1999 alone, he starred in Eyes Wide Shut for Stan­ley Kubrick and ap­peared in

Mag­no­lia for Paul Thomas An­der­son — Mag­no­lia se­cur­ing him an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for best sup­port­ing ac­tor.

How did he fol­low this ac­claimed dis­play of artistry? He reprised his role as se­cret agent Ethan Hunt, in 2000’s $125-mil­lion se­quel Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble II.

These days, Cruise doesn’t do much flaunt­ing. The only thing he seems de­ter­mined to prove any­more is that he is in pretty good shape for a man in his mid-50s, and even that is get­ting harder to put across with much con­vic­tion.

He con­sents, ex­clu­sively, to star in movies that feel en­gi­neered to make him look at­trac­tive and vir­ile, and of­ten pro­duces these pic­tures him­self, the bet­ter to con­trol his pub­lic im­age.

He no longer works with self­styled au­teurs; he’d rather be di­rected by def­er­en­tial un­knowns with­out clout or lever­age, so that when push comes to shove he can tell them what to do. The clos­est he’s come to a cre­ative risk lately is his lat­est, Amer­i­can Made, which cost $80 mil­lion and will van­ish from mem­ory when its the­atri­cal run ends.

Hoot­ing wildly in but­ton-downs as an ev­ery­man charmer, wear­ing a grin that be­trays ei­ther ma­nia or de­spair, Cruise is a per­former whose streak of vir­tu­os­ity is over. The man is now piti­fully mun­dane.

In Obliv­ion, he skulks on postapoc­a­lyp­tic ground ab­sent a mod­icum of charisma, a shock­ingly bland pres­ence. In Jack Reacher and its se­quel, he struts and preens ridicu­lously, as ev­ery pass­ing char­ac­ter must re­mark on his machismo. These movies are fea­ture-length ef­forts to in­sist Cruise is still cool.

Even the Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble fran­chise has stag­nated at the ac­tor’s be­hest. They used to hire dis­tinc­tive, in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic film­mak­ers to tackle each new in­stal­ment. Now they just keep us­ing the non­de­script but (cru­cially) obe­di­ent Christo­pher McQuar­rie, who has done as much to flat­ter Cruise for au­di­ences as has his pub­li­cist.

Cruise was dis­graced in the pub­lic eye in the mid-2000s. (His in- fa­mous episode on Oprah Win­frey’s couch, com­mit­ted while pro­mot­ing War of the Worlds in the sum­mer of 2005, was, de­pend­ing on who you ask, ei­ther the be­gin­ning of the end or his pro­fes­sional nadir.

This may ex­plain a lot about the tra­jec­tory of his ca­reer there­after. Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble 3 in 2006 was a gen­tle re­minder: Tom was still Tom, same as ever. His cameo in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thun­der (re­plete with bald cap and chain, danc­ing to Flo Rida), mean­while seemed cal­cu­lated to en­dear peo­ple to Cruise anew — or at least to per­suade those mak­ing fun of him that he had a sense of humour about him­self, too.

His watch­word since has been “safety.” He doesn’t have the strength of rep­u­ta­tion nec­es­sary to frit­ter away his stock on volatile au­teurs. He doesn’t have the pop­u­lar af­fec­tion needed to risk be­ing phi­lan­der­ing Bill Har­ford or misog­y­nis­tic Frank T.J. Mackey. So now he sim­ply as­pires, at best, to be like­able. To be the glam­orous hero who does the right thing and saves the day. I mean, who could ob­ject to a guy like Jack Reacher?

Did that fail­ure con­firm for Cruise that he shouldn’t bother to try? It’s hard to imag­ine, in 2017, the sort of pe­cu­liar, in­trigu­ing role that might rouse him into his old de­ter­mi­na­tion, that could gal­va­nize him to take a chance and gam­ble.

It might be too late, given the sys­tem, for Cruise to re­claim his ti­tle as bona fide movie star. There’s still hope he could be­come once more a great ac­tor.


This im­age re­leased by Univer­sal Pic­tures shows Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in a scene from Amer­i­can Made.

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