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Cruise Control
Coasting Through a Career of Mediocrity



In the field of marketing, no one can stretch the truth with more glitz and skill than the Hollywood machine. The public relies on advertising to tell them which films are worth their time and trouble, and shrewd devices are often used to coerce an audience down to the local mall. It's common to see an uproarious three-minute preview for a tepid two-hour movie. If a minor critic gives a positive notice for a bad film, the studio will be sure plaster the print ads with the critic's words. And don't forget those out-of-context adjectives -- when Rex Reed said "Wonderful!" did he mean the whole picture or one standout performance? It's hard for us to know. For the most part, there are no concerns about misrepresenting the product, because everything is a matter of taste. A boring action movie can still be called a thriller. Unfunny films can be sold as comedies. Good acting, bad acting -- who can make a judgement?

Marketing crap as gold is difficult, and usually fades after a short time. But not always. Tom Cruise, one of the most powerful marquee stars working today, has been able to maintain a successful career for years without much evidence of overwhelming talent. Normally, the livelihood of an actor relies on this, but Cruise has shown enough business savvy (or luck) to pick the best projects and the most talented collaborators. He has been rewarded with an unbroken string of financially successful films that reaches back for a decade.

Here's the problem: the majority of these blockbusters are stinkers. Cruise has his strengths -- energy, good looks, charisma -- but most of his films would have been better if a great actor had been involved. Even better, a great actor with a smaller name. The mere presence of Tom Cruise assures success, and as a result several weak screenplays have been rushed into production with disastrous results. Why bother with quality control when everybody wants your product?

Jerry Maguire is an exception to the rule; the excellent screenplay was written by Cameron Crowe over a period of four years and was actually intended for Tom Hanks before Cruise stepped in. I was cynical about this film at the time of release, mostly because all the critics were raving about the quality of Cruise's performance in relation to his prior roles. I'll agree with them -- Jerry Maguire is where you'll see Tom Cruise at his best. From start to finish, almost everything about this movie is perfect, and as much as I hate to admit it, Cruise is a big part of that. How did this happen?

Consider this: Jerry Maguire was the first Tom Cruise picture in years that was not a "Tom Cruise picture" at the get-go. It may be that his success is his greatest handicap, at least artistically. Bad movies get made because of him.


THE EARLY FILMS (1981-1983)

Cruise dropped out of high school to become an actor. He came to Hollywood in 1981 and fell under the management of Paula Wagner, an agent at Creative Artists Agency. Wagner, probably more than Cruise himself, can be given credit for the upward direction of his career. He started in film with a small part in Endless Love (1981) and started turning heads as a crazy cadet in Taps (1981) supporting Timothy Hutton. His first starring role was in a bad teen comedy about virginity called Losin' It (1983), perhaps the only stumble of his career. Appearing in a movie with Shelley Long is rarely a good move.

Rather than star in another weak project, Cruise joined the ensemble cast of The Outsiders (1983), directed by Francis Ford Coppola. For the first time, Cruise had the chance to work with a master filmmaker who could bring out the best in his limited abilities. He had a small role, but by working so closely with his competition (C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, and Emilio Estevez), he could learn their strengths and weaknesses and compete for parts more effectively.

Risky Business (1983) made Tom Cruise a star, and it's puzzling to consider why. When I ask people about this movie, all they remember is the famous scene where Cruise scurries around his house wearing nothing but a pair of briefs, a button-down shirt, and a pair of Ray-Bans, playing air guitar and dancing as his stereo blares the Bob Seger classic "Old Time Rock & Roll." How odd that nothing else sticks to the memory but Cruise's energy, enthusiasm, and sex appeal. In my opinion, Cruise didn't get past this point for many years. Men love him because he is so cool; women love him because he is so sexy. The fact that he is (at best) a mediocre actor never seems very important. All the Right Moves (1983) had a dramatic plot, this time involving a high school football player with big dreams, but could have well been Risky Business 2. Cruise had already fallen into a rut.


