Me and Tom Cruise go way back.
The first movie I ever reviewed, for my college newspaper, was “Risky Business.” For The Chronicle, I reviewed the vast majority of his movies since the late 1980s — everything from “Cocktail” (1988) to “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018). Unfortunately, I didn’t review the original “Top Gun” in 1986 because I was the junior critic then and consigned to a strict diet of horror movies.
Now, 36 years after the original “Top Gun,” Cruise has a new movie out, “Top Gun: Maverick,” the sequel to the original. With any other movie star, a follow-up made more than 3½ decades later would be a purely nostalgic exercise. But at 59, Cruise pretty much looks and acts like his old — that is, young — self.
Over the years, he has weathered some bad publicity (remember when he jumped on Oprah’s couch in 2005?), but he has mostly made good — or very good — movies, and more than anything, it’s the quality of the product that has sustained him as a top box office draw for an unprecedented four decades. Like him or not, he has surpassed John Wayne as the most enduring movie star in Hollywood history.
To commemorate Cruise’s new movie and his upcoming milestone birthday — he turns 60 on July 3 — I went back and read everything I’ve ever written about him. Not everything has been positive, but if there has been a trend, it’s been toward decreasing skepticism and increasing appreciation.
By now, two years after “Top Gun,” Cruise was a huge box office star, but not necessarily someone people took seriously.
This movie was a bit of ’80s fluff about a hotshot business student (Cruise) who takes a part-time job as a bartender and wows patrons with his virtuoso antics.
The review: Cruise “ and his mentor (Bryan Brown) entertain their adoring patrons with feats of bottle spinning and glass twirling. Sometimes they coordinate their drink-making moves in time with music. Oddly enough, no one seems to mind that, with these two clowns showing off like the June Taylor Dancers, no one ever gets to do much drinking. … Tom Cruise does his best, but there’s only so far you can go with a bad screenplay and a smirk.”
‘Far and Away’ (1992)
Immediately after “Cocktail,” Cruise made “Rain Man” (1988) and then “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), establishing himself as an actor of real stature. For director Ron Howard, Cruise co-starred opposite his then-wife, Nicole Kidman, in the story of an Irish couple in the 1800s who come to the United States, where the husband finds he can only make a living by boxing.
The review: “Tom Cruise demonstrates genuine star voltage in ‘Far and Away.’ I’m thinking of a moment near the end of the movie, in which he looks at his co-star Nicole Kidman, smiles warmly and says, ‘You’re a corker, Shannon Christie. Yes, you’re a corker.’
“ ‘You’re a corker,’?” you might ask. But that’s just the difference between reading about something and seeing it onscreen. I had goosebumps.”
‘The Firm’ (1993)
Cruise was on a roll, working with top directors such as Rob Reiner for “A Few Good Men” (1992). In Sydney Pollack’s “The Firm,” Cruise played a young, ambitious law school graduate who takes a job with a prestigious firm, only to find that his folksy bosses are actually a bunch of murderers.
The review: “Cruise plays something of a Hitchcockian hero who is in over his head and has to think hard and overcome his terror in order to survive from one minute to the next. At times, the tension becomes almost too much to take, though I expect most people will take it and like it.”
‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996)
In this Brian De Palma film, Cruise plays agent Ethan Hunt, whose entire team gets killed, leading the CIA to suspect he was the one responsible.
At the time, the film was expected to be a one-off, not the beginning of an enduring series.
The review: “The opening scenes try to convey the sense of a seasoned team of happy agents, working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and affection. Young agent Hunt teases pouty agent Claire (Emmanuelle Beart) about her coffee. Right there you know the picture is in trouble. Coffee banter is the first refuge of the uninspired.”
‘Mission: Impossible II’ (2000)
A running theme of Cruise’s career is strong directors. Between 1996 and 1999, he made films for Cameron Crowe (“Jerry Maguire”), Stanley Kubrick (“Eyes Wide Shut”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia”). I caught up with him again in 2000, when he starred in “Mission: Impossible II” for director John Woo. In this installment, he has to ward off terrorists as he tries to prevent the dissemination of a deadly virus.
