Tom Cruise’s Existential Need for Speed

On July 3rd, Tom Cruise will be sixty years old. The fact that he does not look it, at all, even in IMAX closeups so tight you can study the grain of his tooth enamel, adds a note of cognitive dissonance to “Top Gun: Maverick,” the long-aborning sequel in which he’s called back to mentor a squad of younger stick-jockeys who address him as Pops and Old-Timer until he wins their respect in the air. Even for a physical performer like Cruise, sixty is no longer an expiration date. Mick Jagger blew by that milestone in 2003, as did Sylvester Stallone in 2006, and, thanks presumably to healthy habits and/or medical technology dreamt of only by science fiction, they’re both still out there, doing a version of the kind of thing they’ve always done. But the level of performance expected of a Rolling Stone or an Expendable is one thing, and the work that Tom Cruise appears to demand of himself is something else entirely. If you know anything about Cruise’s recent films—including “Maverick” and the forthcoming “Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One,” Cruise’s seventh go-round as the secret agent Ethan Hunt—you know that he continues to do as many of his own stunts as humanly and legally possible. You know this because it’s an unusual approach for an actor to take in the era of C.G.I., and also because Cruise does not allow anyone to forget it.

Particularly in the past few decades, Cruise has doubled down on his commitment to conspicuous physical risk-taking with more gonzo vigor than any Paramount Pictures-associated star this side of the “Jackass” guys. For previous “Mission: Impossible” movies, he’s really dangled from a two-thousand-foot cliff in Utah, really hung off the side of an Airbus in flight over the English countryside, and really climbed the face of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the twenty-seven-hundred-foot skyscraper. And when the trailer for the seventh “Mission: Impossible” was first screened for theatre owners at CinemaCon, in April, Cruise—whose work on “Dead Reckoning” kept him from attending in person—sent a pre-taped introduction in which he’s perched on top of a biplane in flight over South Africa. Cruise sends the exhibitors his best wishes, and then the plane dives into a canyon with the twelfth-highest-grossing movie star of all time still attached. Before Robert Downey, Jr., got the part of Tony Stark in 2008’s “Iron Man,” Cruise turned down the role; one wonders whether he passed because Marvel declined to build him an actual rocket-powered robot suit to fly around in.

The biplane thing was, again, for a trailer reveal at an industry convention—footage that general audiences will never see. And maybe the stunt was safer than it looked, but you still kind of have to wonder why he went to the trouble. During an otherwise hilariously unrevealing Q. & A. at the Cannes Film Festival last week—billed as a Masterclass Conversation, with an actor who’s become a master of saying nothing—the journalist Didier Allouch asked Cruise a version of this question. “You have kids, you have a company.” Allouch said. “Why do you do it?” Cruise was ready with a response destined to go down in Tom Cruise history: “No one asked Gene Kelly, ‘Why do you dance?’ ”

Well, no, you wouldn’t—because Gene Kelly was first and foremost a dancer, and that’s what dancers do. But Cruise’s answer is interesting for a few reasons. By invoking Kelly and not, say, Fred Astaire, Cruise was comparing himself to a performer renowned for his onscreen athleticism, his ferocious competitiveness, his insecurity about his height, and his reportedly tyrannical perfectionism behind the camera. Debbie Reynolds has said that the two hardest things she’d ever done were childbirth and “Singin’ in the Rain.” Kelly is said to have worked her until her feet bled; he is also said to have worked himself until his feet bled. And Kelly, like Cruise, was a star who exerted an auteurish level of creative control over his projects, even those he didn’t officially direct. Maybe most important, the Kelly reference implies that these days—more than two decades removed from his last Oscar-nominated performance, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia”—Cruise understands himself on some level as more celebrity stuntman than thespian, which (if he actually sees things that way) is a fairly perceptive statement from an actor whose level of self-awareness has become tougher and tougher to gauge.

For years, whenever Cruise came up in conversation, my go-to opinion was that his best films were the ones in which the director tried in some way to interrogate the actor’s Tom Cruise-ness, to puncture his force field—movies that reframed Cruise’s cocky grin as a rubbery “Mission: Impossible” mask concealing some deeper neurosis. I’d usually cite “Jerry Maguire,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Magnolia,” and particularly “Eyes Wide Shut,” in which Cruise participates only semi-knowingly in a joyfully nasty dissection of the disintegrating Cruise–Nicole Kidman union overseen by the demonic marriage counsellor Stanley Kubrick. I’ve been saying this to people long enough that I’m now no longer sure this is what I believe. The Clarence Thomas joke in “Jerry Maguire” now rings mildly horrifying, as does the central romance, a fairy tale of codependence. And, while “Magnolia” and “Eyes Wide Shut” are still among the best movies that happen to star Tom Cruise, it’s hard to make a case for them as the best Tom Cruise movies, because they fall so far outside the frame of what Cruise clearly believes to be his lifework. These films might say things about him—when he stonewalls, then physically intimidates a journalist in “Magnolia,” it’s a preview of the knife’s-edge stare Cruise would flash in uncomfortable sit-downs with Matt Lauer and Peter Overton, a reporter for the Australian “60 Minutes,” during the 2005 press tour for “War of the Worlds.” But I’ve come to believe that Cruise’s big adrenaline-shot blockbusters are the only place where he says things about himself.

