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The Most Tolerable Works of Tom Cruise: A Retrospective

The Most Tolerable Works of Tom Cruise: A Retrospective

While this weekend’s “Knight & Day” is on the early track towards being a bomb (or at least to be totally fair, it’s underwhelmed so far) and is surely not Tom Cruise’s finest work by a long shot (though it does have its charms), the picture does remind us that the while an international star, the consistently maligned actor (perhaps for his personal Xenu beliefs and pitbull-like handlers) is a) a much better, harder working actor then he is generally given credit for and b) generally a much more compelling one when he’s taking roles that subvert his all-American, good-looking hero mien (now if only James Mangold‘s action comedy would have stuck to its guns and let Cruise stick to his insane character for the entire film instead of copping out midway through).

While his box-office clout does seem to be in doubt — there’s been rumbling that a “Knight & Day” poor showing may affect the outcome of “Mission Impossible 4” — we’re more concerned with what ends up on the screen.

While different aspects of his body of work appeal to different audiences (indie kids naturally swoon over “Magnolia” cause of the PTA association), The Playlist decided to check in on the films in a feature we cheekily decided to call “His Most Tolerable Films” (he does do solid work in the right roles with the right directors).
So without further ado, what you could also call our favorite, errr, more interesting Tom Cruise performances (give or take a few moments). Don’t get it twisted, we’re not necessarily huge fans, but as always, we give credit where credit is due.

“Magnolia” (1999)
Before his second divorce, TomKat-foolery and jumping on Oprah’s couch incident, Tom Cruise was a star. Best known for action packed dramas and pithy rom-coms, Cruise proved himself as an actor with his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious third feature-film where he played misogynistic self-help author Frank T.J. Mackey. Cruise scored a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for his rich multi-layered portrayal of Mackey, whose catchphrase “tame the cunt” was haunting when uttered. Frighteningly authentic, Cruise was able to balance the dichotomy of an intolerant sexist, and at the same time a wounded boy thanks to his unloving father who ditched him and his mother years ago. As his character comes to terms with his ailing father, which would be Jason Robards’ last role, we watch Cruise show the true depth of his range, and it’s gripping. Later, thanks to the many media scuffles Cruise has gone through, you might wonder if “Magnolia” was actually an acting performance or the first time Cruise ever let his true self shine through. We’ll never know and this is probably why it’s so damn successful.

“Tropic Thunder” (2008)
Ok, while the idea of an entire Les Grossman film is a little much (this idea works because like the dynamics of a middle eight in a song, more is less), but the otherwise underwhelming “Tropic Thunder” was greatly bolstered by the actor’s image-demolishing turn as a tumescent, bald, hirsute f-bomb dropping dbag film producer (modeled after Joel Silver). Sure the amazing dialogue (or amazing litany of creative vulgarities) helped, but Cruise definitely sold the character, swung for the fences and connected with his greasy, slimebag portrayal (surely he’s been around enough of these power-hungry, megalomanical characters before). The fact that Cruise out-funnied and out-acted Robert Downey Jr. playing an Australian thespian playing an African American character in skin-modified method-acting dedication (what a missed opportunity that was) was not lost on discerning viewers either.
“Collateral” (2004)
While Cruise’s career has always been marked mostly by smart and subtle shifts in his persona — playing a misogynistic womanizer in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “indie” “Magnolia” or throwing his hand in the comedy game with his Les Grossman character — none have been as satisfying as his turn as the assassin for hire in Michael Mann’s minimal, sleek thriller “Collateral.” Co-starring a subdued, pre-“Ray” Jamie Foxx (one of his best turns so far), the film’s story is very simple. Cruise plays Vincent, a killer who hires a cab to drive him around Los Angeles for the night. Unlike other A-list actors who often overact and flail about in “bad guy” roles (ie. Denzel Washington in “Training Day”), Cruise goes in the opposite direction. Vincent is both compelling and creepy, and Cruise is so good that when Vincent tries to rationalize his behavior he practically brings the audience over to his point of view. This is a side we don’t see often enough from Cruise; a role that finds hims out on the ledge without relying on the fallback of his Cruise persona to catch him, and it’s one we always hope to see more of.

