Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Tom Cruise...he's not all bad.

Let's face it, Tom Cruise is far from the poster boy of Hollywood he used to be. Ever since he went doolally on Oprah's sofa and became an exponent of Scientology (the cult/religion designed by mediocre science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard) people have had trouble taking him seriously - and rightly so. In the eyes of the public Cruise has gone from being Top Gun's 'Maverick' to a bizarre, glassy-eyed caricature you would probably cross the road to avoid. But, after recently seeing the trailer for the next instalment of the Mission Impossible series, 'Ghost Protocol', I was immediately reminded of what it was that made Tom Cruise such a star before his off screen persona took such an unprecedented U-turn.

Cruise has always been best at playing energetic, broad-stroke characters, generally avoiding subtle, fine-spun roles. He isn't the strongest character actor ever although he is exceptional at flitting between both serious and playful, portraying both in a very naturalistic way (in this sense I would compare Cruise to actors such as Harrison Ford and the late Dennis Hopper). Cruise has been under the direction of masters such as Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and...well, you get the picture. You don't work with such an intimidatingly talented array of cinema heavyweights without possessing an acting ability which commands a certain amount of respect. So in an effort to remind you of what Cruise can do on screen (and draw focus from his antics off screen) I have put together a list of my ten best Tom Cruise performances in no particular order. I haven't chosen a lot of his cheesier albeit more financially successful roles (i.e. Top Gun, Days of Thunder etc) - these films are entertaining and hold a lot of nostalgic value but don't necessarily show off what Cruise can really do on screen. You could definitely swap a few of these choices for others, but I personally like this ten.

1. A Few Good Men
Lets open with a wonderfully taut courtroom drama in which Cruise plays a naval defence lawyer working to save two young marines from being unfairly imprisoned, following the death of another. Cruise plays a characteristically cocky and talented individual, who goes from being indifferent to his clients to genuinely caring about them. In the following clip Cruise's character cross-examines the Colonel in charge, who he believes is at fault. This is a classic scene, it's great the way Cruise's determined character clashes with the malevolent, God complex of the Colonel (wonderfully played by the brilliant Jack Nicholson). 

2. Vanilla Sky
Watching 'Vanilla Sky' is an ethereal experience. It feels akin to 'Alice in Wonderland' as Cruise's millionaire playboy character tumbles further down the rabbit hole, experiencing love and horror in equal measure. Themes of unrequited love, dreams, insanity and vanity are beautifully touched upon to the backdrop of Radiohead's "Everything in it's Right Place" (a very fitting song). Cameron Crowe did a fantastic job directing this movie and Cruise is a superb lead.

3. Rain Man
'Rain Man' is a defining movie of the 80s for me. Dustin Hoffman is probably one of the most talented actors of his generation and in this he very rightly won one of his two Oscars for his portrayal of an autistic savant. Although Dustin Hoffman steals the show, Cruise puts in a solid performance as his yuppie brother, who kidnaps him in an effort to steal his inheritance. As usual Cruise is very adept at playing characters that you initially dislike but warm to as the movie progresses.

4. Magnolia
Cruise is only a small piece in a large jigsaw of characters in this quirky Paul Thomas Anderson movie. But his character is a fantastically seedy, misogynistic public speaker that teaches lonely men how to "tame the cunt". This was quite an uncharacteristically distasteful character for Cruise and therefore it showed some extra range within his cinematic repertoire. Very entertaining and also touching when you see the issues and insecurities which underpin his chauvinism. 

5. Born on the Fourth of July
This is the biopic of Ron Kovic, a patriotic American who is shot and paralysed during the Vietnam War. In this Cruise depicts a man coming to terms with the horrors of war, it's residual physical and mental scars and the hailstorm of bureaucracy and lies surrounding it. The character goes from clean shaven golden boy of the Vietnam War to a misanthropic paraplegic who feels cheated by both God and country. Probably Cruise's most powerful and tragic performance.

6. Minority Report
Without doubt this is up there with the best science fiction movies of the last two decades. 'Minority Report' is an extrapolation of a short story of the same name from SF royalty Philip K Dick, in which precognition of murder can now be achieved via a new prophetic technology. Cruise's character is head of this "precog" police force but must go on the run when a murder is predicted where he is the perpetrator. With a wonderful combination of dystopia and polished mechanical futurism, this is a very vivid setting for an extremely original whodunnit.   

7. The Last Samurai
East meets west in this powerful post American Civil War action-drama; Cruise plays a disillusioned soldier who aims to learn from his enemy but ends up falling in love with their culture. Haunted by the ordered slaughter of Native American's during the Great Sioux War, he finds peace in the simple and honourable way of the Samurai. Ken Watanabe and Billy Connolly star alongside Cruise in this beautiful picture which also contains some absolutely breathtaking action sequences.

8. Collateral
In 'Collateral' Cruise stars as a cold, remorseless hitman that hitches a ride with Jamie Foxx's nightshift taxi driver. The dialogue between the two very principled characters is like listening to the devil and angel on somebodies shoulders. It's intriguing watching Foxx try to become Cruise's conscience - his words fall on deaf ears as the body count rises.

9. Eyes Wide Shut
A bit of an unusual choice I'll admit. This is far from one of my favourite Kubrick movies but I do nevertheless think that it's underrated. This was Kubrick's last film and I actually think Cruise's performance is quite measured as his character becomes consumed by paranoia. This was supposedly Kubrick's favourite out of all of the movies that he directed. He died soon after reportedly making that statement so one can only speculate over why he preferred it to movies such as 'The Shining', 'A Clockwork Orange', 'Full Metal Jacket', '2001: A space Odyssey', 'Dr Strangelove...', 'Spartacus' etc. I often watch this movie and try to catch a glimpse of what it was that made him feel this way, but as of yet I'm oblivious.

10. War of the Worlds
The remake of the classic Wellsian tale in which Earth is attacked by an alien species with an armada of tripods that are already stationed on earth. As the following passage from the book states, the basis of this story is all about the hubris of mankind and the inevitable and humbling wake up call which awaits us all.

“No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No-one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes; and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.”
-H.G. Wells 

This movie wasn't received particularly well by a lot of critics but I actually enjoyed it, especially in the cinema where it's scale could be truly appreciated. No it was never going to win any oscars and no it wasn't that faithful to the original story - but it did maintain the general premise of this modern parable and it did bring it forward successfully from the Victorian era. Spielberg as always is fantastic at creating action on epic scale whilst still keeping a tone of realism and Cruise once again put in a solid and believable performance.

I hope by the end of this I've managed to show Tom Cruise's more positive attributes. Yes he's pretty mental, but a lot of very talented people throughout history have been off their rockers - they're still good at what they do. I thought it was quite interesting to take a look back at a career now overshadowed by ill-repute.  

I hope you enjoyed my best of Cruise recap and any future recommendations for actor/director career recaps are more than welcome. From this point on I will also be posting my scene of the week regularly. In this I will randomly pick an important scene from a great movie and explain why I think it's so wonderful.