‘I got the need. The need for speed!’ It’s been thirty-five years since Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer spoke those iconic words and took to the skies in the late Tony Scott’s Top Gun, one of the most quoted and memorable films of the 1980s. It was the movie that established Cruise as a megastar and set him on the path towards becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable and dependable names.
He is certainly a polarising figure off screen, with his Scientological beliefs and other controversies, but his commitment to his work, his dedication to his craft and his desire to push the boundaries further deserve to be noticed. But, as he approaches his sixtieth birthday, with the belated Top Gun: Maverick due to be released, how has Cruise developed from his early roles into the persona he is today? That’s what I am going to try and do here.
Cruise started acting at 18, and made his debut with a minor role in 1981’s Endless Love. The film that gave him his breakout success was Risky Business (1983), which presented the infamous image of him in character, dancing in his parents’ living room wearing a pink shirt, shades, and white socks. At the tender age of just 21, his performance is very good, possessing both the charisma and charm that would later surface again in Top Gun. The film went on to be a big success, and Cruise was seen as big reason why. His career was taking off very quickly.
Following Risky Business, Cruise became a sought-after leading man to many of the industry’s most influential names. He played the lead in Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), one of his few forays into the fantasy genre, and in the same year as Top Gun, was cast alongside Paul Newman in The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese.
1988 saw him appear in Cocktail, and, more significantly, Rain Man. The film, directed by Barry Levinson and featuring Cruise in a supporting role to Dustin Hoffman, was a major critical success, winning the Best Picture Oscar and earning Cruise rave reviews for his performance. Having spent his time since Top Gun trying to establish himself as a proper actor, Cruise was finally beginning to be noticed as an actor who could, when required, produce quality work.
Born on the Fourth of July and further success.
Cruise’s role in Rain Man was significant in his development as an actor. He was already a major star, but he needed to prove he had the ability to go with his good looks and cheeky grin. It helped to convince directors that he could do ‘heavy lifting’ in roles that were challenging.
In 1989, Cruise earned his first Academy Award nomination for his role as Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. It was another of Stone’s films about the Vietnam War, but this time it was a personal account of one man who was there. Kovic was originally to be played by Al Pacino, until original producer Martin Bregman left the project. Many at Universal Pictures were unsure of Cruise’s ability to be able to play such an emotional character, and Stone himself was dismissive of Cruise’s career up to this point. Cruise spent over a year researching and preparing, determined to do Kovic’s life justice.
Born on the Fourth of July is a powerful and moving film, anchored exceptionally by Cruise’s superb performance. Rather than merely flash a smile or bare his chest, he must dig deep into himself to play a man who is pushed to the deepest, darkest depths of despair and must haul himself back from the brink. Cruise disappears into a character who both physically and mentally, is affected by the ravages of war. The movie loses traction towards the end, but Cruise is unwavering. Now 27, he was at last earning a reputation as an actor as well as box-office star.
The success of Born on the Fourth of July gave Cruise a new foundation in his career, allowing him to appear in films he may not otherwise have been considered for. In the years following, he made the likes of Days of Thunder (reuniting him with Tony Scott), Far and Away (1992) with his wife Nicole Kidman, entered a court room slanging match with both Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992) and Gene Hackman in The Firm (1993) and even found time to play a member of the undead in the bizarre Interview with the Vampire (1994). These roles kept his critical success high, but they weren’t always popular with the public, who wanted to see Cruise back in the sort of role he had played in Top Gun.
The Mission: Impossible series
If there is any role that will properly define Cruise’s legacy, it will be that of Ethan Hunt, the character he has played across six Mission: Impossible films (a seventh is due out next year). This is the franchise that has dominated his career since he appeared in the first film twenty-five years ago.
It has seen several directors (Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J Abrams, Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie, who has turned into the series’ mainstay) and several high-profile actors in support, but Cruise has been the constant, returning to the series even when it initially looked like he was ready to bow out.
The first three films vary in terms of quality and the effectiveness of Cruise in the lead. 1996’s Mission: Impossible is far too complicated and has gaping plot holes that limit its effectiveness, while Cruise himself can’t get a handle on how to play Hunt, who comes across as selfish and arrogant and he’s somewhat boring.
The second film is more of a John Woo actioner than a Mission: Impossible film, although Cruise himself gives a much more effective performance, giving Hunt a personality as well as sowing the seeds for the high-octane stunts that have become hallmarks of the series.
The third movie is sabotaged by Cruise’s own ego and his inability to separate himself from his character, while the whole movie is dominated by a superb villainous turn from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who gives Owen Davian more personality than Cruise gives Hunt.
The series as it has become now really takes off with the fourth film, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. After a five-year lay off, Cruise and new director Brad Bird re-position the series by making use of an eclectic supporting cast to support Hunt, adding dashes of humour and playfulness without losing the credibility of the plot, and most crucially, combining Cruise’s audacity with Hunt’s own persona.
When Cruise begins his ascent of the Burj Khalifa, it isn’t just because of his own daredevil tenacity, but Hunt’s determination to save the world, even at the expense of his own life. The previous three films didn’t effectively make a case for Cruise as an action hero- Ghost Protocol does.
Christopher McQuarrie’s arrival in Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation has given the franchise a further injection of energy. Hunt turns into ‘the living embodiment of destiny’ a description accurate to Cruise himself. In both Rogue Nation and Fallout (arguably the best action film of the last decade), he pushes the physical demands of his body to its limit, while at the same time using his middle-aged maturity to develop Hunt into the closest he has been to a fully-rounded, three dimensional hero.
