What Paul Schrader is Missing About Tom Cruise

If your engagement on social media centers around the film world, there’s a decent chance you saw this cuts-both-ways take on Tom Cruise by the great filmmaker Paul Schrader.

Schrader has always been the guy who isn’t afraid to say what others won’t, and, even in the sound-bite world of Facebook, he speaks with intelligence (though I suppose that’s not surprising from the guy who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull). Point being, his perspective is worth musing over even if you don’t agree with it, and his take on the last true box office draw of the 21st century is certainly a bone worth chewing on.

As I understood Schrader’s comment, he sees Cruise as a paradox: an empty vessel who somehow willingly and gleefully scoops up moviegoers into that open husk and carries them along for a ride despite not producing anything akin to a human emotional connection. From Schrader’s view, Cruise is essentially a superhero minus the mask, cape, and fantastical superpower. What Schrader seems to be saying is that Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise’s superpower.

On that point, he and I agree. I can think of no other actor in history who has been able to sustain his fame and box office clout for the length of time Cruise has. Not Redford, not Newman, not Washington, not even Hanks. You could easily argue that those four gentlemen had a lot of “it” too, and even that they are all better actors than Cruise (and also, none of them come with any couch jumping or L. Ron Hubbard nonsense). But somehow, it doesn’t matter. Cruise is still an army of one in the field of maintaining a “must see” movie status.

Think about it: from the left bookend of Top Gun in 1986 to the right bookend of Top Gun: Maverick just this weekend, that’s a 36-year uninterrupted run of high-pitched stardom, and as the grosses from Maverick are sure to confirm, it’s not over.

If Schrader is correct, then Cruise has accomplished this without ever creating a character we should give a damn about. That’s the sort of alchemy that David Miscavige would love to bottle before we all ascend to wherever it is the Thetans go.

But let me be clear: while I respect Paul Schrader immensely and adore much of his work, I think he’s wrong about this. While it’s true that Cruise has largely been seen as the unkillable action star since the first Mission Impossible film came out in 1996, the claim that there is no depth of performance in this human depth charge of an actor is to overlook more than a few substantial credits over his 41-year career in film.

Before the first Top Gun film, Cruise played an unhinged teenaged cadet defending the imminent closure of his school alongside Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn in Taps. It’s not a huge role, but Cruise’s commitment to crazy was so convincing that he made Penn look like the sweetest guy alive. 

A bit part as a “greaser” who really likes cake followed in Francis Ford Coppola’s overly-sentimental adaptation of SE Hinton’s novel The Outsiders. And, of course, Cruise’s first brush with stardom arrived with his starring role in Paul Brickman’s deceptively sharp teen comedy Risky Business. As a slight underachiever named Joel who has good but not Ivy League grades, Cruise hatches a plot with Rebecca DeMornay’s hooker with a heart of opportunism to create an in-home brothel that becomes his business project for senior year. While Cruise dancing in his underwear to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” is one of the most replayed moments in film history, there is so much more to Cruise’s performance than shaking his tail feather in his tighty-whiteys, or saying “What the fuck” to a college recruiter while flipping back his Ray-Bans as orgiastic chaos ensues around him.

Cruise is at times achingly vulnerable with DeMornay, suitably wayward in that way only a teenager who has no idea what he wants to do with his life would be, and convincingly desperate when it becomes clear just how over his head he is with his much more mature new girlfriend and her pimp who wants his cut of Cruise’s business class project. It’s a dynamo of a movie that’s smart enough to incorporate satire, economics, class, and the college admissions process into what would be nothing more than a teen sex comedy otherwise, and Cruise is the performer that anchors the film in reality.

Later that same year, Cruise was quite wonderful as Stefen Djordjevic, another high school senior in the straightforward coming-of-age movie All The Right Moves. As a lower middle class youth trying to escape a dying Pennsylvania factory town through a football scholarship, Cruise is once again perfectly young, confused, and self-destructively willful as a young man who has one shot to get out, but can’t help but butt heads with his football coach (Craig T. Nelson). His relationship with his girlfriend (a lovely Lea Thompson) plays out in bittersweet fashion, as her hopes of going to college rest on getting a music scholarship that is unlikely to come. This undercurrent of young love that knows it has nowhere to go is beautifully acted by Cruise and Thompson, adding real subtext to the scene where she gives her virginity to Cruise. Watching them peel off their clothes (including long underwear) to take a step that they both have to know will not lead to everlasting love is a true small gem of a moment in a film that deserves better than its status as just a small footnote in the big book of Cruise.

