Tom Jolliffe looks at the enduring star power of Tom Cruise. In an age where concept and franchise rules over star, is Cruise the last great big screen movie star?
From marriages in the public eye, to couch jumping, to being a poster boy for scientology, the career of Tom Cruise has brought with it plenty of attention outside of his on screen appeal.
Of his appeal on screen, he’s been working solidly for over 40 years, becoming a big name in the business within a couple of film appearances after solidifying smaller roles with the breakout leading role in Risky Business. A certain fighter jet film would become a pop cultural phenomenon in 1986 and prove the kind of massive box office hit which made Cruise one of the most sought after A-list actors of the era.
Cruise wasn’t just about blockbusters and financial glory either, often seeking opportunities to work with great directors like Martin Scorsese in The Color of Money, Barry Levinson in Rain Man and Oliver Stone in Born on the Fourth of July. Whilst the plaudits were more readily aimed at Paul Newman in Color of Money or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Cruise would claim his first Oscar nomination for Born on the Fourth of July.
The 90’s would prove a mix of critical acclaim, box office appeal and a constant and willing fan-base that meant Cruise rarely misfired. Cruise has been nominated for three Oscars, with Jerry Maguire and Magnolia adding to the aforementioned Fourth of July nod. He wasn’t just an easy grin with masses of charisma. He had the chops too.
In 1996 he headlined a big budget blockbuster based on a TV show from decades before. Mission: Impossible, a stylish action thriller from Brian De Palma proved a big hit, launching Cruise into the world of franchise, whether they expected to get as far as 8 movies or not (I suspect not). A star studded cast and existing IP had appeal to an extent, but the audience came in big numbers predominantly for Tom Cruise.
That Cruise almost died after becoming entangled in his parachute in the water in Top Gun was somewhat irrelevant, because it was this first Mission: Impossible where Tom Cruise: Stunt Man was also born. From the infamous wire descent, to leaping out of a window to outrun a surge of water from the restaurant he’d just blown a window out from, Cruise was in on the action.
If audiences didn’t quite get that dedication to being visibly involved in the action then, they certainly would by the time he made the more action packed second film, directed by John Woo. M:I 2 cemented the lure of the Cruise stunt. From mountain leaps, to motorcycle rides and more, Cruise set a new expectation for his work going forward. It was a string to his bow, a selling point, and it has proven a tool of forgiveness and resurrection even as his career has threatened to implode under off screen contention.
No, Cruise is popular once more, riding a successful franchise, with minimal impact from misfires like The Mummy and generally an age-less appeal for his indefatigable dedication to stunt work. Cruise, and it could only be him, is likely to become the first actor to shoot in space too.
There’s a difference between 2022 and the 80’s and 90’s heyday when Cruise rose to prominence though. The movie-star as cinema historically knew it, is rare. Sure, we have big, highly paid actors, but many of them are reliant on the IP’s they’re attached to. Arguably, few are as damn charismatic as greats of yesteryear (am I the only one who finds most of the Chris’s interchangeable?). Now, more than ever, concept is what sells. Franchises, existing IP. Sure, Cruise has all this, but he also has with it a level of control that very few have.
In the world of the MCU, the heroes could effectively be played by anyone. They could be recast and still sell tickets. Robert Downey Jr. has the most iconic allure of all the MCU stars, in as much as he was the one who really gave comic book films Indie actor sensibility and cool. At heart though, he’s still more indie than his highly paid outings as Stark suggest. Outside of Iron Man, steps into blockbuster films have occasionally felt awkward, although he is largely responsible for making a hit Sherlock Holmes franchise.
Elsewhere, Dwayne Johnson is one of the few whose name exceeds the material he works in. His appeal might be lessening under a slightly mechanical approach to his roles now. Johnson just repeats his own carefully tailored (if one note) formula with little variation, and unlike Cruise doesn’t come backed with a legacy as a great actor. Maybe Cruise has occasionally played blockbuster characters a little safe (even two dimensional), reigned in by the expectations of blockbuster heroism, but every now and again he reminds us he’s also a great actor (he’s superb in Maverick).