Whether going mano-a-mano with Henry Cavill, shimmying up a pipe using nothing more than his core body strength, breaking his ankle during a chase over London rooftops or jumping out of an aeroplane, Cruise’s determination to stunt work and to his audience is remarkable. The mark of any good movie star is to get people into cinemas or to stream into their homes, to make the money that will pay back the studio’s willingness to employ them.
Roles outside Ethan Hunt
Although Mission: Impossible has been an important part of Cruise’s career, he hasn’t been resting idly on its continued success. He has continued to work solidly in other genres and with other filmmakers, making a host of films that can be best described as ‘eclectic’.
In the years following the first Mission: Impossible, there was Jerry Maguire (1996), a wonderful comedy-drama with Renee Zellweger and Magnolia (1999), which sees Cruise appear as part of an ensemble cast.
Most notably, he appears in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which is either a masterpiece or an incredibly dull passion project, depending on who you ask. The movie shows Cruise exposed in ways he hasn’t been before, revealing a willingness to place himself entirely in the hands of a director whose manipulation is well known.
Between MI: II and MI: III, Cruise continued to expand his range, with roles in Vanilla Sky (2001), two collaborations with director Steven Spielberg- one, the masterful sci-fi thriller Minority Report (2002, a film which contains arguably his best performance in an ‘action thriller’), the other the underrated remake of War of the Worlds (2005) and the historical epic The Last Samurai (2003).
In Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004), Cruise took on a very rare villainous role, playing the master hitman Vincent. It’s always a risk when an actor best known for playing heroic characters goes bad, but Cruise is exceptional as Vincent, successfully managing to cuckold Jamie Foxx.
Cruise has always displayed an aptitude for comedy, but never more so than in Tropic Thunder (2008). Buried beneath layers of prosthetics and a fat suit, Cruise’s brilliantly volatile Les Grossman is nothing short of hilarious, but the key comes from Cruise’s willingness to sacrifice his regular screen image and go for it, resulting in an unhinged yet utterly hysterical performance.
Since turning 50, Cruise has developed into a more mature, stronger screen presence. Its noticeable in his later films as Hunt, where he has managed to shake off the controversies of the early 2000s and create a persona of someone who is aware of what is expected of him. Most of his films post 2012 have been variations on the Mission: Impossible franchise, often in the guise of other genres.
Post-apocalyptic drama Oblivion (2013) and the science fiction action film Edge of Tomorrow (2014) see Cruise play somewhat vulnerable protagonists who must be rescued by the female characters in the story (similar to how Ilsa Faust tends to rescue Hunt). His ego, which has proved a problem over the years, is toned down enough to allow his heroes to show some vulnerability.
Cruise’s on-screen and off-screen relationship with women has developed positively over the years- his relationship with Katie Holmes and their rather ugly split damaged his credibility and reputation for a number of years in Hollywood. Nowadays, Rebecca Ferguson is almost as integral to Mission: Impossible as Cruise is- it will be interesting to see the role Jennifer Connelly plays in the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick, whether she will be a standard love interest or have a bit more spark.
Rare Box-Office Misfire
Over the years, being ‘Tom Cruise’ has had its drawbacks for the actor. His off-screen problems have been well documented (its rumoured his Scientology background led to a rift with Spielberg) but in recent years, his power as a producer has tended to make his films rather limited in terms of outside influence.
Cruise tried to get the Jack Reacher books to the screen, but because he served as a producer, no one thought to tell him that playing a character described as 6 foot 4 when he himself is 5 foot 7 might not be the best idea. The movies are Mission: Impossible in all but name, albeit without the death defying stunts and colourful supporting characters.
Cruise has had solid box-office success over the years, but one notable exception is 2017’s The Mummy, an intended first instalment of the new ‘Dark Universe’. Directed by Alex Kurtzman, the film stars Cruise as Nick Morton, a U.S army soldier who becomes involved in the chase to capture an undead female mummy.
The movie is obviously inspired by the 1999 Brendan Fraser remake, with one notable exception- this isn’t a Mummy movie, but a ‘Tom Cruise’ movie. Nick Morton is essentially Ethan Hunt, without the charisma and charm, and Cruise’s excessive level of control behind the scenes results in a movie that makes no sense and can’t escape the inevitable feeling that all that is being seen on screen is Tom Cruise running around pretending to fight mummies. The movie’s disastrous reception is proof, perhaps, that the Tom Cruise formula isn’t intended for certain films.
At an age when most actors would be giving way to their stuntmen or looking for age-appropriate projects, Tom Cruise is showing no signs of slowing down. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been hard at work on the seventh Mission: Impossible film (there was a notable incident in which he was heard shouting at crew members who compromised the safety of everyone on set by not following COVID protocols, a sort of real life Les Grossman moment, but understandable in the circumstances), hoping to match or even top what he managed to achieve in Fallout.
His return as Maverick is going to be fascinating- how will he, in his late 50s, approach a role he last played when he wasn’t even 25? Cruise may not be a Marlon Brando or a Lawrence Oliver, but he doesn’t need to be. He has a niche which he fills extremely well, and which audiences engage with. With most of his contemporaries struggling to maintain success and making dud after dud, he is the exception to the commonly held belief that movie stars don’t exist anymore. In a theatrical world ravaged by a pandemic and ruled mostly by Disney and Marvel, he’s carrying on regardless. Tenacity, perhaps, may well be Tom Cruise’s greatest asset.
TOP GUN: MAVERICK IS RELEASED ON NOVEMBER 19, 2021
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 7 WILL BE RELEASED ON MAY 27, 2022