The review: “Ethan Hunt has become a much more interesting fellow in the past few years. For one thing, his idea of a vacation is to climb up the side of a cliff. Cruise did his own climbing (though precautions were taken), most of his stunts and almost all of his fights. In several instances, after an elaborate stunt, Woo uses an unbroken take, moving in tight from a long shot to show us that that really was Cruise leaping and kicking or hanging, one-handed, from a cliff. He has never looked better. At one point, in close-up, Cruise says, ‘Damn, you’re beautiful,’ and for just a second the audience thinks he is talking about himself.”
‘Minority Report’ (2002)
Working with yet another major director, Steven Spielberg, Cruise plays a cop living in a future time when murders are preventable — because psychics are able to predict them minutes in advance.
The review: “Cruise doesn’t do much smiling here, except in flashback, most notably in the scene in which Anderton (Cruise) and his son cavort at a public swimming pool. That scene has the sharp, slightly brownish tint of a Rockwell painting, an evocative, nostalgic look. In this film, Cruise plays it straight and gets by more on acting than charm.”
‘War of the Worlds’ (2005)
This second Spielberg collaboration, about an alien invasion, was condescended to by critics — and even by audiences — but it was a lot of fun and a box office monster, making over $600 million worldwide.
The review: “His introspective scenes, in which he tries to process the horrors he has witnessed, are not convincing. Fortunately, this is not an introspective role. It’s a role that calls for a face that stands out in the crowd, a body that’s capable and an energy that says, ‘Let’s do something.’ Max von Sydow is a superior actor, but I couldn’t care less what he would do in an alien invasion. For an alien invasion, I want Cruise.”
‘Mission: Impossible III’ (2006)
In 2005, Cruise appeared on “Oprah” and jumped on her couch several times professing his love for then-girlfriend Katie Holmes. The incident got bad press, bad enough that when this film came out — where Ethan Hunt goes up against a diabolical mastermind (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — people wondered if Cruise’s career was in trouble. Turns out, it wasn’t.
The review: “All the awful couch-jumping, placenta-eating publicity that Cruise has received in recent months has the inevitable effect of forcing viewers to see him with fresh eyes. On a second look, what a curious spectacle we’ve been taking for granted all these years: a taut bundle of calculation, eternally boyish, always aware of what his face is doing, always insisting that we like him, prodding us with smiles and frowns and a sincerity that almost looks real, the ultimate screen creature. Cruise acts as though a performance were a physical act of will, something he can accomplish by muscling his face and emotions into the proper configuration. It’s precision work done by bulldozer, and somehow he does it.”
‘Lions for Lambs’ (2007)
Working with another heavyweight, director Robert Redford, Cruise played a conservative Republican senator who never met a Middle East war he didn’t like. It was a co-starring role, but a gem of a part.
The review: “Tom Cruise as a senator? Isn’t he like, 28 or something? Actually, he’s 45, the same age Jack Kennedy was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Cruise’s basic screen personality provides him with the perfect aura to play a political up-and-comer: He’s charismatic, gloriously self-satisfied, absolutely convinced, smiling and persuasive, and relentless. Cruise is like that in every movie, and he’d act like that if he were playing Hamlet, too, so you have to cast him right. Redford does.”
This is the closest Cruise has ever come to being ridiculous. He is utterly miscast as the one-handed Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, who almost succeeded in assassinating Adolf Hitler in July 1944. The film still made $200 million worldwide. Not bad for a misfire.
The review: “Cruise’s can-do determination rubs some people the wrong way. Not me. I like it. It’s his own thing, and it belongs in movies. But importing the Cruise persona into von Stauffenberg makes no sense. Nothing in Cruise’s performance suggests a handsome aristocrat who has recently had his hand blown off and an eye blown out in battle. Nothing about him suggests old world weariness, the spiritual toll of a protracted war or a hatred for the monsters who have destroyed his country. When Cruise silently assesses the situation and decides, yes, he will do this, he will risk everything for the Fatherland, he seems more like an actor contemplating a risky stunt.”
‘Knight and Day’ (2010)
This is one that audiences and critics agreed on — they didn’t like it — but I saw the movie under peculiar circumstances: I was worried about something (which turned out to be OK), and while an entertaining movie can get you out of a bad mood, if you really are actively worried about something, it’s hard to engage.
Trying to be fair, I gave “Knight and Day” the benefit of the doubt, but the doubt was probably right. Not one of Cruise’s best, he played a former secret agent who enlists an unsuspecting, average-person Cameron Diaz on a dangerous adventure.