Those late-nineteen-nineties and early-two-thousands Cruise movies point to a more actorly road not taken. And it’s a shame that so few people have dared to cast him in comedies—he gives two career-best performances as the fur-bearing film executive in “Tropic Thunder” and as the hair-metal peacock Stacee Jaxx in “Rock of Ages.” But the further we get from the last time Cruise did anything onscreen except risk his actual life in the name of fiction, I find myself less and less interested in the what-ifs of his career and more fascinated by what he’s chosen to do instead, both as an actor and as a public figure. In the years since Cruise went off on Lauer about Ritalin, he’s purged his on-the-record persona of anything recognizably human and messy. Whether he’s been reined in by the Church of Scientology—he has been a member since around the time the first “Top Gun” came out—he is now a laser beam of rehearsed narrative in interviews, a public figure so resolutely on message that he crosses over into the Lynchian. When asked by Regal Cinemas’ in-house magazine Moviebill to recall his most memorable filmgoing experience—not exactly a gotcha question—he gave a hundred-plus-word answer that contained zero movie titles and the words “Incredible adventures. Drama. Comedy. That’s what I love,” as if he thought that letting people know a few of his favorite movies would be detrimental to his calculated universality. Last year, the visual-effects artist Chris Umé and the actor Miles Fisher used deepfake technology to create a series of somewhat terrifyingly realistic TikTok videos of Fisher as Cruise, doing things such as biting into a Blow Pop and remarking, “Incredible—how come nobody ever told me there’s bubblegum?” They’re effective in part because the actual Cruise’s own affect has become so indistinguishable from the way an advanced artificial intelligence might go about talking to reporters. Cruise’s own laugh is the best Tom Cruise impression you’ve ever heard.

But, even as he’s grown more robotic in person, his recent big-screen work is marked by a dedication to the real. Cruise’s approach to the making of overwhelmingly huge blockbusters—his determination to show us not just Ethan Hunt or Captain Pete (Maverick) Mitchell doing something dangerous but Tom Cruise doing that dangerous thing, as opposed to a double or an array of pixels in the shape of a man—has started to feel like he’s holding the line for relatable humanity in a type of movie that has less and less use for flesh-and-blood people moving through physical space. The IMAX screening of “Top Gun: Maverick” that I caught on Tuesday was preceded by an introduction video in which Cruise thanked us all for coming and promised a movie full of “real F-18s, real Gs, real speed.” That’s “Gs” as in g-force, and, if that sounds like mere hype, I assure you that you are underestimating the visceral impact of watching closeups of Cruise and his co-stars—veterans of a three-month flight-training program designed by Cruise himself, an accomplished pilot—executing actual aerobatic maneuvers in actual F-18s while making what I assume are their actual I’m-about-to-puke-all-over-this-Six-Flags faces. Forty-plus years after 1978’s “Superman” set out to make us believe a man can fly, superhero movies have rendered human flight utterly boring; turns out all it takes to make it fun again is shots of actors in the kind of physical discomfort you can’t deepfake.

What Cruise says about himself in his blockbusters is that he’s almost psychotically committed to making these kinds of films the way they increasingly don’t make them anymore—and that he maybe can’t conceive of what he’d paint on a smaller canvas. During that Masterclass interview in Cannes, Cruise was also asked whether “Maverick”—delayed until now from its previously scheduled release in the first June of the pandemic—could have gone straight to streaming, bypassing theatres. “That was not going to happen, ever,” Cruise said. This, too, feels like Cruise using his star power to hold a tenuous line. During that two-year hold, Paramount’s parent company, ViacomCBS, fired Paramount Pictures’ C.E.O., Jim Gianopulos, reportedly because Gianopulos had been reluctant to risk Paramount’s relationship with theatre owners—and with stars such as Cruise—by pushing new movies to the company’s streaming service, Paramount+. In a world where the viability of theatrical moviegoing has been called into question, the stakes with movies such as “Maverick” and the next “Mission: Impossible” may be existential—both for Cruise and for movies as we’ve known them. (That Cruise thinks it’s his personal responsibility to pull the industry out of the post-pandemic doldrums was the subtext when he cursed out two “Mission: Impossible” crew members for breaking COVID protocol on set in 2020, a rarer-than-ever uninhibited moment that was captured on tape and leaked to a British tabloid. The rant was about safety, but it was really about how much depended on “Mission: Impossible” continuing to serve as proof that it was possible to ramp film production back up during COVID. “They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us,” Cruise said. “We are creating thousands of jobs, you motherfuckers. . . . We are not shutting this fucking movie down.”)

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