How Tom Cruise Became Invincible
Last week, filming was halted on Mission Impossible 6, the latest installment in one of modern cinema’s most surprisingly enduring franchises, after its leading man Tom Cruise suffered a broken ankle during filming. The actor, who has become renowned for doing much of his own stunts in recent blockbuster efforts, was shooting a scene where he leaped between two buildings while strapped into a harness. He collided with the second building and then pulled himself to safety. Variety’s report on the incident suggests Cruise may have also suffered some hip injury as a consequence of the stunt. The filming, the report also notes, could be delayed for up to three months to allow Cruise sufficient recovery time, which presents a number of scheduling problems for the cast, as well as Cruise’s own future involvement in the sequel to Top Gun. However, there is no indication that the film’s release date will be moved back.
Injuries happen a lot in stunt-work, and as we saw recently with the filming of the sequel to Deadpool, the results can be tragic. With CGI moving into the realm of photo-realism near indistinguishable from reality, there has been much talk of replacing practical stunt-work with special effects, much to the opposition of various groups within the industry. All of this makes Tom Cruise’s continuing dedication to being the real-life action man of this cinematic generation, three decades after he made his debut, so much more fascinating, particularly over the past decade. His recent injury is a mere reminder that he is indeed human, which betrays the cinematic image he has carefully crafted for the past ten years: Tom Cruise isn’t just the hero now - he’s bloody invincible. They just don’t make heroes like him anymore.
The A-List mould of stardom that Cruise inhabits is in a constant state of flux, now more so than ever as the internet, social media and international recognition become key parts in this play for power. This is the generation where teenagers care more about Zoella and Jake Paul than Jennifer Lawrence or any actor named Chris. Even Sophie Turner, a star on the biggest show on TV, admitted that her clout in the industry was bolstered by her Instagram followers over perceived box office potential. Hollywood has less interest in crafting major action stars now that it has franchises at the heart of its operation. Actors like Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron have carved out fascinating niches as headlining action stars, but their respective projects cost a fraction of the average Cruise vehicle. Why invest so much cash into making a star when the IP sells more tickets? There have been recent attempts to stick to the old model, such as casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of Ghost in the Shell with the justification that her name was big enough to sell more tickets worldwide, but that flopped spectacularly. She’ll always have Black Widow to fall back on, at least, although the Avengers movies are hardly Scarlett Johansson Movies.
Cruise, in turn, is the headliner in two franchises, one of which has been around for close to 20 years. The Mission: Impossible series started as a big-screen remake of a classic TV show, something that was big in the 1990s with further TV-to-Film adaptations like The Addams Family and The Beverly Hillbillies. By this point in time, Cruise was the biggest star in the world. Top Gun was the decade prior, and in the meantime he’d landed himself an Oscar nomination, headlined successful films directed by auteurs like Scorsese and Stone, and he was one half of the most beloved couples in the land of celebrity. The same year as Mission: Impossible would see the release of Jerry Maguire, which would net him his second of three Oscar nominations.
This was a big investment for Cruise. He was a fan of the show and chose it to be the first project of his new production company. With Paramount footing a $70m budget - typically big for the era and comparable to the other blockbusters of 1996 - Cruise tapped Sydney Pollack to work on the script, which didn’t work out, then brought on Brian De Palma to direct. Even from the first film, Cruise was doing much of his own stunt-work, including the set-piece with the exploding fish tanks, which was Cruise’s idea, and the climactic showdown on the moving train. Reviews weren’t wild, but it took in over $450m worldwide, making it the third highest grossing film of the year, and sealing Cruise’s status as the biggest star at a time when that meant something in Hollywood.
Looking at the rest of the top 10 of 1996 is a curiosity: Cruise takes two spots with this and Jerry Maguire; Michael Bay’s making a name for himself with The Rock, Disney’s animation renaissance continued its domination with The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as its live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians; Schwarzenneger’s still got drawing power, as do Mel Gibson and Eddie Murphy. Yet the biggest film of that year was headlined by an African-American 27 year old best known for rapping and a goofy comedy show. Independence Day cost about the same as Mission: Impossible but made over $817m. Nowadays, Will Smith’s hurricane of charm and personality hasn’t quite carried over into box office revenue, but Cruise is still playing Ethan Hunt 20 years later and the results are just getting better with each effort: Profits have increased and the average Rotten Tomatoes ratings for each has gone up to the point where the most recent two entries sit solidly in the 90% range. Those films are Tom Cruise Movies, not just a sturdy franchise.
