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The Cocky Protagonist Who Has to Learn Not to Be So Cocky, Even as the Universe Justifies His Cockiness
Tom Cruise gets things done. Tom Cruise knows that he gets things done. Maverick in Top Gun is an ace pilot. His only problem is that he has no problems, except for his father or whatever. In order to become an even better best pilot, he needs to learn not to be so full of himself; thus chastened, he becomes the best best pilot of them all. Replace ''pilot'' with ''bartender'' or ''agent'' or 'spy' and that's Cocktail or Jerry Maguire or the first Mission: Impossible. Many of Cruise's best movies play this cocky persona off of a foil, with the Cruise character forced to take responsibility for his family (see: Rain Man, War of the Worlds).
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The Cocky Protagonist Who Might Also Be a Fascist
But some of Cruise's best movies add darker layers to his persona, suggesting that all that cockiness is a demonstration of narcissism bordering on sociopathy. Magnolia imagines Cruise as a self-help guru preaching a gospel of über-manhood. Collateral positions Cruise as a heartless monster, assured in his Darwinian perspective on humanity. In The Last Samurai and Lions for Lambs, Cruise is a vanguard for literal imperialism and figurative Bush-era imperialism.
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Not the Face!
For an actor famous for his golden-god handsomeness, it's interesting how many of Cruise's movies after the mid-'90s focus on masking or mutilating his features. It started with the first Mission: Impossible and the eternal face-reveals. In Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky he's masked; in the latter, his mask hides a scarred face, echoed years later with his wounded soldier in Valkyrie. And in Minority Report, a futuristic mask is really a form of mutilation. Bizarrely, Cruise's post-couch comeback began with him buried under makeup: His extended cameo in Tropic Thunder.
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''Boyishness'' is a word people associate with Cruise, but it's interesting to see how many army veterans dot his filmography. Not long after Top Gun, Cruise played paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, which is Patient Zero for the argument that there's more to Cruise than his pearly whites. In The Last Samurai he's a broken-down old soldier, while in Jack Reacher and Knight and Day he's a soldier-turned-all-purpose-superman. Edge of Tomorrow sees Cruise in the process of becoming a veteran, tracing his character's evolution from rookie to seasoned soldier as he replays the same battle over and over. Heck, you could even throw in Rock of Ages, where Cruise is a ''veteran'' rock star who's only a few degrees away from the human wreckage Cruise played in Last Samurai.
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The Mentored Years
Films from Cruise's first decade in the spotlight typically paired him with an older, gruff mentor figure. Think Paul Newman in The Color of Money or Tom Skerritt in Top Gun or Robert Duvall playing Tom Skerritt in Days of Thunder. This period arguably ended with Mission: Impossible, when Cruise's mentor-figure Jon Voight is Not What He Seems.
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The Mentor Years
At a certain point, the equation flipped, and Cruise became the mentor: First to Keri Russell in Mission: Impossible III, and then to his whole banter-y squad in Ghost Protocol. You could also include Cruise's harried father in War of the Worlds, trying to guide his children through the horrors of the alien invasion, or Cruise's expert agent in Knight and Day, who teaches Cameron Diaz the ropes of action hero-dom on the fly. In an intriguing time-tossed twist, Emily Blunt plays both a mentor and a mentee in Edge of Tomorrow, teaching Cruise how to be a future soldier until he's able to guide her through their futuristic battlefield.
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Cruise rose to prominence as a heartthrob, but there's a fascinating recurring motif in his filmography of ''romances'' that blossom out of arranged relationships. In Risky Business, Rebecca De Mornay is a prostitute hired by Cruise's randy high schooler. In Jerry Maguire, Cruise initially marries Renée Zellweger for financial reasons. Vanilla Sky and Oblivion both explore very sci-fi-ish ideas of a woman being ''made'' for a man.
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Cruise's cousin William Mapother popped up in minor roles in Born on the Fourth of July, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky, Mission: Impossible II, and Minority Report. Then he became Ethan on Lost. Pause to imagine a side-universe where Tom Cruise was Ethan on Lost.
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The Immortal Cruise
Because Cruise was one of the first major star-producers of the modern age, you could argue that there's a genuine low-level persona auteurism running throughout his filmography. Which makes his outlying work all the more fascinating. As Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, Cruise played a character who would be young and beautiful forever. It's unlike almost anything else in the Cruise-ography. But Cruise's turn towards science fiction has echoes of that idea. In Vanilla Sky and more recently Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow, the Cruise protagonist finds himself living through a kind of metaphorical infinity.
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Mission: Impossible is the Cruise-ography in Microcosm
Cruise is a lead producer on the Mission: Impossible franchise, and the four films so far constitute a fascinating time-lapse portrait of the Tom Cruise Archetype over the last two decades. In the first film, Cruise is still the cocky young agent — and the film's playful, twisty structure actually winds up destroying the world around that version of Cruise, sending him on the run and ultimately pitting him against his mentor figure. In Mission: Impossible II Cruise once again finds himself on both sides of an ''arranged'' romance — he falls in love with a woman who is also his mission and then sends her to seduce another man.
By Mission: Impossible III, Cruise is a more seasoned figure, avenging his murdered protégé. (M:I3 is also very much a work of Cruise's post-2000s era, when his action heroes frequently have to defy their superiors and go on the run from corrupt organizations (see also: Minority Report, The Last Samurai, Valkyrie). By Ghost Protocol, there's a hint of bruised weariness in Cruise's face — we find him in a prison, his dream of settling down with his wife appears to be a thing of the past — and the cockiness has been replaced by a no-nonsense professionalism that recalls Collateral and Jack Reacher. Like his time-tossed soldier in Edge of Tomorrow, many later Cruise characters seem to have been through their battles many, may times.
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Tough to say no.