1985 brought the rare debacle on Cruise’s resume, Ridley Scott’s disastrous fantasy flop Legend, which has somehow gone from cautionary tale to cult status—mostly thanks to Tim Curry’s memorable turn as a huge crimson-fleshed, bull-horned demon, or something.

That misstep was soon relegated to a bump in the cinematic road the next year when Cruise hit audiences with the killer one-two punch of Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money and his star making turn in the oh so silly (but also oh so fun) Top Gun. In a just world, holding your own across from Paul Newman would have been more impressive than flashing a megawatt grin as an out of control naval flyboy in an entertaining but far from fascinating film, but while The Color of Money has held up better than fine over the years, Top Gun was where the real money was.

After that seminal year, Tom Cruise started to become THAT Tom Cruise. The guy who could put butts in seats for even the most ridiculous sorts of films (Cocktail, Days of Thunder, and Far and Away being prime examples), but amongst the chaff was a lot of wheat, too.

Rain Man may have won best picture in 1988 and best actor for Dustin Hoffman as an autistic adult, but it was Cruise who made the film. Much like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and in Philadelphia, the guy who won the Oscar for best actor didn’t even give the best male performance in his own film. It is Cruise’s flashy half-a-grifter Charlie Babbitt who grows and through whose eyes we come to know the value of his afflicted older brother. Cruise gives a wonderfully modulated performance, and his restraint in the film’s final moments as Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt walks up the train steps and Cruise calls him back for just a moment to say “See you later,” becomes a profoundly moving moment—a substitute for “I love you.” That’s not an easy sell for an actor, but Cruise makes it look easy.

As an actor and personality of great intensity during the ‘80s it was only fitting that Cruise would close out the decade with a director whose fire burned as hot as his own, Oliver Stone. Together, they created what is arguably Stone’s finest film—the true-life, post-Vietnam story of Ron Kovic, a paralyzed vet who over the course of the film finds that true patriotism does not consist of flag waving without asking questions or challenging authority, but rather, quite the opposite. Cruise delivers a raw, blistering performance that earned him his first Oscar nomination. Somewhat ironically, he lost to Daniel Day-Lewis thar year who also played a wheelchair bound character in Jim Sheridan’s excellent film My Left Foot. It may be heresy to say so, but if I had been king of the Oscars that year, I would have chosen Cruise’s performance over Day-Lewis’ every day of the week and twice on Oscar Sunday.

Willem Dafoe and Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July

Facing off with Jack Nicholson in Aaron Sorkin’s crowd-pleasing military courtroom drama A Few Good Men, Cruise handled himself with aplomb. While Nicholson may have gotten the money line—“You can’t handle the truth!”—the scene only works if you believe that Cruise’s heretofore unambitious Lt. Kaffee has both the skill and courage to drive Nicholson’s Col. Jessup to confess from the witness stand. It’s all very Hollywood, but in the moment, you can’t say it doesn’t work—and not because of one performance or the other, but due to both.

Cruise had another big hit the next year with Sidney Pollack’s adaptation of John Grisham’s legal thriller The Firm. Much of the film is pretty rote (I mostly blame the source material), but I’ll be damned if Cruise didn’t make you follow along with every step his improbably named Mitch McDeere takes as he navigates a legal firm that goes behind the corrupt and into the sinister.

Cruise then took on one of his most challenging and controversial parts of his career as the vampire Lestat in Neil Jordan’s Interview With the Vampire. Anne Rice, the author of the novel the film is based upon, recoiled in horror once the casting decision was announced, bashing Cruise publicly and loudly stating her preferred casting choices (Sting? Okay, but Julian Sands… really?). Cruise had the last laugh, though. While I doubt anyone would have thought of Cruise as a sophisticated Parisian vampire, his sheer force of will (a Cruise trademark) sold the film to the masses and Interview was a solid success. Rice even recanted her testimony against Cruise once she saw the film.

Cruise then paired the first Mission Impossible film with the rarest of genre entries in his career, Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire. As the title character, Cruise plays a sports agent creating a manifesto about taking a more humane and personal approach to the often soulless endeavor of getting as many athletes as possible under your firm’s roof to make as much money as possible. Promptly fired for his unfathomable belief that less is more, Maguire goes on a journey of self discovery that leads him not just to professional success, but also to love with his assistant (a never better Renee Zellwegger). Throughout Jerry Maguire we see Cruise (who scored his second Oscar nomination for best actor) at his most harried and human. This man of action who is often thought of for his lack of vulnerability could not be more vulnerable here. Jerry Maguire is the rare crowd pleaser that not only earns its cheers, but actually ascends to a level of artfulness that you wouldn’t think this material could reach. I often wonder why Cruise hasn’t worked in the romantic comedy genre since. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to write one this good.

