The Tom Cruise movie that immediately came to mind in the opening scenes of Edge of Tomorrow, the entertaining Groundhog Day-meets-Starship Troopers movie that opened Friday, wasn’t one of his previous science-fiction blockbusters. It was A Few Good Men.

In the new film, directed by Doug Liman, Cruise plays Major William Cage, a charming, TV-ready spokesperson for the global military who’s successfully recruited millions of volunteers for the war against invading aliens. But he’s hardly a soldier — he coasted through ROTC and then ran an advertising agency — and the commander in charge (Brendan Gleeson) of the imminent counterattack decides Cage would best help the cause by bringing a camera to the beach with the first wave of grunts. It’s an honor that Cage would prefer to skip, and as the stench of his cowardice grows — and he tries to dance his way out of the assignment — you can practically hear the echoes of Col. Jessup scowling at Danny Kaffee and demanding that he “stand there in that fa—-y white uniform and with your Harvard mouth extend me some f–king courtesy.”

It might bother some of you to be reminded that A Few Good Men came out 22 years ago — before many of the moviegoers who made The Fault in Our Stars the weekend’s smash hit were even born. Cruise was only 30 then, and that hit film represented the beginning of another successful string of old-fashioned movie-star roles — including The Firm and Jerry Maguire — that reinforced his place at the top of the Hollywood heap. Times have changed. Hollywood has changed. And Cruise has changed.

Edge of Tomorrow, his second straight science-fiction alien adventure, received widespread praise from the critics. Yet no one showed up in theaters for a Tom Cruise action movie with critical buzz. The $178 million movie raked in just $29.1 million over its opening weekend, 21 percent lower than last spring’s stinker, Oblivion. (It barely edged last summer’s Will Smith debacle, After Earth.) Internationally, however, Edge of Tomorrow beat the competition, earning an additional $82 million, including $25 million in China alone.

So this is where Tom Cruise sits on June 9, 2014: He delivered the type of excellent action film that summer audiences typically embrace, and nobody could be bothered to see it — except for abroad. Is this a net positive for Cruise, a good movie with global appeal? Or does he need to repair the lingering damage to his image and recalibrate his strategy to transition to the next phase of his career?

Cruise is quite winning in Edge of Tomorrow, but it’s worth noting that Cage is not a 51-year-old like the man who plays him. You could easily imagine Jake Gyllenhaal or Bradley Cooper in the role, and the fact that we accept Cruise without blinking is a credit to great DNA and the brilliance of his star wattage. But the action-hero mold is one that Cruise has increasingly relied upon, a departure from the more character-driven films that he pursued after Top Gun in 1986 — The Color of Money, Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July. Since his difficult 2005 press tour for War of the Worlds, which included his ballyhooed Oprah appearance and a tense interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer about the role of psychiatry and anti-depressants following his critical remarks about Brooke Shields, Cruise has retreated to the action genre, with two Mission: Impossibles being the highlights of a period better represented by the likes of Jack Reacher and Knight & Day.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that 50 is a crucial milestone for many Hollywood actors. Going all the way back to Gary Cooper and Clark Gable, male stars who’ve built careers playing a certain type of glorious Adonis or maverick action hero have to eventually segue into more mature roles, and it’s not always easy. Look at someone like Cruise’s Color of Money co-star Paul Newman, who is the gold standard for… well, everything actor related. Even Newman staggered a bit at about the same age, clinging to heroic guy’s-guy roles in The Towering Inferno, the Harper sequel The Drowning Pool, and the admittedly glorious Slap Shot. It really wasn’t until The Verdict in 1982, when Newman was 57, that he found his groove as an actor coming to terms with age, and using it to his advantage. He won his only Best Actor Oscar four years later for Color of Money.

Cruise doesn’t seem interested in that path yet. Judging by the projects he has in development, he’s planning to double-down on his current strategy, with another Mission: Impossible, another Jack Reacher, another Top Gun, a possible Van Helsing reboot, and a reunion with Liman and Jack Nicholson in an action-comedy where he’d play a Secret Service agent on the run with a misbehaving ex-president. (Of those, I’m honestly only interested in seeing the latter, even if it sounds a lot like Guarding Tess.)

It might surprise some that Cruise is only a year younger than George Clooney. While Cruise has been tasked with saving the world over and over again in his movies, Clooney, who took a longer, more circuitous route to superstardom, has gracefully transitioned into the roles that he can play for the next 20 years. Perhaps Clooney had the advantage of never quite being the franchise action-hero that Cruise was — thank you, Batman & Robin! — but he’s been very astute by selecting movies like Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, and The Descendants, starring roles that embrace human frailty and vulnerability and the idea that nobody is the same person they were 15 years ago. Cruise, actually, would’ve been a great Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, and he would’ve been similarly charismatic and memorable as the astronaut in Gravity. But he doesn’t seem interested in these types of roles. Or perhaps those roles are not interested in him.

Edge of Tomorrow isn’t a disaster by any measure, but it might be the canary in the coal mine. If American audiences are not excited by a Tom Cruise Action Movie even when it’s done well, he’ll soon have to make a choice about the type of star he wants to be. Does he want to be Paul Newman, or does he want to be Harrison Ford — a beloved action hero who was still throwing right hooks into his 60s?

With the profitable Mission: Impossible franchise, Cruise has the luxury of taking chances on his other films, one he has yet to fully exploit. Though he’s consistently worked with visually stylish directors — from Liman to Brad Bird to Bryan Singer — in the last decade, he rarely gives himself over to their vision. Once upon a time, Cruise pursued such collaborations, partnering up with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Sydney Pollack, Cameron Crowe, P.T. Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, and Michael Mann. Wouldn’t it be great to see Cruise in a Tarantino film — not a Cruise Film Directed by Tarantino, but a true Tarantino trip? Or how about a David Fincher movie?

I actually think Edge of Tomorrow is the first step in the right direction. It won’t be a box-office blockbuster in the U.S., but it will win people over slowly, and Cruise will get credit for it. It might even remind people of what they loved about Cruise in the first place. At that point, Cruise will have to decide if he wants to continue down the action genre endgame that leads to The Expendables VII, or if he wants to be the guy who makes movies that matter. Tom Cruise can still make movies that matter, and Hollywood loves a comeback story. It all depends on whether Cruise can handle the truth — and I think he can.

Edge of Tomorrow
  • Movie
  • 116 minutes