Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Tom Cruise
Overview: Arguably the biggest star on this list and Planet Earth, Tom Cruise can act -- that is... when he wants to (see this Cruise Essentials list for evidence and or this list of Early Performances Before He Was Famous.) The problem with Tom Cruise, like many of these A-listers, is he usually doesn't get out of bed unless there's he’s taking on some kind of huge event movie or tentpole. In other words, Tom Cruise does nothing small and the days of the megastar taking a minor, but essential, part in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie (see "Magnolia," one of Cruise's finest performances) may be a thing of the past. Cruise generally only uses his green light power -- choosing what he deigns to appear in and what is thus instantly whisked into production -- for blockbuster franchises or would-be franchises and very little else.
The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Admittedly, the star has put his green light power behind two "original" high concept films in the last 12-18 months (yes, original being a very relative term.) One, he greenlit Joseph Kosinski’s ambitious sci-fi movie “Oblivion” which was so expensive it would never have been made had Cruise or some other A-lister agreed to star in it (quality wise, well, we’re not talking about that now are we...) He agreed to star in “All You Need Is Kill,” another sci-fi project from auteur Doug Liman, based around effects and time travel. ‘Kill’ arguably wasn’t getting made unless Cruise stepped up to the plate, which he did. We would argue that Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie” falls into this category, even if it attempts the ridiculous hero-complexing of turning a Nazi (Cruise of course) into a good guy. His hilariously unexpected turn as Les Grossman in "Tropic Thunder" is probably his best left-field choice in ages, but the mooted solo Grossman film seems more dubious. Yes, there are the "Collateral"s of the world, but they feel like a lifetime ago and another era.

The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”: “Evil” being relative, obviously. Cruise, as we noted above tends to take a lot of safe blockbuster choices that will not only do financially well at the box-office, but maybe even more importantly, will reaffirm his position as the world’s biggest star. And he’s not even looking for financial windfalls; Cruise could never spend all the money he’s made in his lifetime. His choices appear to be simply to retain and polish his status. So that means “Mission Impossible” movies that vary in quality and occasionally take on some interesting directors and it means a lot of would-be franchise like “Jack Reacher” (which probably failed in that respect) and the aforementioned “All You Need Is Kill” (which makes the Liman project less appealing.) One could even cynically argue that “Oblivion” leaves the door open for sequels. Even an original project with a respectable director (“Knight and Day” with James Mangold) seemed to be geared towards the lowest common denominator.
Future Projects: Cruise obviously has “Mission Impossible 5in the works mostly to just continue his A-list, box-office hegemony, but don’t expect “Jack Reacher” director Christopher McQuarrie to ultimately helm it. Cruise wants another mega-hit and McQuarrie has probably demonstrated that he can’t deliver there yet (though evidence of ultimate “good” would be Cruise taking another chance on the writer-turned-director.) There's remake of the "The Magnificent Seven" which feels all too safe, and we suppose Cruise dropping out of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ,” a surefire franchise, could be seen as a good sign, but it’s possible that script just sucks. If you really want to hear obnoxious however, rewind to 2008 where Cruise lorded over five projects (including David Cronenberg’s “The Matarese Circle”) and decided which one he would take. Essentially interested, but not sold on any of them, he hired McQuarrie to punch them all up to his liking/specifications and then in the end he chose “Knight & Day” (blech) and “Valkryie” (meh).
In Summary: Regardless of our assessment of "Oblivion" and some of his other recent films, Cruise isn’t as bad as some of the people on this list. Yes, times have changed, but we’d love to see him take on another “Collateral”-like character drama for once. He tips towards the evil, but sadly, Johnny Depp makes everyone look good these days.

Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt
If you’d told us in the early nineties that the eye candy boy from “Thelma and Louise” and “A River Runs Through It” was going to mature into maybe one of the most committed and interesting star/producers in Hollywood, we’d have probably not believed it (in our defense, we’d have barely been a teenager.) But starting perhaps with his terrific, tragic turn in David Fincher’s “Se7en” which the actor took as a reaction against “the pretty boy stuff,” Pitt deviated from the path we might have prescribed for him in a quietly impressive way. For every all-out, tentpole, name-above-the-title gig (“Troy,” “Mr & Mrs Smith,”) there’ve been several big films in which Pitt was content to take a smaller role, often within an ensemble, (“Twelve Monkeys,” “Snatch,” the ‘Oceans’ trilogy, “Inglourious Basterds”) and several other films from fledgling or auteur directors that feel like they were more about getting the film made than bumping his profile (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Moneyball” even “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”) As misleading as this might be, a glimpse at Pitt’s filmography therefore gives the impression that, unlike some of the other actors we feature here, Pitt’s primary focus has never been on making sure he stays super-famous -- instead he uses his profile to help get prestige projects made and in the process lands himself some plum roles (“Tree of Life,” ‘Assassination.’) We can’t help but feel that in the topsy-turvy world of Hollywood, Pitt may be one of the only stars going about this the right way round.
The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Pitt earned our admiration in a big way in 2011 when he singlehandedly (and this is according to superproducer Scott Rudin) brought “Moneyball” back from the brink of death following Sony baulking at the original Soderbergh-directed package. That film, finally directed by Bennett Miller, turned out to be a terrific, smart, adult drama, amply rewarding Pitt’s faith and perseverance, and also giving him one of his best recent roles. His involvement in “Tree of Life” (which would probably have gotten made without him, in fairness, but still) and “Killing Them Softly” haven’t hurt his image as the thinking-filmgoer’s superstar of choice either, especially as both of them boast roles for him as an actor that, while integral, are not necessarily the leads, and certainly not what anyone would call “heroes” (Mr Smith & Mr Cruise could take note.)

The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”: Of course, one big test of Pitt’s clout will be the notoriously troubled, soon-arriving “World War Z.” While early word on the film is mixed-to-positive, and therefore maybe better than we’d feared, the first trailers, the reports of director/star clashes (uncharacteristic for Pitt, it should be said) and the significant alteration of the story from its source novel all have us a bit muted in our expectation here. It’s a shame though, because when we initially heard that Pitt’s Plan B shingle had taken the rights to Max Brooks’ zombie novel, we were excited, hoping that Pitt & Co would recognise that the genius of the book lay in the docu-realist way it portrayed the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, and that a small-scale “District 9”-style production could do it great justice without necessarily breaking the bank. Instead, Pitt seems to have seen in it a potential franchise-starter (his first) and we have hordes of zombies pouring through city streets and a beefed-up central hero role for Pitt himself… we’ll reserve judgement for now, but reports of cost overruns and a fractious set have already dented Pitt’s crown a bit. 
Future Projects: That said, Pitt is taking an acting/producing role on Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years A Slave” too, and if even a quarter of his other 26 currently listed developing projects come to pass (our fingers are especially crossed for "The Fortress of Solitude" among others,) there’ll more than likely be enough to expunge the memory of any missteps. Plan B does take a lot of risks with the material they champion, so we guess that Pitt needs to refresh his big-star tentpole relevance every now and then in order to be able to continue with his good works elsewhere. We can chalk 'Z' down to that if needs be... and meantime we can anticipate the David Ayer-directed WWII tank movie "Fury" which is due in 2014 and in its combination of action and drama again sees Pitt aiming slightly higher than some of his contemporaries, into that territory where smarts and action/adventure meet.
In Summary: Pitt's a force for good, we believe. It feels (mostly) like he seeks out projects and filmmakers he believes in passionately, and only secondarily to that does he look for what those films can do for him.

(Sort Of) Honorable Mention
Well, that’s kind of it. Thanks to “Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” (which could surpass the former at the billion plus box-office gross), Robert Downey Jr. will soon be joining this club. His Team Downey production shingle is already starting to develop projects that, like DiCaprio, he will self-green light by starring in them ("Perry Mason," "Pinocchio" "Yucatan"). And his Marvel movies are giving him more clout, but it remains to be seen how he’ll use it exactly -- and how he’ll have the time -- if he’s going to re-up for “Avengers 2 & 3” and “Iron Man 4.” There’s George Clooney too, and while he’s too old to greenlight blockbusters -- see him dropping out of Soderbergh’s version of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” because of his back problems (Clooney himself has ruled himself out of these kinds of gigs because he simply can’t endure it physically,) he does have some power. You’ll recall that Alfonso Cuaron needed some big male star to help greenlight his long-in-gestation sci-fi epic “Gravity.” At first it was Robert Downey Jr. and when he dropped out, Cuaron went to Clooney. So it’s not like his draw is entirely gone. It’s also that Clooney’s preoccupations are more about mid-size dramas than A-listers using their clout for gigantic projects. Anyhow, your thoughts? What’s your take on how we've sized up some of the world’s biggest stars? -- Jessica Kiang, Rodigo Perez