LEGEND (1985)

Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, wanted to make a magical adventure film with demons and unicorns, and chose Tom Cruise to be his star. At great expense, Scott succeeded a making everything in this fantasy world look right, but the end product is empty and unmemorable. Cruise doesn't help matters much; he simply doesn't have enough presence to keep from being overwhelmed by the special effects. This was Cruise's first chance to show his range as an actor, and he failed. It's no surprise that he stopped taking risks and went back to playing cocky, enthusiastic characters. But with his next role, it paid off bigger than ever.


TOP GUN (1986)

The first Cruise blockbuster, clearly inspired by An Officer and a Gentleman from a few years earlier, Top Gun grossed almost $350 million worldwide. Cruise plays Maverick, a hotshot Navy pilot who is selected for an elite flying school that teaches the lost art of dogfighting. Having played football and wielded a sword in prior films, it makes sense for Cruise to take on another macho, heroic role. The young boys and girls who grew up watching Cruise movies on cable TV already think he's cool, and flying fast planes is as cool as you can get. Starting here, he picks roles that cater to this core audience. Risky business? There's no room for that in the career of Tom Cruise.

Top Gun serves as another starting point; it is his first bad film to enjoy overwhelming popular acclaim. This one thing to recommend about this movie is the spectacular aerial scenes. Director Tony Scott manages to choreograph six or seven air battles so well that the audience can not only follow the action but also feel like a part of it. As an advertisement for the Navy, Top Gun is a remarkable achievement, but as a piece of entertainment it falls flat. The love story between Maverick and one of his instructors (Kelly McGillis) is boring and predictable, and both actors seem forced into every romantic encounter. Cliches from war movies run rampant: Maverick's father died under mysterious circumstances in Vietnam, Maverick has a fierce rivalry with another pilot, his best friend dies in his arms, and so on. Nothing here is new, and everything is stilted. But audiences are thrilled by the air scenes and staggered by Cruise's charisma, so the film is considered a success. This effect will continue...


THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986)

With Top Gun under his belt, Cruise was now a bankable superstar. That may explain why a couple of pros like Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman would want to work with him on The Color of Money. This film continues the story of "Fast Eddie" Felson, a role Newman played in The Hustler (1961) to great acclaim. As usual, Cruise plays a cocky young hothead with special talents. He is a pool player this time (another cool profession for his resume) and Newman takes him as a protégé. While not truly a failure, a film by a director of Scorsese's caliber should offer more than this one does. Many of the situations are formula, and Cruise does little more than hoot and smirk his way through the movie. Here's an interesting effect: the action of the film is about the old master and the talented kid, and through an easy extrapolation the audience can see Newman, the acclaimed actor, passing the baton to Cruise, new kid on the block. Would Newman endorse Cruise as the best young actor in America? It doesn't matter -- the audience has already put the words in his mouth.


RAIN MAN (1988)

Next, Cruise studied under Dustin Hoffman during in the production of Rain Man. Audiences responded with $175 million in ticket sales. This movie was also the first major critical success in his career, both in print and at the Academy Awards. Rain Man won for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, and Hoffman was awarded a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of a high-level autistic named Raymond Babbitt. Cruise plays his hot-headed brother. While he is the star of this movie and the one who undergoes an important change, I wonder how much of the film's success has to do with Cruise's presence. The screenplay is brilliant, and the direction by Barry Levinson (Diner, The Natural) is flawless. All Cruise had to do is show up and act like a headstrong young man who obsesses about success. Except for Legend, that has been his only character for the past six years. Is this the mark of a great actor? No.


COCKTAIL (1988)

Nothing changes here. Cruise is still a cocky young man with big ambitions. Now he's a bartender (a nice addition to his resume) who wants to seduce a rich woman but accidentally finds true love with a waitress -- who turns out to be rich. For the first time since Top Gun, Cruise does not need to share marquee space with another actor. And he turns in another weak performance in a horrible movie. This time, though, it's horrible movie that earns nearly $80 million.