The modern Cruise strategy is pinpoint precise tailored to fit that franchise: Ethan Hunt is basically impossible to kill at this point and that’s the fun of it. There’s not much to his character beyond that - the token tragic backstory is serviceable and he’s snarky enough to deliver a good exasperated one-liner - so the liminal space between Cruise and his characters is ever vaguer. He doesn’t even really need to play characters. Nowadays, he’s not stretching himself with his choices of roles, and there’s little chance of seeing him return to the exceptional form he demonstrated in projects like Magnolia or Born on the Fourth of July.
The beginning of the past ten years saw him experiment with his own public image through some fascinating choices: Ten years ago, he played a hawkish Senator in Robert Redford’s political drama Lions For Lambs, released through his production company, but that failed to excite audiences; His cameo as a grotesque nut-busting studio executive in Tropic Thunder was a hilarious burst of fury that allowed him to be in on the joke; and he turned his All-American Hero persona on its head by playing a Nazi officer who plots to kill Hitler in Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. He doesn’t even try a German accent, and underneath the Nazi uniform and eye-patch, with a hand missing, he’s still very much Tom Cruise. Even in Rock of Ages, a film too embarrassing to recount, Cruise is still Cruise, albeit in hopped up Rockstar mode (he’s easily one of the best things in it too, but couldn’t stop it from flopping hard).
In between these movies, Cruise went back to what he did best, and that role of action man developed further layers. He lent his clout to original or little-known sci-fi properties like Oblivion and did some solid work as Jack Reacher despite being completely miscast. The pinnacle of Invincible Cruise came in 2014 with Edge of Tomorrow, an adaptation of a Japanese novel wherein Cruise’s character finds himself in a time loop repeating the same day where he dies in battle. The muddled advertising campaign muddled how imaginative and funny the film itself is: Try Groundhog Day with Starship Troopers. Cruise’s character Bill Cage is somewhat Invincible - death just sends him back to the beginning - but this high-concept sets up a glorious payoff that delighted those smart enough to seek out the film: Invincible Cruise gets wailed on for two hours by Emily Blunt, and it is amazing. What could have been exceedingly tedious is instead an ambitiously crafted story that has an inherent understanding of its own ridiculousness while never letting the stakes drop. It’s highly satisfying, and that’s in large part thanks to Cruise and his commitment to this dope of a character who’s still heroic enough to root for as audiences cackle at his increasing death count. This is prime Cruise the Invincible in a way that comes closest to the magic of the Mission: Impossible franchise. It’s sadly not something he managed to replicate in The Mummy.
Where most franchises find the A-List mould unnecessary due to the value of the material at hand, Universal’s increasingly exhausting attempt to turn its golden age of horror films into an expanded universe, known as the Dark Universe, has taken the opposite route, hiring bankable names like Cruise, Javier Bardem, and unfortunately Johnny Depp, all in an attempt to attract audiences to their saga. This is nothing new for Universal, and their last try at this, Dracula Untold, sank without a trace. With The Mummy, the hope was that A Tom Cruise Movie, which still holds a lot of sway with the overseas market, would bolster the foundations of this franchise enough to get their planned multi-film series off the ground.
It would be easy to call The Mummy ‘weird’, but that would imply it’s in any way interesting. It’s like reading a hastily written guide on how to make a Tom Cruise movie that got lost in some pages for a movie called The Mummy. Everything about it is painfully generic, and even the patented Invincible Cruise stunt moment with the falling plane lacks any impact because it was used so frequently in the adverts (including a hilarious IMAX trailer with some unfortunate sound issues). This breed of Cruise is an inherently ill fit for such a project. He’s a blank slate billed as the chosen one and his spasms of confusion and Cruise-style running feel out of place whenever the story tries to play dark or mystical. The film also tries to overlook the elephant in the room of Cruise’s age, which became more distracting than ever.