Furthermore, we’re in a time where the big screen appeal isn’t like it used to be. The big screen experience was once about more than ticking formula boxes to appeal to a select group of the masses. Additionally the big screen space is largely monopolised by a select few studios and most notably by Disney and all its wings (including the MCU).
As said, the rotational, interchangeable nature of the stars here has seen three different Peter Parkers in 20 years (and Bruce Banners). Captain America passed his shield on, to be taken up in series form by Anthony Mackie. Hugh Jackman made Wolverine his own, undoubtedly unforgettable, but he never quite superseded that character in a way where he’s irreplaceable. There will be another.
Other stars have also made that transition to streaming. You might call it selling your soul. Deals with the devil. We’ve seen other films in difficult circumstances, having to change their models to incorporate simultaneous streaming and cinema releases. Dwayne Johnson had seen a decline in box office revenue prior to the pandemic that has seen him go a little safer with more Disney material, as well as become a big fish in the Netflix pond. Cruise however… is all about the big screen experience.
When it comes to action, adventure, spectacle, Cruise champions the importance of the big screen and the incomparable feeling of seeing these films in the biggest format possible. The problem with streaming cinema and the mentality to some of the more churned out material, is there’s a part of the rationale that accepts these may be watched on a phone.
There are still other classic movie stars who once sold a film on their name alone. The likes of Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks are still going, but transitioning more to support acts or smaller films. Ford will don his Fedora once more as Indiana Jones, having recently returned as Han Solo, but he’s certainly benefitting from established franchise fan bases. For cinemas, it’s all about attracting the under 30s, most of whom know more of Star Wars as a prequel era entity than they do of Ford and his cultural legacy back in the day.
That Gen Z demographic however do know of Tom Cruise, whose appeal has carried, and because his magnetism still outweighs his franchises. Again, such is his grip on Mission Impossible, and Maverick for example, that he is unshakably synonymous with them. His dedication to them becomes irreplaceable. That dedication to do HALO jumps, leap buildings, fly helicopters or ensure that the flight sequences in Maverick looked stomach churningly real.
In the Marvel world of green screen studios for example, we could take out Chris Hemsworth in a couple of years and replace him with another Thor and many wouldn’t bat an eye. It’s a very carefully constructed formula which is working, but it all rests on the pre-established worlds, the visual effects, more than it rests on the star power (even if casting needs to be good).
Cruise’s dedication to big screen spectacle, also offset by interesting asides like American Made, and very underrated sci-fi and high concept films like Minority Report, Oblivion (very underrated) and Edge of Tomorrow, brings a sense of anticipation to his films. Maybe we’re there because we expect stunts, or we know that he’ll give nothing less than 100%, or it’s an example of a creatively driven project, rather than a marketing machine, but we still show up. It may not always go right, like the misfiring Mummy or Jack Reacher (where he felt miscast in both), but Cruise has his sure-fires and his surprises.
Honestly, did anyone expect Top Gun: Maverick to be the box office behemoth it has been? I expected it to impress, to be a good example of Cruise’s fervent passion for as much practical work as possible (as opposed to doing 95% with CGI), but after 36 years, that it’s his highest grossing film ever – and the highest-grossing movie of 2022 so far – is impressive.
The reality is, most reboots of cult films, usually fail. A big part of that is replacing star power with cast who don’t have the same magnetism, or they’re treated without creative care. The biggest strength with Maverick was in Cruise pushing to make a film that would impress, and more so, would provide the kind of big screen spectacle audiences rarely get now.
It’s a film that dares you to get sucked in, overwhelmed and to actually switch your phone off. It involves you (and the real over CGI element is a factor) rather than washing over you. It’s given a hearty dose of passion and sincerity by its movie star lead, perhaps one the greatest of all time, and maybe the last old school star whose name has as much/more weight than the IP, and remains bankable in a new landscape.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.