Tom Cruise will only be happy once he’s dead.
This is the one overriding message audiences can infer after spending decades watching the superstar push his body – legs toned, abs ripped, smile stretched, hair magnificent – to previously undiscoverable limits, over and over again. And it is the one conclusion that I’ve come to after spending the past half-year bingeing the 44-movie-strong Cruise canon, a ritual that started as a weeknight lark but quickly became an obsession worthy of Hollywood’s hardest-working hero.
Every few nights, Cruise would be there. In Days of Thunder, he’s swerving race cars around the tightest of corners like a NASCAR pro. In The Firm, he’s executing a series of comically complex backflips. In Top Gun: Maverick, he’s pulling Gs in the cockpit of an actual F-18. And in the new Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, he’s doing everything that a movie star can – driving handcuffed through the cobblestone streets of Rome, speeding a motorcycle off a cliff, fist-fighting atop a speeding train – to ensure that his insurance underwriters never get a decent night’s sleep.
See Tom run. See Tom jump. See Tom fall just short of meeting a brutal, bloody demise.
The whys and wherefores of Cruise’s death wish aren’t some grand mystery begging to be unlocked. The man has steadily and proudly branded himself as the movie world’s most passionate advocate for bigger-than-big entertainment. And while walking along this path to eventual on-screen martyrdom, Cruise has correctly intuited that what gets people off their couches and inside a multiplex is the titillation of an explosive but risk-free encounter with death itself. Cruise puts his body on the line because he knows that doing so will lift the industry’s bottom line. (And his own, naturally.) The day that Tom Cruise dies – and it will happen, eventually and stupendously – might be the day that movie theatres die, too.
The actor’s missions and motives have evolved and shifted, though, over the course of his 42-year career. Cruise always had one eye trained on blockbuster stardom, but he once also targeted something far more challenging, impossible even: to be a star who could top the box office as well as the critic’s list. A man with a heart for spectacle and a mind for art. And for a time, he got close. Achingly so.
Cruise pushed himself, and the fanbase that he built from scratch, to as many uncomfortable and daring cinematic extremes as he did physical feats of glory. But then something changed. Cruise himself, but also the way that movies are made, and who they are made for.
Today, Cruise is our last action hero. A daredevil with a cause and a true global superstar in a world of interchangeable leading men and trending-topic celebrities. But in doing so, has he sacrificed Tom Cruise the Actor for Tom Cruise the Stuntman? And have we lost the greatest performer of our time in the process?
Tom Cruise’s career began with a thirst that was quickly answered by a deluge. Supporting parts in that holy trinity of teen-movie dogma – a romance (Endless Love), a thriller (Taps), a coming-of-age crime drama (The Outsiders) – led to above-the-title star vehicles. Two of his first three marquee at-bats are margin-of-history stuff, with the sex comedy Losin’ It and the football drama All the Right Moves memory-holed by all but a few hardcore fans. But between those films sits 1983′s Risky Business, the kind of rock-’n’-roll breakthrough that arrives once in a generation. Cruise’s star isn’t so much born as anointed here, sound-tracked by the gospel of Bob Seger and spotlighted by the cool gleam of Ray-Ban.
No other actor emerged from the hot and sloppy mess of the 1980s looking so remarkably squeaky-clean, with Cruise leapfrogging from one sensation to the next. Few will argue that his work with the Scott brothers – Tony’s Top Gun or Ridley’s Legend – are collaborations to treasure. But each was bought and sold on a simple and singular promise: the addictive pleasures of pure Cruise charisma. The actor delivered, and kept on doing so. Even something as genuinely disposable as Cocktail went down smooth.
By now, a pattern was forming. Cruise pursued characters whose souls burned with the fire of something to prove. They were itchy and restless men, almost always wrestling with enormously knotty daddy issues. Even the most amateur of Cruise scholars doesn’t have to dig too deep to find the connective tissue here – the actor’s biological father was a scoundrel. But it takes true talent and discipline to use personal anger as creative fuel – and on-screen, Cruise operated as if every moment, every shot, was a new opportunity to flick that fuse. The slip of a smile, the cock of an eyebrow, the gasping-for-air running – dear lord, so much running. Cruise knew how to use the physical as a window into the emotional. It felt natural because it was.
Presence is one thing, though, prescience another. Soon, Cruise’s collaborations became more adventurous and strategically engineered. He went from Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money) to Barry Levinson (Rain Man) to Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July), closing out the decade with Days of Thunder by his action-movie rabbi, Tony Scott. Once Cruise proved that he could carry films no matter the cost or genre or critical reception, he found himself in that rarefied place atop the Hollywood food chain. It didn’t matter what the system desired of him, but what he desired of the system.
The 1990s was a breathless sprint the likes of which may never be repeated: 1992′s A Few Good Men running headfirst into 1993′s The Firm, then chasing that with 1996′s double shot of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible and Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire. There were largely human movies – street-level stories and characters and performances – with only a smattering of beyond-reality pyrotechnics. (It is easy to forget today, but De Palma’s greatest Mission: Impossible set-piece involved only a harness and beads of sweat.)
There were missteps – how could there not be?– but you would have to hold an exceptional grudge to think that Far and Away or Interview with the Vampire should erase the twin achievements of 1999, when Cruise took the boldest and most satisfying risks of his career: Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.
In Kubrick’s psychosexual thriller, the star vaults over a marketing campaign promising tawdry celebrity sex to deliver a magnificently painful and nastily primal window into emotional impotence, cloistered rage and overwhelming lust. It helps to think of Eyes Wide Shut as the movie that Cruise hoped Interview with the Vampire might have been. It was a chance to show everyone that he could play in the dark as much as the spotlight, with Kubrick as the grand shadow master.
