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Film + TV

The Unstoppable Tom Cruise

Words by Edgar Daily

In a career stretching across four decades, Tom Cruise has known massive box office success, critical acclaim, fan adoration, and tabloid ridicule over his personal life. And here he is, 32 years after his breakthrough movie role, jumping out of planes at 55 years of age. Adam Smith examines how he’s done it.

It’s unlikely that he would approve of the word but there’s something indisputably comforting about a new Tom Cruise movie. Exciting, check. Thrilling, certainly. Out and out entertaining, most likely. But also –  whisper it – reassuring.

For nearly 35 years Tom Cruise has been at the very top of the Hollywood totem pole. For anyone under 40, he has never been far away from the multiplex, a reliable lodestar in a world of fallen Hollywood titans and relentlessly shifting industry tastes.

Put it like this: in 1986, the year Cruise’s megawatt grin first lit up the planet, the young tyro’s major competitors for box-office dollars were Sylvester Stallone, Eddie Murphy, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Douglas. See them heading up any major franchises recently? Cruise has not one but two box office behemoths ready to roll: Mission: Impossible – Fallout, for which, as the internet informs us, he leapt out of a plane at 30,000 feet, and Top Gun: Maverick, a glorious, and gutsy return to the flyboy fantasy that made his name over three decades ago.

Tom Cruise, then, does many things – but most of all, he endures.

He was meant to be a Jesuit priest, but ended up a global brand. Born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV in Syracuse, New York in 1962, his early years were, he says, moderately miserable, the chief cause being Thomas Cruise Mapother III, his abusive father (“a bully and a coward” Cruise said later) and the family’s poverty. The Mapothers moved almost constantly, there were 15 schools in as many years, and when acting arrived in his life Cruise was studying for the priesthood. The church, it seems, offered one way of escape, but Hollywood, possibly a slightly more attractive one.

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Top Gun raked in $530 million back in 1986. A sequel has begun filming with Cruise back in his flight suit as Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell

His early bit roles were in boysy ensemble movies of the kind that are now fascinating just to see who had a future and who would be populating the Where Are They Now columns of the following decades. There was military academy drama Taps (1981) in which he proved he could look good in dress blues alongside Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton. He cropped up briefly in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders with Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon and Patrick Swayze.

The need for speed

But Hollywood was beginning to place its final bets on these thespian yahoos and Cruise, with his boy-next-door looks (if you happened to live next door to Tom Cruise) and ferocious energy seemed like a good call. Starring roles came along in 1983 in All The Right Moves and Risky Business, both now fixed in the gluey amber of nostalgia, but in their ways pretty good movies. But neither channelled the arcing bolts of pure energy of which Cruise seemed capable. A pair of up-and-coming producers named Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and an advertising director from England called Tony Scott were about to change all that.

Cruise was birthed as a fully-fledged star with all the subtlety and nuance of a sonic boom ricocheting around the canyons of the Arizona desert. The 1980s was already past its midway point when Top Gun roared its way into theatres in 1986, its afterburners ablaze with middle-brow rock and maximum-octane product placement. But it was instantly recognisable as the movie that was, for good or ill, going to define the decade. To criticise it as irredeemably superficial – as the appalled ranks of critics still mourning the demise of the moody, introspective 1970s did with enthusiasm and ferocity (“a recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster,” sniffed the legendary critic Pauline Kael) – is to utterly miss the point. It is a hymn to surfaces: an ardent billet-doux to the gleam of sun glinting off aviator shades, to snow-white jet contrails slowly dispersing against an azure sky. And to Tom Cruise, white-toothed, flight-suited, and feeling the need for speed.

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Cruise shot scenes for his new Mission: Impossible flick in Abu Dhabi.

Scott’s then revolutionary MTV/adland aesthetic was perfectly calibrated to an age when gleaming appearances roughly shoved macho angst out of its way – Cruise’s Maverick pushing Travis Bickle aside in pellucid slo-mo and to a Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack. This wasn’t so much a movie debut as a product launch.

And it could easily have been a deadly career trap. But Cruise’s defining genius, his capacity for precision-judged diversification, revealed itself early. While his 1980s counterparts mined their respective seams – Stallone and Schwarzenegger churning out increasingly cartoonish sequels and variations on their steroidal personas (Over The Top, True Lies); the Bruces and Mels revisiting their familiar wells of snarky charm only to find them running dry – Cruise seemed to suggest his goal wasn’t just box office success, but the appellation legendary. And he figured legendary might just rub off.

Getting serious

Thus in the decade that followed Top Gun he sought out Hollywood aristocracy rather than bespoke star-vehicles for himself, corralling them as collaborators and starring even when the role demanded he played second-fiddle. He worked with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman on The Color Of Money in 1986. He survived, thrived, next to Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-baiting fireworks display in Rain Man in 1988 (Cruise’s performance was grievously overlooked at that year’s Oscars). He subverted the gung-hoism of Top Gun as raging Vietnam vet Ron Kovic with Oliver Stone’s Born On the Fourth of July (earning him his first Oscar nomination in 1990) and he went toe-to-toe with Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men in 1992.

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It’s an astonishing run of films (peppered with crowd pleasers like Cocktail in 1988, Days of Thunder in 1990 and 1993’s Far And Away), and it is the work of a man not fecklessly exploiting his box office drawing power, but establishing a body of work.

And so when the 00s arrived, with its invasion of the comic book franchises, the spandexed hordes of CG hybrids which all but abolished the notion of the old fashioned movie star, Cruise was perfectly placed to survive the storm, burnishing his credentials in the meantime with unforgettable turns in the likes of Michael Mann’s Collateral as a dead-eyed killer or with his wife Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (the last and greatest name on his bucket list of auteurs finally ticked off), and nurturing his own wildly successful, refreshingly old fashioned and reliably thrilling Mission: Impossible franchise.

It must be admitted there might be trickier times ahead. Cruise is 55 now, though pretty effortlessly passing for 15 years younger when he needs to. And Hollywood shows no sign of abandoning its relentless, machine-like stamping out of comic book movies, into which Cruise might have difficulty inserting himself even if he had any desire to. Clint Eastwood, whose career arc Cruise’s may well come to be compared to in its longevity, was, is, bolstered by his work as a director – and Cruise has ventured behind the camera briefly for TV anthology series Fallen Angels way back in 1993. But the support from Hollywood and audiences for Cruise as a star has paid off for more than 30 years and if he’s feeling any strain, he certainly isn’t showing it.

So for now, ladies and gentlemen, we give you Tom Cruise. Still standing, falling, shooting, running, jumping and flying after all these years.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is released July 26

In Pictures. Stealing the Show

Photos. Tom Cruise may take star billing, but often it’s his co-stars who have shone brightest

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Cuba Gooding Jr Jerry Maguire (1996) The effervescent Gooding Jr won countless awards for his 100mph performance as American football star Rod Tidwell that blew everybody else off the screen.

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Cuba Gooding Jr Jerry Maguire (1996) The effervescent Gooding Jr won countless awards for his 100mph performance as American football star Rod Tidwell that blew everybody else off the screen.

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Bryan Brown Cocktail (1988) Brown personified laidback cool as the world-weary, witty and cynical Doug Coughlin who mentors the naive, young bartender Brian Flanagan, played by Cruise.

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Val Kilmer Top Gun (1986) Cruise’s Maverick is the plucky hero, but having fun playing the ‘villain’ of the piece is Kilmer as Mav’s jaw-clenching rival pilot, Iceman.

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