Tom Cruise has been a staple, an institution, of popular culture almost as long as I’ve known what popular culture was. His emergence in the 1980s as a star - the dictionary definition of a movie star - has gone unrivaled among those who rose with him, and those who have risen since. He didn’t slow down. He didn’t transition into a character actor. He didn’t lose his box office power. He’s not claimed by a single generation. Moviegoers from the ‘80s to today can name a seminal or favorite movie and their choices will all be different. And they’ll all be interesting, and probably a commercial, if not also a critical success. Almost no one else, from then to now, can claim that.
To figure out why, and how, all you need do is look at the movies themselves. His hunger as an actor and an entertainer isn’t merely palpable on screen. It’s reflected in his choices - the characters he plays, the challenges he faces, and the filmmakers with whom he collaborates. Paramount Pictures, distributor of several of his biggest hits - including the biggest franchise of his career, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - recently released three of his films in 4K, ostensibly to celebrate the forthcoming TOP GUN: MAVERICK, a full-circle sequel reflecting where he came from and where he’s at now. From TOP GUN to DAYS OF THUNDER to WAR OF THE WORLDS, Tom Cruise indisputably remains the biggest movie star of them all, but evidenced by these three films, each from a different “era,” he’s also an incredibly creative artist who’s always been eager to test his boundaries and change audiences’ perception of him, even (maybe especially) when he’s on top.
TOP GUN, of course, made Cruise a star. He’d already experienced hits (RISKY BUSINESS) alongside some noteworthy performances in ensemble films (THE OUTSIDERS, TAPS). And he was clearly on deck to become Somebody Special in the industry, signing on to work for Ridley Scott on LEGEND. But TOP GUN was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle phenomena that paired the perfect actor at the perfect time with the perfect co-stars, director and producer - all in the perfect story. What better to show Cruise’s charisma than ask him to play a hotshot pilot eager to break the mold and break new ground among even the most promising recruits? It was a real opportunity to prove himself first among equals, and he didn’t waste it.
Tony Scott didn’t burn up the box office with THE HUNGER, but his talent was clearly evident, and armed with images from a Bruce Weber book and a crystal-clear vision of what the film could become, TOP GUN's success was assured. Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, hot off of BEVERLY HILLS COP and FLASHDANCE, knew talent when they saw it, and shrewdly assembled an amazing cast: Kelly McGillis, soulful and assured but susceptible to Cruise’s charm as the instructor he falls for, and who falls for him; Anthony Edwards, grounded and agreeable as his partner in crime; Tom Skerritt and Michael Ironside as the gruff, knowing instructors reckoning with his overconfidence and coaxing out his greatness; and Val Kilmer, angular, beautiful and equally talented as his biggest rival.
As symbolic as the film feels about the decade in which it was made, it’s emblematic of Cruise’s arriving stardom. He leveled up, virtually overnight. He was young and ambitious and dedicated - and ready. In retrospect, TOP GUN’s success seems foregone, an act of will by a star who hadn’t yet announced himself until a perfect concert of talent and effort surrounded and lifted him up. New bonus materials on the 4K edition more or less reiterate this sequence of events as Cruise and his collaborators on MAVERICK examine the journey getting to the place where the actor could come back and make the sequel that everyone else involved always wanted.
If TOP GUN perfectly suited the then-young actor to a star-making role, DAYS OF THUNDER evidenced him offering a glimpse at the person he thought he was, or wanted to be. Outwardly, the film is a carbon copy of TOP GUN, transplanted to the world of stock car racing, down to Tony Scott directing, and an extremely predictable story involving a cocky young talent overcoming some minor personal obstacles to achieve the pinnacle of his craft. (It remains slightly baffling why Cruise needed Robert Towne to co-write the screenplay, but his assistance also indicates what sort of muscle the actor had built up within the industry by that point.) But Cruise leans into the degrees of difference between Cole Trickle, his “nothing I can’t do with a racecar” driver and Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, telling audiences as much about himself as the next character cut from what was becoming a familiar mold.
Where in TOP GUN Maverick came earnestly from a legacy he fought to live up to, Cole’s background feels mostly incidental. He inherits the expectations of his reluctant father figure Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall), but mostly battles to overcome his own expectations and fears, first when he aspires to win big racing, and then to acknowledge and come to terms with his anxieties after surviving a deadly accident. Between his own reluctance to deal with the existential fears of all racers - of losing, of injuring himself permanently, but most of all, of failing to realize his potential and actualize/ define himself - Cruise embraces the opportunity to become the Everyman, or at the very least, the Everyman we all wish we could be.