Only six months later, Cruise twisted his image again with Magnolia. Somehow, he matched his director’s bombastically Biblical ambitions at every turn – never before have two artists been so committed to making such a beautiful movie about the world’s most miserable losers. Playing the broken and vile Frank T.J. Mackey, a seduction artist who feels like the unintentional inspiration for the TikTok misogyny of Andrew Tate and his army of creeps, Cruise jumps around like a hog with a taste for BBQ. He is at once disgusting and disgusted by himself. It is hard to imagine the movie working with someone else in the role, and thus hard to conceive of Anderson surviving Magnolia to go on and become the living-legend filmmaker he is today.
The fact that Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia came out within six months of each other might be head-spinning today. But at the time it seemed stupidly simple. This was the universe’s way of organizing itself around the magnificent power of Cruise. Everything else just made sense.
If 1999 represented a pinnacle for Hollywood cinema – not only owing to Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, but also The Matrix, Fight Club, Election, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense and a dozen other movies that have inspired books and podcasts proclaiming the 12-month stretch as “the greatest movie year ever” – then it’s reasonable to think of it as Cruise’s high-water mark, too. Yet the actor kept going and pushing, trying to find the alchemy between the blockbuster and the brain, succeeding almost every time.
He asked audiences to escape with him into the nightmare headspace of Vanilla Sky, the most unexpected follow-up to Jerry Maguire that he and Crowe could possibly devise. He paired up with that other reigning force of Hollywood nature, Steven Spielberg, for the brilliantly dark paranoia of Minority Report. He even played the villain, albeit a beguiling one, for Michael Mann in the urban crime masterpiece Collateral. The Academy Awards continued their refusal to acknowledge his contributions. But it didn’t seem to matter to Cruise. Nothing does, when you are at the top, an apex predator in an environment you created.
Until the Couch Incident.
If social media were a thing in May, 2005, Cruise’s appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show might be that generation’s Zapruder film. As it stands, early YouTube clips of the moment nearly killed Cruise’s career where it stood – and there is no polite polishing of memories to be had here. No “oh, it wasn’t so bad” retconning. It was bad. Unhinged and delirious. And afterward it was open season on Cruise’s life. The one that he lived off-camera. The Scientology of it all.
The couch leap ushered in the TMZ era – the news organization officially launched six months post-Oprah –and suddenly the celebrity game that Cruise had been playing, and winning, was radically different. Which meant that Cruise’s career course needed to be corrected – away from aspirations of hard Oscar glory and toward the security of soft all-audience crowd-pleasers. No artistic or emotional comfort zones needed to be pushed, no hard questions asked. Now Cruise would earn the world’s attention and love back by breaking his own body. PG entertainment by way of morbid spectacle.
You can see Cruise’s struggle as the aughts wound down and the business became that much more complicated. The highs of Mission: Impossible III were not enough to soften the blows of Lions for Lambs, the kind of serious, adult-minded drama that not even Netflix might touch any more. Even Cruise’s mainstream projects were tripping over themselves, as if the actor was relearning how to sprint down the Hollywood Walk of Fame he once marathoned. Rock of Ages, Knight and Day, Valkyrie, Jack Reacher. Had the world’s foremost expert on moviegoing behaviour forgotten how to read the room?
There would be more acts of intellectual property hubris – a dreadful Jack Reacher sequel, a Mummy movie whose attempts to kickstart a “dark universe” of Universal Studios monster movies remain the low point of the industry’s franchise-mania. But these were becoming the exception, not the norm, as Cruise delivered a wealth of genuinely exciting projects (Edge of Tomorrow, American Made) peppered between increasingly impressive M:I sequels, which were getting bigger and more dangerous with every instalment. He resisted superheroes, and he stayed the hell away from prestige television. If there was a plan, it was working.
And then the real game-changer arrived: the pandemic. The global crisis might have crippled the film business, but the shutdown of cinemas also helped Cruise firmly, perhaps stubbornly re-establish himself as the No. 1 Movie Man. Refusing to accept the faux-shiny reality that streaming offered, Cruise held onto Top Gun: Maverick with all his might, convincing longtime partner Paramount Pictures to sit on the ready-to-go film until theatres could widely reopen. Which is how Hollywood’s sometimes favourite son saved the movies, delivering a monster hit – Maverick pulled in US$1.49-billion worldwide – and proving that theatres were not the dead zones everyone assumed they had become. And we return the favour by staring slack-jawed in awe at Cruise’s latest go-round with the Grim Reaper.
As Dead Reckoning Part One makes clear over the course of its 162 minutes – nearly all of them thrilling and electric and oh-god-this-is-crazy – this is all good news for moviegoers. Good news for movie theatres, too. Good news for anyone who doesn’t want to sit at home forever and ever. But I’m not so convinced that it is good news for Cruise himself.
Today, Tom Cruise has convinced audiences that he will give everything of himself to them, for them. But that unforgiving promise just might be his greatest performance yet, too. As many times as Cruise throws himself from the heavens or crashes himself into the Earth, it feels as if he is holding tight onto something else. An ambition far more delicate and even more daring than his bodily theatrics.
And as the movie business becomes synonymous with the big-ness of his films, the death-defying spectacle of it all, it is doubtful that Cruise will ever reveal that smaller, quieter, stranger part of himself on-screen ever again. The ambition to make not only movies – shiny and huge and whizz-bang bonanzas – but art that will push, transform, challenge, scratch and claw. Difficult work for difficult times. But, hey, unadulterated pop spectacle is fun, too. Right?
Tom Cruise is dead. Long live Tom Cruise.