Ever since Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch and accused Matt Lauer of being “glib” a decade ago (actually a full 10 years ago, it was to promote 2005’s War of the Worlds), he has been the subject of ridicule, mockery, and derision. And sure, he can appear a bit eccentric at times. And yes, the specter of Scientology looms over pretty much everything he does. However, he is probably the last true movie star left. He continues to work in the blockbuster realm (no VOD, no cameos, he’s never even appeared on a traditional scripted television program) and remains mostly critically and commercially successful. Yet he has done it without wearing out his welcome (remember, for how good Black Mass looks for Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland 2 is around the corner).
This week’s release of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth in the Mission: Impossible series, is perhaps the best testament to Cruise’s craftsmanship. The first Mission: Impossible movie was released in 1996. Not only is it still active 20 years later, but it’s probably the longest running film series that hasn’t been rebooted. More impressively, the films keep getting better. After reaching its nadir with John Woo’s second one, the series picked itself up with the J.J. Abrams directed third installment (70% on Rotten Tomatoes) and completely reinvigorated itself with the Brad Bird-helmed Ghost Protocol (93%).
A big reason behind the series’ survival is Tom Cruise himself. He not only chooses the directors, but his tendency to do his own impressive stunts generates a level of behind-the-scenes interest that is not present in other action franchises. Ghost Protocol was the highest grossing installment of the franchise, and its most critically admired. Rogue Nation seems to following suit with similar great reviews. Although the name Ethan Hunt might never reach the level of public recognition as James Bond, the films have been solid performers throughout their history while remaining true to the brand.
But the past decade hasn’t just been about exploding messages for the former Jerry Maguire. Rather he has tried his hand at a myriad of different roles under the hands of some of the best filmmakers. While his tendency to try different works has always been a facet of his career (Born on the Fourth of July, Rain Man, Eyes Wide Shut, etc.), I’m just focusing on the past 10 years, when the tide began to unjustly turn again him.
Following M:I III, he took a more dramatic spin as Senator Jasper Irving in Lions for Lambs in 2007. Although the War on Terrorism-based film received a critical drubbing (27%), it was an understandable “prestige” choice with Robert Redford as star and director and co-starring perennial Oscar favorite Meryl Streep.
The following year, however, he completely repositioned himself again. Although the Bryan Singer-directed Valkyrie (a fair but unexceptional 62%) about the plot to assassinate Hitler seemed like it would be a standout role, it was his performance as studio executive Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder (82%) that got a lot more attention. Cruise, an actor not known for comedy, became the scene stealer against more seasoned comic veterans such as Ben Stiller, Steve Coogan, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr.
Following 2010’s Knight and Day (52%, with credit given to Cruise’s chemistry with leading lady Cameron Diaz) and 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, 2012 marked another notable year for Tom Cruise. Although Rock of Ages wasn’t particularly successful (41%), his role as 1980’s rock star Stacee Jaxx was an unexpected turn for Cruise, plus he hadn’t done a true ensemble since Magnolia over a decade earlier. That year also featured Cruise starring in action-thriller Jack Reacher (62%). Although initially criticized for the lead actor not having the giant physicality of the titular character as described in the books, the film is a remarkably good vengeance-based crime thriller that succeeds because of Cruise’s performance and Christopher McQuarrie’s (who also co-wrote Valkyrie) direction. Moreover, it featured decent car chases that harken back to 1970’s-era genre pictures, nice fight scenes, and the inspired casting of iconic filmmaker Werner Herzog as the villain.
In 2013, Tom Cruise starred in Oblivion (54%), which was unfortunately grouped into that year’s crappy post-apocalyptic trifecta that also included After Earth and Elysium. Despite its problems, Oblivion was easily the best of the three. Sure the plot felt like a hodgepodge of stuff we’ve seen in better science fiction movies, but it was the most visually remarkable of those films with decent cinematography and creative designs for weapons and vehicles.
Disappointingly, the public’s dissatisfaction with 2013’s dystopian fantasies probably drastically hurt Tom Cruise’s 2014 follow up Edge of Tomorrow (90%). Directed by Doug Liman (and co-written by McQuarrie), I’d argue that Tomorrow is Cruise’s best movie this decade (or at least in the top 3). Poor trailers and marketing made it seem like a generic action-adventure, but it was actually a reasonably smart movie full of dark humor and clever twists on the Groundhog Day formula.
Which bring us to this year and this week with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which has Reacher‘s McQuarrie at the helm. While it doesn’t look to offer anything “new” to the franchise, who can blame it? When a formula works, it works, and the M:I series has proven itself remarkably adept at creating memorable set pieces in a spy team atmosphere. And with every other franchise moving into interconnected universes and ongoing storylines, these more standalone movies are a reprieve.
Beyond this series, Cruise is the rare genuine star whose career is still interesting to follow. He’s far from being a great actor, and he probably hasn’t chosen a genuinely challenging role since Magnolia, but he knows his place as a movie star. His choices reflect a wider array of roles in better films than most would give him credit for, but he also hasn’t taken many sojourns into Oscar-bait territory either. Even his action-adventure films are more creative and interesting than the traditional blockbuster explosion affairs or Taken knockoff (plus he keeps giving energy to the role rather than Neeson-ing them).
According to the rumor mill, Cruise has a couple of potentially interesting- if not necessarily as a film than as a choice – projects. He is allegedly reteaming with Edge of Tomorrow‘s Doug Liman on Mena, a crime thriller. Even more bizarre is Bob the Musical, a movie about a guy who gains the ability to hear everyone’s inner songs. Continuing his tendency to work with better people, also attached are The Artist’s director Michel Hazanavicius, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, and Flight of the Conchord‘s Bret McKenzie (an Oscar-winner for The Muppets).
Yet strangest still is – Top Gun 2. To be completely honest, I don’t know if anyone watches Top Gun non-ironically. For all the studio’s pushes to get it released in 3D and make a sequel to it, is there anyone who actually likes Top Gun. Yes you can make fun of the subtext behind the volleyball scene and the Kilmer teeth biting, but beyond that? Isn’t there only Danger Zone ? However, according to a recent interview, Cruise would only be interested if the movie used all real planes; no CGI. So at least Cruise is trying to come up with ways for the movie to stand out from all the other action shlock out there.