In praise of Tom Cruise, cinema’s pre-eminent magician

Written by Joseph Earp on 12th July, 2018
In praise of Tom Cruise, cinema’s pre-eminent magician

There is no living movie star that can do the things Tom Cruise does. Some of the classic legends come close, perhaps; Errol Flynn has the same manic, crackling energy; Steve McQueen a similar way of moving – swiftly but with considerable patience, as though made from fluid. Yet these days, Cruise operates in a territory entirely of his own.

Perhaps that’s why the film industry at large spends a considerable amount of time searching for the next Cruise. And perhaps that’s also why they have spent the last few decades throwing their empty hands up. No-one comes close to Cruise; no-one equals his penchant for risk-taking, either on new projects and directors, or on set. Hell, even the stars that prove willing to forgo stunt doubles and do the action themselves draw a line that Tom Cruise doesn’t. Which other modern actor would hang themselves off the side of a moving plane?

Watch Tom Cruise hang off the side of a plane for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation:

And yet Cruise’s real genius lies in his penchant for reinvention. Like a cinematic Bowie, he has moved through a series of distinct stages. First, there was the era of what Ebert dubbed “The Cruise Picture”. As a young actor, he excelled at playing confident men forced to rebuild their lives: young guns who inherit and then lose the world. Think the ultra confident Charlie Babbitt of Rain Man (available now on Stan); the slick Maverick of Top Gun; Joel Goodson, the sweltering, sexualised heart of Risky Business. These are men who start their pictures good, briefly falter, and then end up even greater; players whose worlds are opened up by unexpected tragedies that only serve to guide them to brighter paths.

Other actors might have chosen to play that kind of character their whole life, honing their skills rather than expanding them. Instead, Cruise allowed his roles to darken; to sour, ever so slightly. From Oliver Stone’s furious, sweat-drenched Born On The Fourth Of July, to his image-inverting turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Cruise quietly and carefully began riffing on his legacy. Suddenly, he was not playing likeable, arrogant confidence men; he was playing troubled vampires (Interview With The Vampire’s Lestat); wealthy doctors thrown into a fresh, ugly hell of their own libidinous making (Eyes Wide Shut’s Dr. Bill Harford); murderers, leeches, and morally compromised young lawyers, as in The Firm (playing now on Netflix).

Watch Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut here:

Even his legacy-solidifying turn in Jerry Maguire (available now on Stan) is darker than people remember. It’s a performance of tics and grimaces; of fluttering hands, and sudden, dramatic outbursts on energy. He is an exposed wire in that film, a house fire going down in the middle of an otherwise extraordinarily restrained and subtle rom com.

This is the other important thing about Cruise; the vicious energy of him. Even when playing good men, as he frequently did during a third era that lasted from the black as tar Mission: Impossible 2 film to the under appreciated Valkyrie (streaming now on Stan), his performances always make him seem one bad day away from total self-destruction.

He is still owed accolades for his turn in Steven Spielberg’s ragged, deeply paranoid War Of The Worlds. He is no hero in that film. Somehow, despite possessing one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, he shrunk himself into obscurity, becoming a walking collection of horrified looks, stabbing flourishes, and debris-drenched desperation. He didn’t invert his persona – he plucked it apart, reducing it to its most primal, intense form.

No, the inverting came later, kicked off by his swollen turn as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. With that vicious caricature, the actor began actively fighting his type. And in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (available now on Netflix), an extraordinary film in an extraordinary series, Cruise transformed Ethan Hunt from a walking Stanley knife, capable of taking down anyone anywhere, into a rangy force of chaos.

Watch Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation trailer here:

Indeed, in the hands of Christopher McQuarrie, director of Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation and one of Cruise’s most accomplished and ingenious collaborators, that has become Hunt’s character note. He is skilled, of course; a man capable of orchestrating a plot to hijack the British Prime Minister, or to take down a self-proclaimed militant pacifist aching to start a nuclear war. But it is not just his skills that get him results. It is the dumb force of fate; a sheer, honed sense of luck that gets him through impossible shoot-outs, and near drownings, and the life-threatening plots he faces on a seemingly monthly basis.

In that way, Hunt has been moulded to suit Cruise, just as Jack Reacher, the live wire drifter at the heart of McQuarrie’s excellent film of the same name (available now on Netflix), belongs to Cruise from the very first frame. That is in part because McQuarrie knows how to use Cruise – knows that he can flip from earthquake to gentle tremor in a millisecond – and in part because Cruise is that rarest kind of actor: one that understands himself, without pretence or arrogance.

While other actors take vanity projects to reinforce an outdated image of themselves, Cruise understands himself wholly. He knows how to play into his reputation – Edge Of Tomorrow (available on Netflix), does this ingeniously, setting him up as a smiling figurehead before revealing his anxiety, and his pain – and he knows how to subvert it. He is a true original; a cinematic magician who has spent his entire career playing with – and sometimes abandoning altogether – his personas.

Tom Cruise stars in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, which is out in Australian cinemas Thursday August 2 via Paramount.

The article was originally published on Brag Magazine