Tom Cruise has a right to gloat this week. I will grant him that because, precisely ten years ago, all he wanted to do was hide. Cruise once confided to me that one of his abiding rules was to “stay resilient,” and he’s proved his point..
The mega success of his sixth Mission: Impossible elevates Cruise to the status of a sort of business superhero. He’s a star who can create, finance and promote a franchise that challenges the numbers of the spandex crowd without emulating their dopey wardrobe.
Still, in August a decade ago, Cruise assumed a different guise: he’d been forced to step down from his dream role as studio chief of fabled United Artists, the company founded by Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. In doing so, he’d admitted his inability, after two years, to mobilize a tenable program of films. Cruise had felt he’d been on track to become Hollywood’s first star/mogul. Not only would he play a James Bond-like character in his Mission franchise, he would even distribute (through UA) the real Bond movies and rule the town.
Still, the initial entries at Cruise’s UA seemed puzzling; Cruise would be cast, not as an Ethan Hunt-like figure, but as Claus von Stauffenberg, a Nazi rebel plotting to kill Adolf Hitler. The movie, Valkyrie, didn’t work all that well though it did start his enduring relationship with Christopher McQuarrie. Nor did the next UA feature, Lions for Lambs, which offered what seemed like a dream cast – Meryl Streep, Cruise and Robert Redford (Redford also directed). The film was a sleeper; it was simply impossible to stay awake during its two hours.
In taking on the UA job, Cruise’s plan had been to avenge his recent ‘firing’ by Sumner Redstone where Cruise had been Paramount’s star producer. The Paramount trauma had itself been a lesson to Cruise. The star and his CAA agents had hammered home such a powerhouse deal at the studio– rumors had it levitating up to 30% of the gross – that grumpy old Sumner concluded that Cruise would inevitably make more money from his projects than would Paramount.
But the UA deal would repair all that. Cruise himself would run a studio and craft his own deals. Except it didn’t work.
As someone who had admired Cruise’s risk-taking as an actor, I found myself exasperated with his focus on deal-making. Cruise had gone from playing the clueless kid in Risky Business to demanding roles in Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire and Magnolia. How could someone with this virtuosity now waste his time being a deal maker? Or, still later, how could he agree to accept roles in The Mummy? Or even American Made? Time was fleeting.
And then along comes the sixth Mission, his ultimate exercise in Cruise control – opening to a worldwide gross of $153.5 million ($92 million from overseas), and setting new records for the 22 year-old franchise (based on a 52 year old TV show). The audiences are happy – a 98% Rotten Tomatoes score, and even the franchise-hating critics are not only placated, but pleased—“an entertainment machine par excellence,” heralds The New York Times, “a cultural thunderclap.”
And Cruise, at 56, himself becomes an instant whirlwind of global promotion, hurtling from TV show to TV show. In one market after another he meticulously maps out the logistics of every stunt – the Paris motorcycle chase (“free riding on cobblestones”), the sky-diving over the United Arab Emirates (jumps from 18,000 feet to 25,000 feet), the helicopter chase and, most important, the broken ankle, which stalled production for months and exploded the budget ($320 million seems to be the acknowledged total for production and marketing, allowing for insurance reimbursements).
To be sure, the interviews with Cruise and his writer-director McQuarrie tend to become more obscure when the focus shifts from pyrotechnics to plot. Critic Joe Morgenstern aptly describes the narrative as “a semiscrutable binary chant.” McQuarrie acknowledges that the movie started with a mere 33 page script plus a determination to figure things out as they went along – hence Ethan Hunt’s repeated responses in the movie that “I’ll figure it out” or “I’m working on it.” McQuarrie explained that he was careful to shoot his “information dumps” – dialogue explaining the plot – in cars or other confined spaces so that he could later re-shoot sequences as the plot went askew.
The star and director also kept re-visiting key moral questions –how villainous should Ethan Hunt become in assuming the villain’s identity? Throughout, James Bond seems to have remained a role model for Ethan Hunt – every woman falls for him – but also a warning sign. Nuclear destruction must remain a threat, but “doomsday scenarios never play out in Bond pictures,” McQuarrie reflects.
Given his customary resilience, of course, Cruise has managed to triumph over both his plot problems and his ankle problems and emerge a happy man – one who has earned the right to keep gloating. And hopefully Cruise has even learned the limits of his prowess: At 56 he can still jump off airplanes, but shouldn’t run a studio. Or make too rich a deal.