Tom Cruise’s ongoing appeal as a global sensation may have, at its heart, a simple explanation: He lets the work show. Cruise has been a major movie star for over thirty years, and his performances still vibrate with pleading earnestness. Cruise appears to be forever auditioning for the role of legendary actor, and his much publicized devotion to his craft is always explicit in the films themselves. In The Last Samurai, no subtext is more palpable than the actor’s desperation to register as a majestic Japanese warrior—a notion that (barely) eludes absurdity for its purposeful presence in the film’s shopworn coming-of-age arc. When the hired killer in Collateral offhandedly mentions the extraordinary jazz artist Charles Mingus, you wonder if Cruise spent a month holed up somewhere studying the musician’s work. Cruise’s self-consciousness has plenty of drawbacks—he has no sense of spontaneity, and, like many stars in his guarded/rarefied celebrity strata (particularly Julia Roberts), he has difficulty connecting romantically on-screen with others–but it also humanizes him. Cruise, like us, is trying to get a job done. His job may be far more unusual than ours, and certainly better compensated, but he allows us to grasp the broad concept.
Work is the great theme of Tom Cruise’s career, prevailing even over his films’ much-discussed “Daddy” complexes. When he was a young man, Cruise played guys who had to measure up to their fathers, and now, due to the necessities of his barely discernable middle-age, he plays the neglectful old man when he absolutely must. The Daddy thing, though often acknowledged as a reflection of aspects of Cruise’s own life, is essentially an arbitrary device. (No one really cares if Maverick forgives Pop; they want him to fly the hell out of that jet.) Every Tom Cruise performance is centered on the same question: How much of myself can I give to my work without squandering other elements of my humanity? Even this concern scans pragmatically, as if the classic Cruise character is only preoccupied with his potential loss of humanity because being a human is yet another job that he refuses to not get right.
Quite a bit has been made of the notion that Cruise’s films have become less adventurous as the actor has grown older, most pointedly after the 2005 interview with Oprah Winfrey and the subsequent gossip surrounding his eccentricities. Rather than continuing to work with auteurs on pictures that involve a great variety of physical and emotional risks, Cruise dove into the role of Action Man in a series of epics that are designed to thrive in a film culture that prizes easily exportable tent-poles. His Twitter account encapsulates his modus operandi with tongue-in-cheek efficiency: “Actor. Producer. Running in movies since 1981.”
But action films aren’t the artistic compromise for Cruise that they might be for another actor. Cruise has always been an action star, and he’s an intensely physical performer who relaxes somewhat in action contexts, easing up on the emotive tics (never more glaring than in his overpraised turn in Magnolia or in the disastrous meta-vanity project Vanilla Sky) that often appear in his “respectable” performances.
Action movies lend themselves to purely visual metaphors; and Cruise’s supernatural lantern jawed good looks lend themselves to implicative examinations of quintessentially American iconography. There are few images in recent American pop cinema as appealing, or as weirdly touching, as certain shots of Cruise running in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. This running unites the machinery of elaborate set pieces with the intimacy of a gung-ho desperation to get the damn work done. But it’s the sci-fi tinged action pictures that have coaxed the fullest nuances out of the actor, and so it’s not surprising that Cruise appears to be favoring this genre hybrid more and more often. The first Cruise sci-fi action film was Minority Report, then War of the Worlds. Last year saw the release of Oblivion, and this weekend brings us the heavily anticipated Edge of Tomorrow.
The science fiction element further accentuates the action film’s possibilities for visual metaphors. And those metaphors excuse Cruise from the conventional tear-jerking and hand-wringing that mars a performance like the one he gave in Magnolia or The Last Samurai. The finest moments of Cruise’s career are in Minority Report, which serves as the ultimate essay on what we think of as the “Tom Cruise film” (and as a “Steven Spielberg film,” for that matter). The role of Chief John Anderton, a detective for a crime bureau that has the ability to stop (and, more disquietingly, punish) murderers before they kill, comes equipped with most of the Cruise signifiers: he’s a brilliant worker who’s estranged from his family because of a past tragedy, which, in turns, funnels said professional brilliance. A moment early on tells us all of this, intuitively, visually: the detective uses a series of flat-screen computers to sort through case information provided to him by the behaviorally impaired psychics the bureau keeps imprisoned, and this parsing of visual stimulation is equated to the motions of a conductor orchestrating a symphony. Moving his hands in sharp, determined, parodic gestures, we see the gratification and release that Anderton gets from his job, at the expense of a ruined personal life.
Ray, the longshoreman Cruise plays in War of the Worlds, the most viscerally terrifying film from Spielberg since Jaws, doesn’t seem to take much pride in his work, and that’s why he’s probably the most unsettlingly unlikeable character in the actor’s canon. Sure, he’s a deadbeat dad and an embittered divorcee, but Cruise characters have had those issues before: it’s Ray’s lack of pride in his work that distances him from the audience as a lead, and this heroic detachment (which Spielberg himself had been experimenting with previously in A.I Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report) allows Cruise to go further than he has before into the social ramifications of the lost dad business that he’s been mining his entire career. But, again, through implicative physicality: You never catch Cruise pleading for his Oscar here. A bitter game of catch that Ray plays with his disillusioned teenage son is almost as despairingly terrible as the carnage brought forth by the aliens. Cruise keeps this disaster film personal.
Oblivion isn’t much of a movie, but it works as well as it does for its leading man. The notion of Cruise as the last man on Earth has a faintly satiric ring to it, similar, in a different context, to the once-considered possibility of Charlton Heston in the same position. These men are so resolutely, definitively all-American that they offer testament to America’s unstoppable can-do stubbornness: Our country manages a disproportionate global representation even after the collapse of the human race. It’s a pity that the director Joseph Kosinski can’t decide whether he wants to ape Solaris or Planet of the Apes and The Matrix, because the early portions of this film between Cruise’s Jack Harper and Andrea Riseborough’s Vika are tender and surprisingly erotic. A porno set-up (older man stuck somewhere remote with willing young babe) briefly yields moments of lonely contemplation, most tangibly because Cruise is too vulnerable to allow this scenario to turn into a smug fantasy of privilege; he allows you to see how eclipsed Jack feels by the vast expanses of wasted, still-beautiful Earth, and that’s the key to Cruise’s ongoing appeal in the sci-fi action film. The genre fulfills Cruise because it literalizes his visible efforts to transcend the limitations of his body, a pursuit of godliness that ironically brings him down to recognizable Earth, among others who dream of things that may never be.