Cocktail is foolish and empty; it fails at every turn. Cruise and his bartending buddy are popular because they throw bottles and ice in the air like a circus act, and I don't know a drinker who would stand for that. Cruise allegedly chooses love over money, but at the end of the movie he owns a cool singles bar in Manhattan. How could he have possibly learned his lesson if that has happened? Cocktail is the film where all of the myth-building pays off for Cruise. He's worked with Newman, Scorsese, and Hoffman. Men admire him. Women love him. And they will throw money at him no matter how trashy the movie may be.


BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)

Cruise stumbled into a plum project here. For years, Oliver Stone (Platoon, Wall Street) had been trying to film the story of Ron Kovic, a patriotic soldier who returned from Vietnam paralyzed from the chest down and later transformed into an anti-war spokesman. The box-office clout enjoyed by Tom Cruise gave Stone the opportunity to film Born on the Fourth of July, and once again Cruise was able to stand on the shoulders of a giant and look tall himself. I can't say that Cruise's performance is weak, but the only way it deserved an Oscar nomination was in contrast to his earlier roles. Bad acting to not-so-bad acting is an important step, but it certainly does not deserve recognition on the level of the Academy Awards. He simply did a fine job with a great script. I consider that nomination to be yet another testament to the remarkable marketing job being done by Cruise's management and studios.

All that said, Born on the Fourth of July is recommended viewing. Stone is one of the best directors working today, and even Cruise can't slow him down. Kovic's story is important, and it's good that the Cruise juggernaut could make it come to life.


DAYS OF THUNDER (1990)

I call it Top Car. This might as well be the sequel to Top Gun -- same director, same type of conflict, same structure, same reckless character played by our old friend Tom Cruise. A stock-car driver with the unlikely name of Cole Trickle, this role captured the imagination of every young kid who wants to race at the Indianapolis 500. Once again, it's entertaining because of Tony Scott's skill at filming fast machines and Cruise's energy and charisma, but the formula is wearing thin. Not to mention the stupid premise that the best strategy in stock-car racing is to ram your opponent's car into the wall. If you've seen Top Gun, there's no reason to see Days of Thunder unless you prefer Nicole Kidman (Cruise's future wife) to Kelly McGillis.

Did I mention that this movie made $80 million? I probably don't need to.


FAR AND AWAY (1992)
A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)
THE FIRM (1993)

Working with yet another talented director, Ron Howard (Cocoon, Backdraft) Cruise enjoyed one more blockbuster with big problems. Far and Away looks gorgeous, but the story is so simple-minded that it hurts. Cruise stars with his wife, Nicole Kidman, as a pair of Irish immigrants who seek their destiny in America. The action of the movie is a series of chance encounters between unlikely characters who do strange things like work as a bare-knuckle boxer, live in a brothel, and travel to Oklahoma to take part in a land rush. Both of the main characters are simple and boring, and don't have a moment of interesting dialogue. Considering the care that was put into filming this picture (in 70mm), it breaks my heart to think how great it could have been with a smart script and a lead actor who could actually speak with an Irish accent. This film was a waste of time for everybody involved.

The same can be said for A Few Good Men, a courtroom drama directed by Rob Reiner (Misery, When Harry Met Sally). But in this case, a greater range of talent was involved in the production (Jack Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Demi Moore, Kiefer Sutherland, and Kevin Pollak). In his first truly "adult" role -- that is, one with little appeal to youngsters -- Cruise plays a Navy lawyer who defends two Marines wrongly accused of murder. This time Cruise shared the spotlight with Jack Nicholson, who has a small but important role as a commander who may have approved the murder. Nicholson is fantastic, and Cruise doesn't embarrass himself by comparison.

A Few Good Men is based on a true story, and that story is fairly compelling, but there are so many missed opportunities that we are left with a failure. It seems that Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay from his own Broadway play, doesn't think that his audience is smart enough to figure anything out. Every move is telegraphed and any potential suspense is snuffed out. The script needed a lot of work, but why bother? As soon as Cruise associated himself with the project, it was obvious that the film would make $150 million. And it did.

As Cruise's films continued to get worse and worse, with flawed scripts and boring performances, they got longer and longer. With no chance of financial failure, it seems that Cruise's directors had become less concerned with the editing process, which results in sprawling plots and slow pacing. This is not necessarily a good thing.

