CRUISE CONTROL: TOP GUN TOM

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This week sees the debut of the 5th installment of Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation courtesy of Paramount/Viacom Inc.

There was a moment, however comparatively brief, when the Mission: Impossible series was basically one of the biggest franchises around. Moreover, the summer 2000 dominance of Mission: Impossible II marked basically the last time that a real-world, non-fantastical action movie not only dominated the summer but was remotely expected to. A lot has changed in fifteen years. But as excited as I am to finally see the film, it is the next film on Tom Cruise’s plate that has me most interested. It is Doug Liman’s Mena, in which the mega-star plays as a pilot who ends up working for the CIA in the 1980′s and gets tangled up in the war on drugs in varying capacities. It is not a sci-fi action movie or a franchise sequel. It is the kind of adult-skewing star vehicle that made Tom Cruise a star in the first place. And it is the kind he has not made in nearly a decade.

Tom Cruise has been some form of a “movie star” since 1983, when he starred in the $63 million-grossing comedy Risky Business. He followed it up with two relative box office whiffs, the cheap but low-grossing ($17m) All the Right Moves months later and the expensive and low-grossing ($14m) Legend in April 1986. He followed up the pricey Ridley Scott fantasy film a month later with Tony Scott’s Top Gun, which earned $356m worldwide in 1986 and turned him into an icon. He is also set to reprise his role of Maverick in the classic movie which takes of from where the movie ended. Legend would also be his last unquestionable box office failure for around 26 years. Oh sure, some films were better (Rain Man) than others (Cocktail) and some were bigger hits (Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire) than others (Ron Howard’s Far and Away doubled its budget but was still considered something of a disappointment in the summer 0f 1992). But from 1986 till 2012, pretty much every single Tom Cruise film made was some semblance of a solid hit.

You had pulp fiction like Days of Thunder ($157m worldwide), Oscar contenders like Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July ($161m), critically-acclaimed pulp fiction like Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men ($243m), and out-and-out art-house cinema like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut($165m worldwide on a $65m budget).  What you’ll notice when you look at his filmography is a deluge of what amounts to the very best directors in the industry. From Legend to Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman), Cruise has made a point to work with (deep breath here) Ton Scott, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack, Neil Jordan, Brian DePalma, Cameron Crowe, Stanley Kubrick, Paul T. Anderson, John Woo, Steven Spielberg, Edward Zwick, Michael Mann, J.J. Abrams, Robert Redford, Ben Stiller, Bryan Singer, James Mangold, Brad Bird, and Doug Liman. He even brings out the best in less esteemed filmmakers like Christopher McQuarrie and Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion is a lot better than Tron: Legacy).

What you don’t see a ton of in the first large chunk of his career, pre-2005, are conventional action pictures. He didn’t make anything resembling a guns/explosions action film until Brian DePalma’s ice-cold, low-key, and adult-skewing Mission: Impossible in 1996 and he didn’t play a gun-toting action hero until John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II in 2000. And the firstMission: Impossible was a big deal precisely because it was Cruise trying his hand at hard action.  Tom Cruise’s stardom is worthwhile, both in the beginning and more so in hindsight, because it flourished in the kind of old-school character vehicles that we all claim are now an endangered species. Cruise played bartenders, lawyers, sports agents, race car drivers, selfish siblings, misogynistic self-help gurus, and gothic vampires with obsessive commitment. That last one, Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, is the kind of hard-R, sex-and-violence-filled campy horror treat that would never be a major release today, yet Cruise in his prime (and a relative newbie named Brad Pitt) powered the source novel’s popularity and Cruise’s controversial casting to a $36m debut back in 1994, a record for an R-rated opening at the time.

What’s also most impressive about Cruise’s stardom from 1982 to 2005 is how many of his films were R-rated and adult-skewing in nature. From 1987 (The Color of Moneyto 2007 (Lions for Lambs), 14 out of 21 of his starring vehicles were R-rated. Of his 16 $100m+ domestic grossers overall, eight of them were R-rated (that’s 9/18 if you count his small-but-heavily publicized turn in Tropic Thunder in 2008). That’s what we lost when Tom Cruise became somewhat defined by that YouTube-friendly incident back in 2005 and the related PR meltdown defined by his more vocal embrace of Scientology and his marriage to Katie Holmes. Aside from the cheap ($35m) Robert Redford underrated drama Lions for Lambs (which made $63m worldwide, not great but no mega-flop either for what amounted to a filmed lecture), Tom Cruise hasn’t made an R-rated starring vehicle since Collateral in 2004 (again, whether you count Tropic Thunder as a true starring vehicle is up to you).  But what is sadly clear is that we lost “Tom Cruise the adult-skewing actor” and started getting “Tom Cruise the PG-13 action hero.”

Pretty much every Tom Cruise picture following the infamous Oprah Winfrey interview has been some kind of action picture. The lone exception, his supporting role in the 80′s rock musical Rock of Ages in 2012, is ironically one of his very worst films and one of his few out-and-out box office flops ($59m on a $75m budget). We can debate whether or not Tom Cruise’s box office dipped much after his “couch jump” in relation to whether or not the less star-specific genres (mega-budget fantasies, CGI-animated pictures) just snagged exponentially bigger grosses overall than what would have been remotely normal in the 1990′s.What we must remember is that Tom Cruise became a movie star in a different age, during a time when $30 million was a big budget, $15m was a strong opening weekend, and $100m domestic was an unquestionable success. Cruise has made several very good pictures in the last ten years, even as each one was seen as a test as to whether or not he was still a movie star in one capacity or another. But pretty much all of them, with the exception of Lions Over Lambs and Rock of Ages, was the kind of action/adventure picture that used to be the exception rather than the rule.

What remains unique about Tom Cruise is that, in an era of action and spectacle, in a time often defined by the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, he became the biggest movie star on the planet by making dramas and/or the kind of thrillers that emphasized suspense and character over bloodshed and special effects. It is worth remembering that the very film that Cruise was promoting during the PR-meltdown was Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which went on to becoming Cruise’s biggest domestic grosser ever ($234 million) and his current second-biggest worldwide hit ($591m). Since then he had one relative disappointment, when the pricey ($160m) Mission: Impossible III fell well short of the first two installments of the franchise and earned just $397m worldwide, and one outright flop (Rock of Ages).

They have also mostly been pretty good movies, as I will defend Jack Reacher and Valkyrie unto death. It’s not that Cruise’s star has dimmed so much that the kind of films that once made him a star became an endangered species and that he decided to run with the pack in an effort to keep his momentum rather than use his star power to make more adult-skewing movies. That’s why I hold out hope for Mena. I have not seen the movie, nor have I read the script, so maybe this is an exercise in false hope. But on the outset, an 80′s period piece about a drug runner who eventually gets embroiled in the Iran Contra affair feels exactly like the kind of movie that once typified Tom Cruise stardom when he was at his peak. Maybe Cruise will turn the source material into a PG-13 action-adventure, but I am hopeful that the film will instead more closely resemble the 1990′s-era films more than anything he has made since perhaps Valkyrie if not Collateral.

If the Doug Liman who made Go can team up not with the Tom Cruise who made (the perfectly terrific) Edge of Tomorrow but rather than Tom Cruise who made Jerry Maguire and Interview with the Vampire, well then we might be in for a real treat in a couple years. Mena debuts January 6th, 2017 from Universal/Comcast Corp. I’m reasonable sure it will be a good movie, as Tom Cruise movies usually are. But I am beyond curious as to what kind of good movie it will be. As always, we’ll see.

Culled from Forbes.com

Jummy Ariyo

July 2015

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