After the massive success of Jerry Maguire, Cruise entered into the most experimental phase of his career. Three of his next four films (Mission Impossible II being the exception) were high budget arthouse swings for the fences.

First came the great Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, a strange and disconcerting movie that split viewers and critics alike. In it we follow Cruise’s character, the jealousy-ridden Dr. Bill Harford, to a mansion where an incredibly unnerving orgy takes place and back to his Manhattan home to his movie (and real-life) wife, a pitch-perfect Nicole Kidman. What’s most fascinating about Kubrick’s erotic psychological thriller is how it circumvents Cruise’s can-do persona. Cruise’s good doctor lurches from moment to moment, never able to take control of the bizarre events transpiring. Eyes Wide Shut is probably the oddest film in Cruise’s filmography, but ultimately one of the best. After more than twenty years, I’m still not sure what to make of it myself. But what I do know is that I’m still trying to make something of it. How many films can you say that about?

As if Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t atypical enough, Cruise’s next film reaches its climax with frogs falling from the sky. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is beloved by many and inscrutable to others (I find myself somewhere in-between), but there can be no doubt that Cruise’s performance as the embodiment of toxic masculinity (well before that term became ubiquitous) Frank T.J. Mackey, a sort of self-help guru that essentially teaches men how to psychologically dominate women, is a one of a kind creation. Anderson has been quoted as saying he wrote the role with Cruise in mind (an uneasy thought to say the least), and you can certainly see all of Cruise’s physicality and charisma turned into something akin to a cesspool of darkness. The scene where he’s being interviewed by a reporter who is pushing against his ethos is really something. Cruise goes silent, stares back at the reporter with the intensity of a thousand white hot suns, and when she asks, “what are you doing?” his reply is terse and chilling:

“I’m quietly judging you.”

And yet, in the film’s final act, we see Mackey at the deathbed of his estranged father and Cruise breaks down on camera in a way we have never seen before or since. Somehow, he makes this horrid louse of a man sympathetic. It’s one of the most rabbit-out-of-a-hat moments I’ve ever seen on screen. I’m with Anderson on his choice; Cruise was perfection. The Academy took note and honored Cruise with his third last Oscar nomination to date, this time in the category of Best Supporting Actor.

After Mission Impossible 2 in 2000 (the runt of the MI series litter if you ask almost anyone), Cruise retrained with Crowe for Vanilla Sky, a pop-music-filled interpretation of the Spanish mindbender Close Your Eyes. At times the film is almost impenetrable as a treatise on the space between reality and the surreal. Discussing the plot lines of Vanilla Sky is to fall into a sinkhole of conundrums and riddles, and you do get the sense that Crowe’s reach extends beyond his grasp, but the moments that work are really something, and there can be no question that he and Cruise swam out into some very deep waters here, whether you find the film successful or not.

Next came Minority Report, a film based on a Philip K. Dick short story about a near-future world where police use empathy and technology to stop crimes before they happen and imprison the would-be perpetrators. Minority Report was a solid box office success, but I’ve always found its reputation undervalued (I think it’s Spielberg’s most overlooked great movie). Cruise’s police chief John Anderton is a drug addict who has never recovered from his child’s abduction from a public pool, and as a conspiracy forms to finger him as a future criminal, Anderton must go on the run to salvage his name, career, and life. Cruise is phenomenal throughout as a man of action and desperation in the film. Of course, those are aspects of Cruise we’ve come to expect from Cruise. For me though, the key to this performance is in the flashback to his child’s abduction at the pool. In the moments before his son goes missing, Cruise seems lit from within while playing with the little boy. Between that moment and his work with the tyke played by Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire, it is fair to say that Cruise is at his warmest on screen when acting with a child. Minority Report humanizes Cruise’s running man in that brief sequence, but it’s Cruise who elevates the scene. 

Tom Cruise with child actor Dominic Scott Kay in Minority Report

The desire to take chances seemed to largely leave Cruise after Minority Report. He’s quite good in The Last Samurai, but he’s overshadowed by some distance by the great Ken Watanabe (who, despite the implication of the film’s poster, is the last samurai—not Cruise).

Much better is Cruise’s rare turn as a villain in Michael Mann’s superb hitman thriller Collateral. Cruise’s Vincent kidnaps a cabbie (well played by Jamie Foxx) and forces the driver to escort him around Los Angeles to a series of hits, all of which must take place that night. Cruise’s razor sharp silver coiffe and his matching gray jacket and pants practically redefine the color, and the concept of the gray area. Cruise is a true force of nature in the film. A killing machine who toys with Foxx, playing the unreliable narrator of his own life, and giving Foxx’s cab driver a dressing down for not being serious about his own ambitions. Why Cruise and Mann haven’t worked together since is a true mystery. Their combined relentlessness is a perfect fit.