The Firm was adapted from John Grisham's best-selling novel by three of Hollywood's most expensive screenwriters and directed by Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie). Grisham's heroes are always lawyers on the run, and the formula doesn't change here. It's boring, and despite all the fine performances by character actors (Gene Hackman, Wilford Brimley, Gary Busey, and Holly Hunter), this is a bloated, stupid movie with nothing here to justify a $150 million box office. But there it is.

Three films. Three artistic blunders. Three financial successes. It becomes painfully obvious that the movie business is first and foremost a business, and the art of film is expendable.


INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994)

Director Neil Jordan, hot off the heels of his critical smash The Crying Game, chose to do a film version of Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire. Rice herself balked at the prospect of Cruise playing one of her beloved characters, and rightfully so. Cruise had never shown any sort of range before, and there was no reason to think he could start this late in his career. Without question, he does an admirable job in his portrayal of the seductive vampire Lestat, but then again he is not truly the star of this movie. Brad Pitt, a young actor who shares the marquee with Cruise, is the character who gets the most screen time and undergoes the important change. Lestat just has to look and act sexy, and that has always been one of Cruise's strengths.

Once again, we have a boring screenplay where not much happens. The production is exquisite, however, and might just be the most beautiful bad movie that Cruise has ever appeared in. Give credit to production designer Dante Feretti for providing Interview with its elegant glory, and give a raspberry to Anne Rice for being such an overrated writer. This movie should not have been made, not in this form. Yet the money continued to roll in, this time to the tune of $100 million.


MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)

You want to talk about bad screenplays? Sure, Cruise hadn't acted in a good one for years, but with his next project he scraped the bottom of the barrel. After the success of The Fugitive, both popular and critical, films based on TV shows became commonplace. Most were a waste of time and energy, and Mission: Impossible was no exception. The script was churned out by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz of Indiana Jones fame, and then doctored by David Koepp, who adapted Jurassic Park for the big screen. Paramount Pictures paid Koepp $1 million to clean it up, yet the plot remained a confusing, jumbled mess. Because of time constraints, the production continued.

Brian DePalma (Body Double, The Untouchables) was chosen to direct this picture, which was also Cruise's first outing as a producer. You have to admire the skill of a director who can put together a piece of work like Mission: Impossible with the tools at his disposal. Cruise doesn't know how to be an action hero, for one thing, and while the theft sequences and chase scenes are really cool, the film is nothing but a textbook case in slick filmmaking. Without Batman or Schwarzenegger to compete with it, Mission: Impossible made a killing at the box office. Its earnings surpassed even Top Gun and it became the biggest Cruise movie ever.


JERRY MAGUIRE (1996) AND BEYOND

Did Cruise deserved an Oscar nomination for his fine performance in Jerry Maguire? Probably. The role was written so well that he could have stumbled through the production and still looked good, but Cruise made difficult acting choices and pulled it off. Historically, his characters never hit rock bottom like Jerry Maguire does. He has never suffered in a film so visibly. Cruise characters always get by on their own strength, but this time he makes us believe that he can't survive without the support of a good woman, played brilliantly by Renee Zellweger. Finally, sparks fly between Cruise and his love interest! Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Singles) deserves a lot of credit for his Academy Award-nominated screenplay and fine direction, but for the first time Cruise's abilities also deserve acclaim. No one could have played this role like him, and I think he did it perfectly.

Does this mean there's hope for this pretty-boy? Perhaps he was transformed by his role behind the camera as a producer of Mission: Impossible and realized that movie-making is an empty profession unless you can be proud of the finished product. And quality takes time and effort. Cruise now seems willing to dedicate both -- his next project is Eyes Wide Shut, a Stanley Kubrick production. Kubrick is perhaps the greatest living filmmaker (also one of the most demanding) and has never been known to rush the artistic process. Cruise has said that he will be involved with the picture as long as necessary, which is a new work ethic for him. It's hard to forgive Tom Cruise for his legacy of mediocrity, but at long last he's learning from his mistakes. What more can we ask?




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