The review: “As a screen energy, Diaz is as scattered as Cruise is focused, as open as he is covered, and as clearly benign as he is a shady. When she smiles, you know everything is all right. When he smiles, you have no idea what he’s thinking. His charm disarms, but it doesn’t reassure — which is all a long-winded way of saying that these two make a very good and complementary pair.”
‘Jack Reacher’ (2012)
People were prepared not to love Jack Reacher, and they didn’t. Fans of the Lee Child novels couldn’t see how the 5-foot-7 Cruise could play the massive Reacher character. And this violent movie (at one point it even shows a little girl in the crosshairs of a rifle) was released in the immediate aftermath of the murders of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook. The story was about a former military police officer hired to go undercover in a case that gets darker and darker.
The review: “Like Paul McCartney’s music, Cruise’s acting is easy to dismiss when you haven’t experienced it in a while. But when you encounter it — not the idea of it, but the genuine article — you know the man has something. A routine thriller automatically gets a lift. It can’t really be garbage if it’s a Tom Cruise movie. … Incidentally, Cruise, who turned 50 in July, looks amazing, and he’s in remarkable shape, though he would probably do best to keep his shirt on from now on.”
Cruise starred in this postapocalyptic sci-fi film, set in 2077, in which the few remaining Earthlings are trying to make a stand against alien invaders.
The review: “Put him on Oprah’s couch, and he just seems nuts. But put him in an Imax close-up, in a threatening situation, and he makes you believe humanity is worth saving. … If there’s one thing you learn after years of watching every single film this guy makes, it’s that, despite whatever anyone wants to say about him, Cruise will never bore you to death. And this is not because there is something inherently scintillating about his screen presence, but rather because he won’t waste his time on a truly bad script — or the audience’s time, either.”
‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ (2015)
Another ongoing feature of Cruise’s career: strong female co-stars. He gets one in Rebecca Ferguson, who plays a former British agent who just might be working for “the syndicate,” an evil terrorist band with plans to take over the world.
The review: “The man has stopped aging, and no one even thinks that’s weird. He is 53 but seems to have stopped the clock at 35, and if he keeps this up for another five years, it will be time to either call in scientists or start speculating about Lucifer. … Cruise brings a conviction to his scenes here that is partly the character’s, but mostly it’s as if he keeps repeating, ‘I am Tom Cruise, and I am going to fill your mind with this very important thing I am about to say.’ ”
‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’ (2016)
This “Jack Reacher” installment was an all-around improvement, with a quality director maintaining a nice balance between Cruise — he’s investigating the framing and arrest of his military officer girlfriend — and Cobie Smulders as the girlfriend.
The review: “For Cruise, the Reacher character is a challenge. Reacher never smiles, so right off that’s one weapon in the Cruise arsenal taken off the table. He doesn’t talk much, so Cruise’s verbal dexterity doesn’t come into play, either. Reacher is also something of a pessimist, which means Cruise must contain his natural ebullience. The only point of intersection between Cruise and Reacher is sheer will. And — at the risk of sounding like a bad Shakespeare sonnet — the question is this: Does Cruise have enough will to play will and succeed through force of will alone?
“The answer is yes. With Tom Cruise, the answer is always yes.”
‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ (2018)
By 2018, Cruise seemed to have settled into the Kentucky Fried Chicken stage of his career — he does one thing (action movies), but he does it right and better than everyone else.
The best of the “Mission: Impossible” movies, this was also the biggest hit, making $791 million worldwide. Unfortunately, it had to tide us over for the next few years. Due to the pandemic, there wasn’t another Cruise movie in theaters until this year with “Top Gun: Maverick.”
The review: “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” starts out strong and gets better and better. And then, just when you know it can’t get any better than it already is, it gets even better than that, until everybody staggers out of the theater exhausted and exhilarated. It’s what a summer movie used to be and should be. It’s just terrific. …
“The effectiveness of the action has to do with more than thrills and titillation. In ‘Fallout,’ every leap, chase and tense moment is bound to the story and to the personal relationships within that story. Having Cruise at the center certainly helps — everybody likes Tom Cruise, including all the people who tell you they don’t — and so there’s a rooting interest. But this goes beyond Cruise. This is story construction, character creation and a directorial instinct for when to ease off the pedal and when to floor it.”