As Tom Cruise showed in American Made, when the project is a good fit, he can be as electrifying as ever.
As Tom Cruise showed in American Made, when the project is a good fit, he can be as electrifying as ever.
Photo by David James/Universal Pictures

Tom Cruise Is Back...If He Wants to Be

Tom Cruise released a new movie over the weekend. It's called American Made. It was well-received by both audiences and critics alike. It did well on its opening weekend with a domestic box office pull of approximately $17 million – certainly not a flop, but not exactly the numbers Cruise came to expect during his heyday in the '80s and '90s.

And therein lies the point. Tom Cruise the movie star is long gone. The Mummy reboot was an epic fail. The Jack Reacher franchise is languishing. Edge of Tomorrow was a damn good film that nonetheless underperformed at the box office. And the Mission: Impossible franchise, despite a sixth installment coming in 2018, can safely be described as tired.

So, yes, to reaffirm – Tom Cruise the A-list movie star who could open any movie via his sheer presence is no more. But Tom Cruise the actor is as strong as ever. And it’s that Tom Cruise who should making his presence felt as the man eases into his late fifties.

Look, no one stays on top forever. Comedic types like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler had their runs atop the marquee. Will Smith was the biggest name in the game until he wasn’t. Even modern-day movie stars like Ryan Gosling and Melissa McCarthy aren’t without their misses. So it makes sense that Cruise, who logged nine $100 million-plus blockbusters in a 15-year span between 1986 and 2001, would one day see his star fade a bit as well.

It didn’t help that Cruise participated in a bit of self-sabotage in semi-sinking his career. The battle with Brooke Shields over postpartum depression. The quickie marriage to Katie Holmes. Labeling Matt Lauer as “glib.” Oprah’s couch. The list goes on. Whether Tom Cruise is a weird person is really a matter of interpretation, and his personal life is certainly none of my business, but the point remains – Tom Cruise is at his best on-screen when he goes a little bit weird.

Take American Made, for instance. The film, which will turn a profit due to a moderate budget, tells the real-life story of Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot who flew drug recon missions in Central America on behalf of the CIA in the 1970s. Now, the international drug trade is no laughing matter, and (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Seal was actually killed by the Cartel in 1986. Despite this, American Made maintains some light and breezy undertones that allow Cruise to flex his comedic muscle, as he’s ably done in films like Tropic Thunder and Jerry Maguire.

American Made is not The Mummy, Jack Reacher or one of the many Mission: Impossibles, films that take themselves far too seriously and films in which Cruise’s talents are limited to killing bad guys and getting the pretty girl. Instead, it’s a film that allows him to run the gamut of emotions between fun and serious, and everywhere in between. Contrary to popular belief, Cruise isn’t some pretty face with minimal range; you don’t rule the box office for the better part of two decades by accident.

Case in point, Magnolia, the little-seen (by Cruise standards, at least) 1999 art-house ensemble pic that features name-brand, top-tier talent like the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore and Alfred Molina. This is as stacked a cast as you’ll find, and Magnolia is a great film ably shepherded by directing mastermind Paul Thomas Anderson.

And yet, it’s Cruise – in a supporting role, no less – who steals the show as misogynistic motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey, whose sole purpose in life is to inform men how to convince women to sleep with them. Turns out, Cruise’s Mackey only seduces women as a way of controlling the life that began to unravel when his father left young Frank and his dying mother as a boy. It’s a weird role in a weird film, and it’s Cruise at his absolute best – an acute blend of charm and vulnerability – in a role that eventually earned him an Academy Award nomination.

Not that Cruise limits this range to arthouse flicks. Rather, his best movie – 1996’s Jerry Maguire – is Cruise in peak form. Cruise begins the film as he often did a film in the '80s and '90s – cocky, brash, self-absorbed – but due to some personal and professional failings throughout the course of the film, eventually finds himself in a place of happiness and humility. Again, Cruise is at his best when his arrogance is stripped down to reveal a person of actual substance.

It doesn’t appear that Cruise has any more American Made or Magnolia type of fare on the horizon; Mission: Impossible 6 is on the way next year, and a rumored Top Gun sequel may actually be a thing. Not that Cruise has anything left to prove. His movies have made billions many times over. He’s been nominated for and won some of the biggest awards in the industry. He’s probably the biggest American movie star of the past 30 years.

And yet, one can hope that as he closes in on 60, Cruise abandons the pretense that he needs another Jack Reacher or Mummy franchise to reignite his box-office clout and shine up his star a bit. His legacy cannot be questioned. Here’s hoping Cruise spends his remaining on-screen days showcasing the talent that made it so.

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