Part of the appeal of Invincible Cruise is that notion of being trapped in a different era of hero. Ethan Hunt has withstood two decades of change with little to show it beyond a new haircut now and then. At 55, he’s still got it, with the muscled form to match and he’s determined to keep going and remain ahead of the modern heroes half his age. In a manner, that’s inspiring, and it would be amazing to see that carried over to our heroines, but the problem with this agelessness when tied to this decade of Cruise is that we can no longer suspend our disbelief. There’s a moment in The Mummy where Dr. Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe, refers to Cruise’s character as being a ‘young man’: Russell Crowe is one year younger than Tom Cruise. He certainly doesn’t look his age, but when awkwardly paired off romantically with co-star Annabelle Wallis, a woman over 20 years his junior, the whole operation becomes more baffling to watch. It would have been much more striking to have Cruise play a man of his age, still very much capable but in aware of how ageism impacts his life.
Really, The Mummy has no business being A Tom Cruise Movie. It could have starred anyone, and feels like a waste of what makes a Cruise vehicle worth the ride (Cruise allegedly wielded a lot of creative control over the production). It also feels so utterly unnecessary from Cruise’s point-of-view: He already has his headlining franchise so why would he need this? The appeal of Tom Cruise lies in that classic mould of action hero - Apple Pie Americanism with just a hint of goofball. He flexes, he runs, he saves the day, but he’s always aware of the weirdness of it all. You can’t help but embrace the dorkiness of Cruise, even at his most invincible, because he runs like that. It’s controlled masculinity, aspirational but not untouchable, even at its most powerful. If it were, Cruise would be smiling a lot less.
It’s hard to discuss this era of Cruise without talking about the events that predated it. In 2005, he began dating Katie Holmes, which he infamously declared to the world via the couch jump heard around the world on Oprah. The whirlwind of TomKat publicity was an inescapable chasm of celebrity adoration and confusion in a way that doesn’t exist in the social media age now that the tabloids have lost much of their power. This wasn’t just love; this was Movie Love, about a step away from being directed by Baz Luhrmann, and it made Cruise seem a little unusual. It didn’t help that his public support of Scientology and vehement opposition to psychiatry and anti-depressants got in the way of his usual movie-star spiel. All that nice American boy glitz and relatability suddenly felt much more intense and aloof now that the issue of his religion became impossible to ignore.
Invincible Cruise feels like a natural extension of what we know of Scientology. Former Scientology sources suggest Cruise has reached the highest Operating Thetan level in the organisation, putting him on the same level as L. Ron Hubbard and current leader David Miscavige, who Cruise is close to. Given that the group claims reaching a certain level will allow true believers to heal themselves of injuries, a broken ankle makes Invincible Cruise seem all the more human.
Nowadays, Cruise is less publicly intense and has noticeably dialled back from that brief spell of ‘crazy’. His interviews are charming and fluffy, he does the expected Jimmy Fallon children’s party game routines, and he strictly avoids talking about his private life. No more florid declarations of passionate love, no more rallying against the psychiatric establishment, no more battles with Matt Lauer: Invincible Cruise remains so because his shields are up at all times. It’s hard to see whether that persona is sticking with viewers, especially now that we know so much about the darker and exploitative side of Scientology, something Cruise is alleged to have greatly benefitted from. He may be highly litigious but Leah Remini is still talking and people are listening.
Up next for Cruise is American Made, a biographical action-drama inspired by the life of pilot turned drug smuggler Barry Seal. The trailers suggest another big exciting Tom Cruise Movie. Guy Lodge from Variety echoes this, calling the film ‘a showcase for the dateless elasticity of Cruise’s star power. It feels, for better or worse, like a film he could have made at almost any point in the last 30 years.’ He doesn’t look much like the real Barry Seal either, but nobody expects him to look like anyone but himself now. It just wouldn’t work otherwise. The film may be set in the 1980s, but Cruise remains timeless, ageless and unstoppable, regardless of whether the occasion calls for it.