“Minority Report” (2002)
Though it is just shy of being a decade old, this heady, ambitious sci-fi is notable not only for being the last truly entertaining, satisfying whizz-bang piece of filmmaking from Steven Spielberg (sorry, “War Of The Worlds” was marred by gaudy sentimentalism, while the less said about ‘Indy 4’ the better) but also for being the final role of Phase 1/pre-Matt Lauer meltdown/pre-couch jumping Tom Cruise. And not surprisingly, the film is Cruise at his Cruiseiest. Set in an Orwellian future where “precogs” can see crimes before they happen, allowing police to arrest perpetrators before they commit the crime, Cruise plays a lawman who fully believes in the system until he’s accused of murdering a man he’s never met and doesn’t seemingly have any ties to. The set up is pretty much the ultimate everyman-in-crisis role that Cruise circled in lesser or more workmanlike films like “The Firm” or “A Few Good Men.” But here, aided by a great, smart and ambitious script and of course, guided by the sure lens of Spielberg at the top of his game, the performance is one of an A-list actor at the height of his powers. Cruise is magnetic here, and as a man still wounded by the death of his son, and winded by the revelation that the institution he loves has turned out to be a corrupt sham, the actor finds the perfect center of vulnerability and gritty determination to see justice done. Watching the film, there is simply no denying what makes Cruise both a bonafide star and an actor with chops; magnetic, heroic and determined, he gets us on his side and takes us on one helluva ride.

“Top Gun” (1986)
While were generally philosophically opposed to Cruise playing the hero/tough guy role, if there’s one turn which is the apotheosis of this archetype we still love it’s his embodiment of the rogue Navy cadet Maverick. Granted, much of the enjoyment of the film is due to many factors, Tony Scott’s over-the-top direction, the macho ensemble cast who take every perspiring moment oh-so-deliciously-serious (Val Kilmer, Tom Skerrit, Michael Ironside, Barry Tubb as Wolfman, Rick Rossovich as Slider) and the gloriously over-the-top score and songs (thank you Harold Faltermeyer, Steve Stevens and Kenny Loggins). However, grinding and sweating it out with his peers and credulously portraying an unreliable, mercurial stud on the precipice of either washout failure or greatness, hell the performance and the movie, while delectably cheesy in moments, is still eminently watchable and captivating.

“Jerry Maguire” (1996)
Cruise may have given better acting performances, but he’s never shone as much as a movie star as he did in his first collaboration with Cameron Crowe, “Jerry Maguire.” It doesn’t get the best rep now, thanks to the cultural penetration of its catchphrases (“Show me the money,” “You complete me,” etc.) and its omnipresence on TV, but, rewatching it, it’s still a great film, and Cruise is as terrific as he’s ever been (and deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination for his trouble). The part was allegedly written for Tom Hanks, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone except Cruise; his yuppie charisma is perfect for the role from the start, keeping Maguire from feeling like too much of a dick, and you buy every second of his moral awakening. But there’s also a big hint of crazy in the character (something we’ve seen far too much of from the star in recent year); when Cuba Gooding Jr’s Rod Tidwell tells him “You are hanging on by a very thin thread,” you wouldn’t disagree. Aside from Cruise, the movie still vies with “Almost Famous” for Crowe’s best; Gooding Jr. and Renee Zellwegger have never been better, and the soundtrack’s pretty great too (forget the CD release, the choice cuts, from the likes of The Replacements and Gram Parsons, weren’t on it).

