"THIS IS A FUN, funny action movie with science-fiction smarts, deft satire, a nail-biter of a plot, and lots of cool explosions. If you see a better popcorn movie this summer, it's going to be a very good summer indeed." Thus spake Ned Lannamann in the Mercury in June, reviewing the latest Tom Cruise vehicle, Edge of Tomorrow. Ned was right, but you wouldn't know it from the funeral dirge that seems to play whenever the film's title is mentioned: Edge of Tomorrow never got traction with American audiences. And so: more talk about how Cruise's once-bright star is on the wane.
I prefer to think Cruise has a whole lot left to show us—and I'm guessing LA Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson feels the same way. Her new book, Anatomy of an Actor: Tom Cruise—which bears the Cahiers du Cinéma stamp of approval—breaks down 10 of Cruise's key roles, starting with 1983's Risky Business and ending with 2011's Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, crafting a kind of biography out of Cruise's filmography. Nicholson hits the big roles (Top Gun, Magnolia, Born on the Fourth of July), leaves out some that seem ripe for examination (Collateral, Rain Man), and includes a few wild cards (Interview with the Vampire, Tropic Thunder). What emerges is a weird, intense portrait of Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, gleaned through deeply researched publicity interviews, DVD commentaries, and a keen analysis of Cruise's films. Cruise, to the surprise of no one, comes across as a driven, controlling man who tirelessly chases excellence, acclaim, and the best collaborators, from Steven Spielberg to Paul Thomas Anderson to Stanley Kubrick. "I'd rather not work than do bad films," Cruise said in 1985, and looking at his impressive IMDB page, one finds that he's largely managed to stay true to that maxim.
Nicholson, sharp-eyed but fair, digs deep into Cruise's roles—finding the nervous, insecure kid inside Top Gun's Maverick, figuring out why the usually natural Cruise reads so flat in Eyes Wide Shut, and dissecting his perfectly weighted Magnolia breakdowns. It's in the strange minutia that Cruise's determination shines through, like his cannily calculated weight loss to get yuppie-kid flab in Risky Business or practicing in his bathtub for weeks so that, on Spielberg's cue, he could release a single bubble of air from his nose for an underwater shot in Minority Report. ("I just had to figure out how to get the air and then just control my nostril.") But even if Cruise's tactics seem mechanical, Nicholson never forgets what made him a star: That all his work builds to a seemingly effortless onscreen appeal.
In her focus on Cruise's acting and film choices, there are spots left lacking—Nicholson only briefly looks at whether Cruise's increasing focus on science-fiction films parallels his adherence to Scientology. (Lawrence Wright's outstanding Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, in which Cruise plays a major role, feels like a necessary companion piece.) But any doubt as to whether Nicholson covers what's really important in Cruise's sublime, ridiculous career is banished when she devotes an entire page to Cruise's unmistakable run. "In Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol alone, Cruise runs in a dust storm, he runs in traffic, and he even runs down the side of a skyscraper," Nicholson writes. "Actress Jessica Chastain claims he influenced her sprinting in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), for which she won a Best Actress Academy Award nomination."
Yes, in case you were wondering: Cruise does run in Edge of Tomorrow, and it's glorious.