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Tom Cruise: Born to Run

Tom Cruise: Born to Run

Tom Cruise is 50 years old today.  

It’s hard to believe. You look at Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages” — still in theaters, if you want a particularly appropriate activity for Cruiseiversary — and it seems impossible that this is a man who, as Mike Ryan hilariously pointed out on HuffPost Entertainment, is the same age as Wilford Brimley when he played a geriatric in “Cocoon.” Watching Cruise walk around without a shirt on in “Rock of Ages,” I was this close to signing up for Scientology. Because obviously that thing is working for him.

Cruise is about 15 years too old to play his character in “Rock of Ages,” a strung-out hard rocker named Stacee Jaxx, but that doesn’t make him any less convincing in the role. Actually, despite his age, Cruise is the only convincing part of “Rock of Ages,” which is set in a version of Los Angeles’ rock scene so neutered by its PG-13 rating it makes Disney World’s Pleasure Island look like Sodom and Gomorrah. Nothing in “Rock of Ages” feels authentic; nothing, that is, except Tom Cruise. The rest of the cast winks at us as they perform what amounts to 80s karaoke. As for Cruise? He transforms before our eyes into a smoldering rock god (a particularly impressive feat because he clearly can’t sing). Forget winking; I’m not sure he’s even blinking.

For anyone else, this would be an odd choice. For Cruise, it’s the only choice, because Tom Cruise gives only one kind of performance: an intense performance. If he was a baseball player, Tom Cruise would be the guy everybody in the clubhouse calls a “gamer” — he shows up every day and gives you maximum effort. He might not always hit a home run, he might sometimes make an error in the field so embarrassing you wonder how he even has a job (like, I don’t know, jumping on a couch on national television), but you always know he tried his best. Have you ever had a conversation about Tom Cruise that involved the sentence “Boy, he really phoned that one in!”? No, never. Tom Cruise has given good performances and bad performances. But he’s never given a lazy performance.

Every actor has a trademark. Arnold Schwarzenegger has his ridiculous one-liners. Fred Astaire had his top hat and tails. Marilyn Monroe had that breathy voice. When he was younger, Cruise had the gigawatt smile, often flashed in tandem with a pair of sunglasses. In recent years, though, Cruise’s trademark has become something else, something much more emblematic of his uniquely forceful style of acting:

His run.

The Cruise Run is a thing of beauty. It is poetry in motion. But Cruise runs so often and with such commitment that it looks more like self-parody than a trademark, like Matthew McConaughey saying “All right, all right.” That’s a shame, because The Cruise Run is pure cinema. What you see in that unbelievably long take from the end of “Mission: Impossible III” is visual storytelling at its most elemental. It could not possibly be improved in any way by the addition of dialogue. The Cruise Run is the man’s entire onscreen persona in one image: his promise to work (and run) his ass off, and to give the audience everything he has, regardless of whether what he has to give is particularly good or not.

It’s not cool to like Tom Cruise; witness the staggering array of jokes on Twitter and late night talk shows last week after the news of his impending divorce to third wife Katie Holmes. But, then, it’s usually not cool to like gamers. The flashy guys who steal bases and hit grand slams are the ones who get all the attention. When Tom Cruise was younger, he was one of those guys. As his natural gifts have started to fade, he’s worked harder to compensate. He can’t out-charm the new generation of stars, so he out-hustles them instead. And I’m talking literally — did you see how fast the dude can run?

At 50, Cruise shows no sign of slowing down, literally or figuratively. After two movies in the last calendar year, he’s got two more already in the can with several more, including a possible sequel to “Top Gun,” on the horizon. In one of his upcoming projects, a thriller called “Jack Reacher,” Cruise plays a cop investigating a series of murders. One of the villains is played by Werner Herzog, a guy who knows a thing or two about onscreen intensity. How much do you want to bet there’s a chase scene between the two of them?

Happy birthday, Tom. Keep on running.

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