Ground control to Major Tom

Brian D. Johnson May 15 2006

Ground control to Major Tom

Brian D. Johnson May 15 2006


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Ground control to Major Tom


He’s Hollywood’s last action hero, but can he save the movies? BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON


He’s the biggest movie star on the planet. With a new movie, a new baby, an adoring young fiancée, and hordes of adoring fans, he also acts like the happiest man on the planet. There’s just one catch: he doesn’t seem to be of this planet. Jetting around the globe to promote Mission: Impossible III, Cruise has been doing everything in his power to reassure us that he’s as normal as a superstar can be—getting mobbed, signing autographs, grinning his face off and raving about the joy of changing diapers. But it’s like watching one of those human clones in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You can’t help feeling that it’s an act, and wondering if, behind those shades, there’s anybody home.

Cruise may be Hollywood’s last action hero, at least in the traditional vein. Clint, Sly and Arnie have retired from the fray. Mel is working for a higher power. Russell turned ugly. Brad is lazing around with Angelina in his own gated African country. So Tom is left to play Captain America. His mission: to rescue Hollywood from seven years of steady free fall at the box office. This summer, M:i:III, a US$150-million adrenalin machine, is the

first major salvo of the season. And Cruise, the only actor who’s starred in five movies grossing more than US$400 million, is the industry’s designated saviour.

But its top gun is a loose cannon. In last week’s promotional blitz, he tore around Manhattan by helicopter, speedboat, motorcycle, fire truck and chartered subway trainoffering himself up for worship like a royal on some demented goodwill tour. And when Hollywood’s biggest star comes across as a freak, it begs the question: are we witnessing the dinosaur death rattle of the action blockbuster? Not unlike America itself, a nation mired in its own mission impossible, Hollywood’s war machine of action-adventure seems to have lost the plot.

Ever since Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ushered in the space age of high-tech fantasy in the late ’70s, the special effects have not stopped escalating. While independent films have clung to the dramatic high ground of story and character, Hollywood abandoned adult audiences and developed an arms trade in pyrotechnics. A curious thing happened. As the weaponry got more robotic, so did the stars. There was a devolutionary leap from Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry to

Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, from Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator to Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

What always distinguished Cruise from other action heroes was his earnest, Everyman charm. He’s the eternal boy wonder. He’s also been willing to plunge into risky roles, such as Eyes Wide Shut, in which he was sadistically miscast by Stanley Kubrick. But Cruise is hopeless at vulnerability. He has to keep moving. Whether dancing in his underwear in Risky Business or bouncing off the walls in Jerry Maguire, he’s always treated acting as an extreme sport.

The one time I interviewed him, a few years back, it was like meeting a potentate from some bizarre republic. As I sat waiting for him in an empty hotel room, various publicists kept checking in to report his progress with GPS precision, counting down the minutes as if anticipating the landing of the space shuttle. This was Cruise’s first interview of the morning. When he arrived, he bolted through the doorway with such energy that he actually tripped over the threshold and had to stop himself from falling on his face. In an industry where stardom is, by nature, blasé, you had to admire his enthusiasm, even if he wore his charm like a warhead.

He stands a mere five foot seven. At 43, he has the smooth, buffed body of a middleaged boy, and the heat-shield grin of a superstar who manages to deflect and magnify media attention all at once. Then there’s that resolute brow, the intense gaze of someone who makes thinking look like an athletic feat, an act of sheer will. It makes you wonder what on earth he’s trying to prove.

Cruise hasn’t given a lot of interviews for M:i:III. And when he does open his mouth, all he can talk about is how he just wants to get back to Kate, and change little Suri’s diapers. After creeping us out with the couchjumping escapade on Oprah and the Scientology rants, it seems that damage control, or Cruise control, has set in: the best PR strategy for this star is containment.

But Teflon Tom seems immune to bad press. Even at the height of his most unhinged behaviour, War of the Worlds—the movie everyone predicted he would sabotage with his loony antics—went on to gross more than US$600 million worldwide. And there’s no reason to expect M:i:III won’t be a huge hit, even if its plot seems as implausible as its star.

Last week, while Cruise worked the crowds, his director was happy to do the talking. J.J. Abrams, the brains behind Alias and Lost, was hired to write and direct M:i:III after Cruise, its producer, had burned through a string of writer-directors, pulling the plug on an earlier production just weeks before shooting was set to begin. Incongruously,

Abrams has made his feature debut with the biggest budget movie of Cruise’s career. And he talks about his star in rhapsodic terms.

