Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of the impossible

with 3 comments

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

A couple of years ago, after I saw Jack Reacher, I wrote the following about Tom Cruise, whom I still regard as the most interesting movie star we have: “He’s more of a great producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star who can also get movies made.” I didn’t think much of that observation at the time, but when I look back, it seems to explain a lot about what makes Cruise both so consistent and so enigmatic. A producer credit can mean just about anything in Hollywood, from the person who willed an entire movie into existence to the financier who signed the checks to the studio executive who was in the right place at the right time. On the highest level, though, a producer is an aggregator of talent and money, a magnet to whom capable professionals and funding are drawn. By that definition, a major movie star, whose involvement can be all that takes a project out of turnaround and puts it into production, is frequently the only producer who counts. If you start to think of Cruise, then, as less a star than an industry player who can get movies to happen, he ranks among the greatest producers in history. And the Mission: Impossible franchise is the jewel in the crown, a series of sandboxes for five distinct directors to play with the idea of a studio tentpole, linked only by the master orchestrator who assembles the pieces.

This may be why it has taken so long for the series to get the recognition it deserves. The Mission: Impossible movies have always been financially successful, but it wasn’t until Ghost Protocol—and now Rogue Nation, which by all accounts is just as superb—that they began to inspire anything like affection. Most franchises thrive on our fondness for a central character, but Ethan Hunt is nothing but whatever the screenplay happens to require. Cruise is the undeniable creative force behind these films, but he’s also turned himself into a studio executive’s idea of an obedient movie star, a pro who gets to the set on time, always gives everything he has, and defers throughout to the overall operation. Each installment is less a movie in itself than a kind of object lesson, with endless variations, in what a big studio production ought to be. Hence the way Cruise, with a producer’s sure instincts, has used the franchise as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable sidekick or villain performances (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Philip Seymour Hoffman), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, Christopher McQuarrie). The result works precisely to the extent that it gives us our money’s worth, and few franchises over the years have so consistently embodied the basic reasons I go to the movies.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

Yet there’s something about the impersonality of the result that can be a little alienating, and I think this has contributed more to the ambivalence many viewers feel toward Cruise than any of his public missteps—which, in any case, are far less damaging than countless transgressions for which many lesser stars have been forgiven. It’s hard to feel much love for him, any more than we feel love for, say, Brian Grazer, and Cruise himself seems increasingly reluctant to build a film around his star power alone. When you look at the trailers for his movies, you find that many of them fall back on the same gimmick: instead of opening on the star, as the ads for most movies would, they establish the story and situation for up to a minute without showing Cruise at all, and when he first appears, it’s as a slow fade into a glowering closeup of his face. (You see the same pattern in the teasers for Mission: Impossible III, Collateral, Ghost Protocol, and Jack Reacher, and there are probably others I’ve forgotten.) It sells us on the movie first, then slides in Cruise toward the middle, as if to seal the deal. It’s a neat trick, but it also has the effect of subordinating the star to the producer. He’s an important piece, even the keystone, but he derives his value solely from the machine he sets in motion. And we might like him better as a human being if he’d stuck to movies like Cocktail or Days of Thunder, in which he coasted on his considerable charm alone.

But the history of popular entertainment is richer and more intriguing thanks to Cruise’s withdrawal into the producer’s chair. At times, he reminds me a little of Napoleon, and not just in terms of stature: both are genetic freaks who were statistically bound to emerge sooner or later, and their success depended largely on being born into a time that could put them to use. Napoleon was a political and administrative genius who also had the physical endurance and luck of a soldier; Cruise was a handsome kid with a knack for acting who also had a relentlessly pragmatic sense of the possible. Which isn’t to say that his instincts are always infallible, any more than they were for Spielberg or Hitchcock. His attempt to become something like a real studio mogul at United Artists fizzled out quickly, and efforts like Lions for Lambs, Knight and Day, Oblivion, and Rock of Ages have revealed something less than a flawless understanding of what the public wants. In recent years, he has seemed content to be nothing but an action star, and he’s proven just as capable of this as might be expected—although I also feel the loss of the actor who starred in Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia. As always, his choices serve as a microcosm of the movie industry as a whole, which has moved away from human stories to four-quadrant blockbusters, and Cruise seems determined to demonstrate that he’s as good at this as he was at anything else. And he is. But convincing audiences to love him for it may be the most impossible mission of all.

3 Responses

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  1. I’ve always loved Tony Lee’s review of Cruise’s Oblivion (in Interzone #248): “overpaid Cruise is a drive-by hit-man, idly shattering the shop window displays of urban futurism/philosophical humanism with his vacuous mayhem and patented smirk … Cruise is best viewed as the annoying little dog that runs around the futuristic house and jumps on the shiny new furniture.” It’s got just enough truth to be more than just funny. In his choice of vehicles, and his acting ability, I do feel he shows a conservatism and lack of range that put him a long way behind some other male stars similarly initially prominent for little more than their looks — Pitt, say, and Depp (well, I’ll allow him the pirate movies…). Even Clooney. I really like Cruise in Magnolia, and in Tropic Thunder (hey — he can laugh at himself…maybe). But so often he seems to bend what could have been a good movie around his own neuroses concerning the image he wants to project, or feels he has to project. His movies are Tom Cruise vehicles, not movies with Tom Cruise in them. I can’t see him in something like O Brother, Where Art Thou? Syriana, Dead Man, Edward Scissorhands or even Twelve Monkeys. Haven’t seen everything he’s done, of course.


    July 31, 2015 at 3:23 am

  2. @Darren: Well, my opinions on Cruise are a matter of record. But I don’t think Depp or Clooney could have done what Cruise does in Collateral, for instance—although Pitt probably could. And much of the fascination of Cruise’s movies, at least for me, comes from the way his image, and the way he protects it, pushes against the strangeness of the material. I find his movies almost invariably more interesting than they would have been if another actor had been playing the lead, and the aura and history he brings to each part are a big part of that appeal. (That said, I’ve always viewed him mostly as a seal of approval: it’s very rare that he’s at the center of anything less than a first-rate production, which can’t be said of any other actor or director alive.)


    August 9, 2015 at 7:57 pm

  3. Cruise can be very good, I have no doubt, and he can get good movies made and be in them. Perhaps that need he seems to have these days to, as you say, protect how he is seen means he does not ‘give’ as much as he might. I would rate Clooney as less gifted but more prepared to go out on a limb. He’s made a lot of flops and pretty ordinary movies, but at least he’s ‘had a go’.

    I’ll admit I also tend to have the word ‘scientology’ nagging me when I watch Cruise — I find it very hard to forget who he is when I watch his movies, so I cannot be fair to him.


    August 11, 2015 at 10:18 pm

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