Working again with Spielberg on a remake of War of the Worlds, Cruise scored another huge box office hit that left many (including myself) wanting. The film works fine as spectacle, but the overly happy ending is laughable and cheapens much of what came before. Still, the scene where Cruise’s father of two tells his daughter to close her eyes because he needs to kill a survivalist (played by Tim Robbins) whose erratic behavior will give away their position to the alien invaders, is superbly well shot, and the look on Cruise’s face as he returns to his daughter (Dakota Fanning) knowing what he has done and what it means to have done it is incredibly affecting (once again, Cruise with kids) in a film that could have used more moments like that.

As unstoppable as Cruise seemed at the time, his career hit a bump after War of the Worlds. Revelations about his personal life and beliefs marred his public persona, and while the public at large never completely turned away from him, there was a notable dip in the success of his next four starring roles.

While Mission Impossible III is a much better movie than its predecessor, the film’s box office (while still considerable) was less than expected. It remains the least seen film in the series.

Robert Redford’s Lions For Lambs was met with a shrug from moviegoers, and Valkyrie and Knight and Day both underperformed domestically at the turnstiles too (although both did well worldwide). In fact, his best moment on film during this period was a hilarious cameo as a vile, oversized, and unrecognizable studio executive in Tropic Thunder. Cruise probably should have won some kind of an award for his dance sequence alone.

Then came Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol—a more muscular and daring (at least in terms of stunts and production) entry in the series that reestablished Cruise’s blockbuster box office bona fides in the states and across the world.

Of all things, Cruise next took on the musical Rock of Ages where he sang (better than Russell Crowe in Les Miserables at least) and strutted through as the best thing in an otherwise completely forgettable film.

In 2012 Cruise tried creating a new franchise with Jack Reacher (based on a series of Lee Child novels), but neither the first film or its sequel achieved full lift-off.

Two sci-fi films followed: Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow. The former made a few bucks, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wants to talk about it. However, the latter, a Groundhog Day-like film about a soldier fighting against alien invaders, is a real kick. I often think that if the film’s slogan “Live. Die. Repeat.” had been its title, instead of the generic “Edge of Tomorrow,” that it might have done better in theaters.

Of course, when you are evaluating the success of Tom Cruise’s films you have to do it on the Tom Cruise curve. Since becoming a huge star with Top Gun in 1986, you can count the number of outright flops Cruise has suffered on the fingers of one hand (Lions For Lambs, Rock of Ages, and The Mummy) and still have two digits left over. That’s quite a record to sustain through more than three decades on the A+ List.

Remarkably, that run seems to be far from over for the soon to be sexagenarian (July 3, this year). While American Made might have done no better than okay, it was still a good film that reminded us filmgoers that Cruise can still play a character who does something more than hang from airplanes and run from explosions. I don’t mean that last comment as an insult, by the way—no one does either of those activities better than Cruise—I would just like to see him mix it up more like he did in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

I get the sense now that Cruise is bound and determined to hang onto his action hero status as long as possible. His previous film was the sixth in the Mission Impossible series, and now we have the nostalgia-packed surefire massive hit Top Gun: Maverick on our hands. Cruise’s next project is another MI film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if once all the receipts come in another Top Gun film could make it into his schedule.

I think it’s possible that this version of Cruise, the real last action hero, is the one that leaves Schrader both a bit cold, perhaps bemused, and definitely somewhat mystified. As much as I understand where Schrader is coming from, it feels a bit like when people say that Martin Scorsese only makes gangster movies—forgetting the existence of Silence, Hugo, The Age of Innocence, After Hours, and, well, I could go on.

If Tom Cruise has become a sort of cruise missile chasing after only (or at least mostly) the biggest possible hits he can squeeze out of the remainder of his career, the reason he has been so successful is not because his stardom exists in some inexplicable vacuum. It was built upon the foundation of Risky Business, The Color of Money and Rain Man, and it has been further fortified by Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia.

Schrader might find Cruise to be “the human embodiment” of a superhero, but in that statement, I think Schrader gives himself away. As mystifying as Cruise’s appeal may be to the venerable filmmaker, the answer is in his own words: “the human embodiment.”

However hard it may be to wrap your head around his seemingly indestructible persona, it’s still the human part that keeps us coming back. Maybe what confounds Schrader so much is the fact that we haven’t seen any other humans like Tom Cruise.

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