“Rain Man” (1988)
While the true star of “Rain Man”
— one of director Barry Levinson’s finest films made during his halcyon days — is obviously Dustin Hoffman (he naturally won the Best Acting Oscar), and Cruise was generally overlooked as it’s clearly not his best performance…still there are some charms to be gained from his character’s arc. Portraying Charlie Babbitt, a self-centered asshole ’80s yuppie with a loathsome feathered coif, the character turns into an even bigger degenerate when he learns his deceased father left his fortune to his heretofore unknown savant brother Raymond and a pittance to him. Throwing a mini-tantrum, he essentially kidnaps the autistic and therefore functional, but handicapped sibling and takes him on a cross-country trek to L.A. essentially ransoming him in return for his half of what he believes to be his birthright. If that isn’t scumbag-ish enough, Cruise’s Babbit then wantonly exploits his brothers mathematics genius to card-count in Vegas for his own financial benefit. While we want to strangle the egoistic character throughout, it’s a testament to Cruise’s depiction (and the script) that he imbues him with humanity, without transforming him 180 degrees into a completely redeemed gentleman.

“Born on the Fourth of July” (1989)
Oliver Stone’s super melodramatic Vietnam picture earned
Cruise his first Oscar nomination (he’s earned two Best Actor noms and one Best Supporting in total) and yes, it’s full of histrionics both from an acting perspective and a cinematic one (naturally, it’s Oliver Stone). Still, there is value in Cruise’s portrayal of a deeply patriotic American soldier who returns to the U.S. as a wheelchair-bound cripple and essentially becomes a dissident when he finally awakens to the snowjob the U.S. government has sold him. In truth, it’s a fairly predictable arc and Cruise might mistake passion for verisimilitude, but the writing is only so good and fairly broad at times. And hell, we rewatched it. Waste not, want not.
“The Color of Money” (1986)
While been-there overdone work like “Casino” receives more shine, one of the most undersung films in the Marty Scorsese oeuvre is his 1986 picture, “The Color Of Money.” And while the true stars of the picture, a sequel to 1950’s “The Hustler,” is its star Paul Newman and Scorsese’s relentlessly shark-like moving camera, also vastly underrated in the picture is Tom Cruise as the pompadoured, cocky upstart pool player Vincent Lauria that Newman takes under h
is wing and then is ultimately betrayed by. Arguably Newman elevates their tête-à-têtes, but Cruise answers the challenge and fairs much better than say Leonardo DiCaprio did in his first collaborations with Marty (though yes, they have continued to improve — could you imagine a world where Cruise would have become Scorsese’s muse?).

“Risky Business” (1983)
Cruise puts in a convincing performance as good kid turned bad turned mostly good here, playing Joel Goodson, a meek, average high school guy who decides to take a stab at being a rebel when his parents go out of town. Along the way, he mistakenly hires a transvestite call girl named ‘Jackie,’ gets chased in his daddy’s Porsche by a pimp, sinks the car in Lake Michigan, and turns his parents’ house into a brothel for a night. Cruise pulls off Joel’s transformation admirably, convincingly going from the in-over-his-head novice to cool playboy. The movie itself is a sly a shrewd satire of Reaganomics and the Silent Majority, with Joel sacked from the Future Enterprisers club at school despite the considerable success of his, uh, business. Writer-director Paul Brickman’s directorial debut originally ended on a darker tone that fit the movie’s arc better than the theatrical studio-imposed ending, but the screenplay is smart and funny, and the dialogue feels effortless. With the alluring Rebecca De Mornay as Joel’s prostitute friend (girlfriend?) Lana and a fantastic Curtis Armstrong performance as best friend Miles, along with a pulsing synth-rock score by Tangerine Dream, ‘Risky Business’ still holds up as a solid and provocative teen movie.

Honorable Mention
While most will be looking at the exclusion of Stanley Kubrick’s
“Eyes Wide Shut,” while the unfairly maligned Kubrick film does have value (though were still not over that risible ending), Cruise’s work in the film while commendable, wasn’t strong enough to merit individual credit here. And there’s a serious argument to be made that late era Kubrick films were all about the director and not his acting pawns like Nic and Tom. “Taps” is a great debut performance too, but none of us have seen it in years and to be honest, every brick and mortar didn’t have it (and Netflix is sometimes sloooow). – Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton, Jacob Combs & Danielle Johnsen.

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