Tom Cruise Can Still Be Great -- Why Aren't His Movies? 

Thursday, Apr 25 2013
Cruise in Oblivion.

Cruise in Oblivion.

Though he's long been among the most recognizable celebrities in the world, Tom Cruise has always seemed vaguely irritating, like the popular kid at school everybody secretly dislikes. His is an odd sort of fame: globally recognized but rarely acclaimed, he remains more reliably bankable than nearly any other actor of his generation, his presence an almost guaranteed boon to a film's bottom line despite being a magnet for bad press and, in recent years especially, mild scandal.

Part of the problem, of course, is that our gossip-saturated conception of celebrity culture privileges private controversy over professional achievement. That's why, in the public imagination, a few years of incriminating tabloid headlines have apparently eclipsed the accomplishments of a three-decade career, effectively transforming a once-celebrated star into a spectacle of folly.

What's strange about this perceptual shift isn't so much that a respected actor's reputation has been summarily tarnished—it would hardly be the first time public sentiment curdled so suddenly, as it did with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle—as it is that Cruise's recent bout with popular opinion began during one of his career's most prosperous periods.

click to enlarge Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.
  • Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.

Related Stories

In 2005, the year of his notorious couch-hopping meltdown, Cruise had just delivered back-to-back performances in two of his most compelling films: first came Michael Mann's groundbreaking foray into digital filmmaking, Collateral, in which Cruise played a virtuoso hitman chauffeured around downtown Los Angeles by a reluctant cabbie, played by Jamie Foxx. Collateral found Cruise consciously subverting an increasingly shopworn routine, suppressing his trademark charisma and recalibrating his charm toward something decidedly understated.

Cruise starred in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds the following year. Though not particularly well-received upon release—at least by the standards of Spielberg, whose previous film with Cruise, 2002's Minority Report, was a massive hit both critically and commercially—it seems apparent now that Worlds represented a serious effort on the part of both director and star to grapple with some of the lingering residual anxieties of the period. In many ways the film endures as one of the definitive works of post-9/11 cinema. Our cultural conversation neglected this dimension of the film in favor of vacuous rumor-mongering, which suggests the degree to which we value watercooler gossip over deep engagement.

Not that any of this was new to Cruise, mind you. He'd already sparred with the press in a years-long public relations battle more than five years before Scientology and Oprah's couch ever entered the discussion, when aspersions cast on his sexuality eclipsed recognition of his work. This was around 1999, the actor's artistic peak. That was the year in which Cruise starred in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, the great director's final film and arguably his richest, as well as appearing in a crucial supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson's widely hailed Magnolia.

What these movies share—more than simply being major, somewhat difficult works by important, infamously difficult filmmakers—is that they more or less relegate Cruise to a position of weakness, simultaneously tapping into his stardom and pointedly undermining it. Eyes Wide Shut finds Cruise being shut down and emasculated at every turn; Magnolia, meanwhile, finds his exaggeratedly macho poses thoroughly deconstructed, his persona exposed as phony.

These qualities prove intriguing, but they also prove, more significantly, that Cruise was once willing to relinquish control of his image to filmmakers whose creative judgment he clearly trusted, which resulted in work of surprising intelligence and sophistication—unsurprisingly, some of the best of his career. Lately, however, Cruise has taken the opposite approach: rather than actively seek roles that challenge his iconography and legacy, he's receded into complacency and, even worse, seemingly desperate self-mythologizing.

When he isn't busy reprising one of his least interesting roles—Mission Impossible's milquetoast hero Ethan Hunt—he's hard at work (re)building his own reputation from the ground up, furiously reasserting his masculine prowess and utter infallibility in such trifles as Jack Reacher and the antiseptic sci-fi trifle Oblivion.

It's not that these roles or even films are bad, necessarily—though Jack Reacher is pretty lousy—but rather that they're uninteresting, which for an actor once respected for making genuinely daring choices is disappointing. Cruise seems stuck making films for the sake of his agent rather than for his audience or the cinema. Perhaps this is simply an extended period of downtime for an actor known to occasionally phone it in, as he did in Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.

But it's possible that maybe this is a delayed response to how often we've ignored Cruise's capacity to branch out and surprise, a kind of career shrug from a guy resigned to the fact that, no matter how hard he tries, we'll always focus on his personal life instead of his talent. Whenever Tom Cruise most obviously deserves acclaim and recognition, the cameras are directed toward something private and wholly unrelated, and the conversation shifts from praise to scrutiny to vehement rejection.

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 20
  2. Thu 21
  3. Fri 22
  4. Sat 23
  5. Sun 24
  6. Mon 25
  7. Tue 26

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office Report

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • 20 Neo-Noir Films You Have to See
    The Voice's J. Hoberman was more mixed than most on Sin City when he reviewed it in 2005, but his description of the film as "hyper-noir" helps explain why this week's release of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has us thinking back on the neo-noir genre. Broadly speaking, neo-noir encompasses those films made outside of film noir's classic period -- the 1940s and '50s -- that nevertheless engage with the standard trappings of the genre. As with most generic labels, there isn't some universal yardstick that measures what constitutes a neo-noir film: Where the genre might begin in the '60s with films like Le Samourai and Point Blank for one person, another might argue that the genre didn't find its roots until 1974's Chinatown. Our list falls closer to the latter stance, mainly featuring works from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s. Though a number of the films mentioned here will no doubt be familiar to readers, it's our hope that we've also highlighted several titles that have been under-represented on lists of this nature. --Danny King

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Emmy-Nominated Costumes on Display
    On Saturday, the Television Academy and FIDM Museum and Galleries kicked off the Eighth Annual exhibition of "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" with an exclusive preview and reception party. 100 costumes are featured from over 20 shows representing the nominees of the 66th Emmy Awards. The free to the public exhibition is located downtown at FIDM and runs from today through Saturday, September 20th. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.

Now Trending