2017 Film Essays

‘American Made’: Cruising into Character

Tom Cruise was once a dominant box-office attraction, starting with Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) and concluding with Mission: Impossible III (2006). Since then, success has been more sporadic. Critics loved Cruise’s cameo as the crazed studio head Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, but aside from Edge of Tomorrow — or Live. Die. Repeat., whichever you prefer — Cruise is trapped in a creative stasis. None of the characters Cruise has played since Bill Cage (the A-lister at his smarmiest) have captured the public’s imagination. While the Mission: Impossible franchise has proven a lifesaver, it isn’t the splash of originality that audiences crave.

The Mummy served as an opportunity for Mr. Cruise to play the summer blockbuster hero again, but that didn’t quite work. Surprising no one, The Mummy did not do well when it came out in June 2017. Part of the reason that film didn’t captivate moviegoers is that Cruise’s character, Nick Morton, too closely resembles Jack Reacher and the other roguish scoundrels with hearts of gold that have perhaps been played too long. That’s why, at least tentatively, American Made seems so promising. The premise of the film isn’t based around ancient mummies or aliens, but rather the life of a pilot who saw an opportunity to make a quick buck and wound up in the pocket of the infamous Medellin cartel. While the ads promoting American Made offer up the slick Cruise leading man, it’s worth acknowledging that a career turn could be taking place. And, once again, it’s taking place with Doug Liman.

“I love that there’s the ‘Tom Cruise movie’ label because it gave me something to work against,” Liman told Entertainment Weekly. Initially, the role of Barry Seal probably looked like the prototypical Cruise hero: he was recruited by the CIA to assist the United States’ best interest overseas. What that really meant was taking covert photographs and smuggling in guns. Seal probably saw himself as a hero, too… until the charges started coming in. In addition to acting as an informant for the CIA, Seal did double-duty trafficking cocaine for the Medellin cartel. Essentially, Seal is an outlaw operating off of governmental disconnect to the tune of $80 million — not the type of easygoing movie role for a man whose image is squeaky clean.

Of course, Cruise has played against type in the past, and the resurgence of “character actor” Tom Cruise would be a delight to fans of his work with heavyweight auteurs Michael Mann and Paul Thomas Anderson in Collateral and Magnolia, respectively. Like Heat’s Neil McCauley and other professionals in the Mann oeuvre, Vincent has a practiced nihilism, which is fitting given that he is an archetype of the inevitability of fate personified. As Jamie Foxx’s Max attempts to sway Vincent from adding to his extensive list of the dead, Cruise’s character coolly responds “since when was any of this negotiable?” Vincent kills swiftly and silently, like a God of Carnage who has an interest in I Ching and the history of jazz. Such a different look set Collateral apart in Cruise’s filmography; he had played aggressive characters before, even surly, but never a villain.

And if Vincent weren’t detestable enough, try Cruise as Magnolia’s Frank T.J. Mackey. Before Liman, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson took delight in subverting the expectations of what a Tom Cruise role should be. “Something about Tom prompted a certain naughtiness in me,” Anderson said about writing the character of Mackey for the superstar. Take the first time Cruise’s Mackey interacts with a journalist rather than recite practiced lines onstage. Mackey uses his swagger and nudity to influence the direction of the interview, but a female reporter (April Grace) is having none of it. What comes next is a force of wills. Mackey is fighting off the reporter’s prying gaze as much as he’s fighting his paralyzing fear of being exposed. The way he levels the word “bitch” at a reporter digging into his past is almost violent. She flinches at the exchange, providing a false triumph for Mackey. He appears to have won, but soon the press — and the world — will realize his fragility. This role had all the makings of a career-ending disaster, yet Cruise imbued his part with vulnerability and humanity. It was a risk playing the misogynist extraordinaire, but Cruise performed admirably and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination.

Cruise didn’t win an Oscar for Magnolia; the Best Supporting Actor honor ultimately went to Michael Caine. Chasing the award, and not being recognized because of Vanilla Sky’s mixed reception, may have persuaded the very bankable leading man to pursue more star vehicles. All these years later, playing the heroic lead is resulting in diminishing returns at the box-office, so why not take more creative risks? When Cruise branches out and flexes his character-acting muscle, the results are often exhilarating. This leaves fans asking why Cruise doesn’t do so more often. It is unsure if the less-than-stellar return that The Mummy brought in has given Cruise cause to rethink his recent career path, but it might be time to. At 55, Cruise is closer to Paul Newman’s age in The Color of Money (61) than when he played the part of Vincent Lauria. Experience and gravitas suggest that Cruise could bring more to Newman’s Fast Eddie part than in revisiting Vincent’s cocky protégé.

A sixth Mission: Impossible is currently filming while a Top Gun sequel sits looming on the horizon. If either film does spectacularly well, it might convince Tom Cruise to continue this streak of popcorn fare. Yet, his status as the last real movie star won’t last forever. Conversely, American Made might push him further along his evolution to more interesting, character-based roles. One doesn’t expect an immediate return to iconic roles like Vincent Lauria or T.J. Mackey, but hopefully Barry Seal is just the start.

Follow Colin Biggs on Twitter @wordsbycbiggs.