For more than a decade, Tom Cruise has been operating at Maximum Tom Cruise. From leaping out of airplanes to clinging desperately to the side of one in mid-flight, the veteran movie star has literally risked life and limb (breaking a few in the process) in an attempt to entertain. At this point, “Tom Cruise Attempts a Crazy Stunt” is the driving marketing force behind the Mission: Impossible franchise and the defining element of Cruise’s brand. But he’s been churning out action blockbusters with such regularity and at such risk of bodily harm that we’ve forgotten that Cruise is actually a pretty talented dramatic actor. Or has he forgotten?
Cruise, who’s now 56, has been nominated for three Oscars in his career and should have received another for Rain Man. While no one will ever confuse him with Daniel Day-Lewis, Cruise previously cashed in on his Hollywood cache to toggle back and forth between box-office action vehicles and auteur-driven prestige pictures. Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, Brian de Palma, Cameron Crowe, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg—he’s worked with all of them. He wanted to be a serious actor, among other things. While Cruise seems to have given up his chase for Oscars gold and accepted his fate as a good actor but a great action hero, now is the time for him to slip back into the world he left behind. (It looked like he was heading in this direction when he was rumored to be connected to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that didn’t pan out.)
Two weeks ago, it was reported that Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to his hit 1986 fighter pilot feature that started him down his current path, was being delayed to 2020. With just one action vehicle on his docket, Doug Liman’s sci-fi adventure Luna Park, which has yet to even begin pre-production, it seems Cruise suddenly finds himself with a hole in his schedule for the first time in years.
With that toothy smile and those still-boyish good looks, Cruise has always been a movie star on his own terms, wielding his fame like a shepherd herds his flock. You’ve never gone into a theater and forgotten that you were watching a Tom Cruise Movie—he doesn’t get lost in his characters like, say, Christian Bale. Whereas some actors excel with stillness, Cruise has always been a performer of motion. His magnetism lies in his kinetic energy—for Cruise, it’s always onwards and upwards. You think about his best dramatic roles—Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia—and they all revolve around men who are searching for something. Whether it be meaning or tranquility, purpose or significance, they are somehow incomplete, driven by their need to fill that empty something inside them. Perhaps that has manifested itself in Cruise’s never-ending attempt to one-up his own death-defying stunts, perhaps not. But these characters have often been Cruise’s most dynamic and engaging. Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt is someone to marvel at; Rain Man’s Charlie Babbitt is someone you strive to understand.
Tom Cruise the actor and Tom Cruise the movie star were once two very different entities. Is the former still in there, gradually awakening as Father Time reminds him with each passing stunt just how unsustainable his trajectory is?
In 1983, as Jack Nicholson’s reputation was starting to cool, he stormed back in to Hollywood relevance with a sterling turn in Terms of Endearment. In 1987, the legendary Sean Connery delivered his only Oscar-winning performance with The Untouchables. He was the same age Cruise is now. It’s not as if the star of Mission: Impossible needs a career resurgence, but one has to wonder how much longer he can save the world. Maybe he could just be a regular guy again.