“I was nervous because this was Tom’s baby,” Abrams told Maclean’s last week in Toronto. “But he said, ‘Look, I want this to beJ.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible. I’m your actor.’ Every day I expected the whole thing to fall apart. But he never once wavered. He never undermined, mandated, micro-managed, controlled, second-guessed. All he had to do was be a little bit of a diva, and it would have thrown everything off. On the set, people would be saying, ‘Okay, here’s TV Boy, let’s see how he does.’ Everybody was looking to Tom, to see how Tom would treat TV Boy. But he treated me like I had made a dozen films, like this was my set and my movie.” Maybe Cruise needed Abrams more than Abrams needed Cruise. There are many reasons why Hollywood’s box office is slipping, from piracy to DVD sales, but there’s a sense that audiences have become tired of special effects. There’s a hunger for story. Television drama, which tends to be a writer-driven medium, can teach the movies a thing or two about storytelling.

The first two Mission: Impossible movies bore the fetishistic signature of their directors.

Brian De Palma’s Mission was intriguing to the point of being incomprehensible, and John Woo’s acrobatic spectacle was dazzling yet meaningless. With M:i:III, Abrams puts the franchise through narrative detox. This is a streamlined thriller with a relatively straight story that attempts to wrap the action around a core of emotional intimacy.

Cruise reprises his role as super-spy Ethan Hunt, but he’s now besotted with romance. His fiancée (Michelle Monaghan) has no idea what he does for a living. And when Hunt tells his teammates (Ving Rhames, Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) that he’s in love, they’re skeptical. Romance is not for “people like us,” says Rhames’s character. “At some point, you got to get over this whole getting-married thing.” The lines carry an unfortunate resonance. He could be lecturing Tom about the business of being a superstar: get over yourself, shut up about the girl and do the damn job.

But saving America isn’t as easy as it used to be. In M:i:III, it requires some ludicrous multi-tasking. Take this typical night’s work for Ethan Hunt: after a massive firefight, Hunt rescues a female hostage, and in a helicopter that weaves through a maze of wind turbines in the dark, chased by heat-seeking

missiles, he defibrillates her in an attempt to short-circuit a lethal detonator implanted in her brain by stopping and restarting her heart.

Aside from the baroque twists of action, the actual plot follows a predictable arc. We know that by the end, our hero will be rescuing the love of his life, who’s been taken hostage by the movie’s villain, a psychopathic arms dealer named Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Davian is trying to get his hands on some mysterious gizmo called “the rabbit’s foot” that’s never explained—in Hitchcock coinage, it’s what’s known as a “McGuffin.”


You have to wonder about a star’s likeability when you find yourself identifying with the villain’s desire to inflict pain on him. Without moving a muscle, and barely raising his voice, Hoffman softly blows Cruise off the screen.

Meanwhile, in a post-9/ll world, no spy thriller is complete without a moral aside on the venality of American foreign policy. A U.S. intelligence official admits to provoking havoc to reap political capital. While acknowledging that M:i:III is summer popcorn fare, Abrams says, “I didn’t want to make a vapid movie. I’m horrified by much of what I see done in the name of America, and that argument is evident in the film— there’s a character whose approach is that America is this Machiavellian, insidious machine that creates world chaos and disorder for the very purpose of going in to fix

things up. This is maybe ludicrous to be talking about when the subject is Mission: Impossible III, but for Western civilization the question is: how can you survive without becoming as evil as those you are fighting?” He’s right. It’s ludicrous. M:i:III is an entertaining diversion. Cruise, who performs many of his own stunts (and presumably cries his own tears) is an impressive competitor. But it’s like watching the luge. In the end, who cares? The heroism he embodies seems so removed from any human or political reality, that it’s hard to get emotionally engaged. There’s nothing at stake. Compare it to United 93, the harrowing thriller about the attacks of Sept. 11. With no stars, and one tenth the budget of M:i:III, it’s the most visceral suspense movie to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It dramatizes a catastrophe that seemed unreal when it happened—everyone said “It’s like a movie.” Now that 9/11 is a movie, it feels more real than when it was unfolding on live TV. This was the film America was afraid to see, a drama that offers no escape, but it has scored well enough at the box office that it’s clear some audiences want more than meaningless diversion.

Cruise’s manic grandstanding is living proof that celebrity, Hollywood’s floating currency, is being devalued by runaway inflation. He now seems as disconnected from reality as George W. Bush—who borrowed Tom’s Top Gun persona when he donned a flight suit on an aircraft carrier to declare premature victory in the Iraq war. Action heroes are Hollywood’s biggest export. Pop culture’s corollary to American foreign policy, they serve as global icons of military bravado. And between the big screen and DVD sales, these movies still make pots of money. No matter how freaky he acts offscreen, Commando Cruise may still be the man to save the summer box office. But as a heroic fantasy figure, an American fighting machine bent on saving the world, he’s a living anachronism, a star athlete in a game that’s lost all meaning. And it makes you wonder: who will save Tom Cruise from himself? M