Cole is already good when the movie starts. He wants to be the best. That fits Cruise’s personality, and his modus operandi, to a tee. But what’s also there that has become synonymous with the actor is a work ethic, a dedication, and a collaborative spirit; after initially butting heads with Harry, he quietly admits what he doesn’t know, asks for help, and volunteers to learn more, and listen. You can’t look at his incredibly filmography, the A-list stars and directors he worked with, and not see that quality as an essential component of his success - even if accompanying press for almost all of his films in recent years hadn’t brightly underscored it. As a movie star, he taps into the most basic, elemental qualities of the human struggle, then makes overcoming it look attainable, and maybe most of all attractive.
That isn’t necessarily something that audiences focused on then, and maybe don’t pay attention to now in the film, enjoyable as DAYS OF THUNDER is. (And it is great; the “Gimme Some Lovin’” montage featuring Spencer Davis Group’s blue-eyed soul classic as Cruise learns the ropes around the track offers some of the best, most fun filmmaking of his career.) But Cruise was learning, and liked to perform in roles where a team effort produced the greatest result, after opportunities to learn, and being unafraid to fail (temporarily), or to get humiliated. The simpler way to look at it is probably that he was eager to showcase vulnerability, but as his career progressed he embraced with greater passion the unflattering and even, finally, unappealing, which only deepened our enjoyment and appreciation of his work.
When you look at WAR OF THE WORLDS, made 15 years later, it’s easy to see a movie star working with the biggest director in the world, possibly in history, and simply see another blockbuster for one of the industry’s all-time biggest earners. But that’s sort of like looking at EYES WIDE SHUT and seeing only a vanity project for a celebrity duo. Cruise repeatedly tried to break and expand expectations for the kinds of roles he could play. MAGNOLIA feels like an active deconstruction of his identity, and his mythos as an actor, personally and professionally. Which is why it’s wild to look at the particulars of Spielberg’s adaptation of the H.G. Wells story, also a proxy for the filmmaker’s post-9/11 anxieties, and see the choices that reveal more about him, and what he wants to do, than ever before.
To be honest, my feelings about WAR OF THE WORLDS are deeply mixed. Spielberg’s collaboration with Janusz Kaminski had already begun to undermine the beauty and uniqueness of his stories by then, but Kaminski absolutely over-uses that blown-out, washed-out aesthetic that just doesn’t suit the story or the feeling of the film. Spielberg’s skill as a director fails to conceal the ways that the story seems to actively follow Cruise’s character, Ray Ferrier, and his children, almost to the exclusion of everyone else. (It works best when he and they are reacting to the generalized panic and uncertainty of each situation, rather than somehow becoming the only car still moving on a standstill highway, for example.) Its existential sense of terror works better than anything that’s localized, and choosing storylines where “man is the worst of all” have become increasingly tedious.
But it’s amazing that Cruise decided to play, effectively, a deadbeat dad in Spielberg’s movie about an end-of-the-world alien invasion. He simply is not a particularly a good person. He’s not especially resourceful. He must learn to be more compassionate and patient over the course of the story. Where in the past he arrived on screen straining towards greatness, here he fights to become even good. And the movie doesn’t relieve him of his responsibilities for the choices that make him a lousy dad, or give him sorrowful monologues explaining why his marriage didn’t work, or - crucially, reward him at the end in any particular way for achieving growth.
Maybe there’s a degree of hubris to be in the position of authority and power and stardom to choose to play a less-then-perfect character like this in a big summer movie directed by the guy who wrote the template for big summer movies. But just a few years before, that’s not even the kind of role he would have considered, or entertained, not with the commercial expectations weighing on his shoulders that that film brought with them.
Since then, Cruise has added so many other fascinating elements to his repertoire, working often with female co-stars to whom his characters are often subordinate, repeatedly demonstrating his ability and aptitude to take more physical risks, and easing gently into roles where he is the mentor rather than the protégé. Meanwhile, TOP GUN, DAYS OF THUNDER and WAR OF THE WORLDS mark important, almost sea-change transitions that would reverberate in smaller, more nuanced and idiosyncratic ways going forward. Which one of the three resonates the most, you remember most vividly, or remains the closest cornerstone to a pivotal moment in your moviegoing history speaks not just to the longevity of his career but his presence in Hollywood, again, as an institution. The arrival of these three films on 4K home video reminds us that even movie stars grow up, and shows us explicitly how they can do so with complexity, intrigue, and grace.