By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 4, 2014 at 12:35PM
Every year, pretty much since the early '80s, we've been granted a cinematic occurrence so regular you can set your watch by it, and so reliable that it's oddly comforting — a new Tom Cruise movie. And 2014 is no different, with the Biggest Movie Star In The World's latest, "Edge of Tomorrow" hitting theaters this weekend. Our first-look reviewers were so split on it that we ran a point/counterpoint review of the Doug Liman movie, but since then a few more of us have seen it, and we’re overall pretty high on it.
Of course, not all the titles over Cruise's long career are summer blockbusters, and not all of them feature him in a starring role. But if there's one type of film that he is most associated with, and that is most responsible for his world-conquering stardom, it's the action film with Cruise at its center, jumping out of buildings and repeatedly saving the world/the girl/democracy/freedom from the clutches of sinister men. "Mission: Impossible 5" is slated to be next year's entry into the canon, with "Jack Reacher 2," the more comedic "El Presidente," and Joseph Kosinski's "Go Like Hell" among many other mooted projects, all pencilled in further out.
Cruise, however, is over 50 and we have to wonder if he's going to be able to keep this up forever. So far so good; "Edge of Tomorrow" sees him punched and kicked and shot and zapped and fried — hell, he dies like 400 times over — at an age when most men are starting to think seriously about taking up golf, but how much longer can the era of Cruise the badass action star last? We kind of take him for granted, but damned if we wouldn't miss him if he were gone. In this elegiac frame of mind, we take a look back over the action films that have brought the actor to this point, rating them from worst to best, from most disposable to most indispensable, because sometimes it feels like Cruise is such an omnipresent brand name that we forget that there's good reason why. Here, in ascending order, are twelve such reasons.
12. “Mission: Impossible II”
It was a pretty close contest between these final two films as to which would take the actual wooden spoon for last place, but, much as we loathe “Days of Thunder,” John Woo’s horrible second installment in the otherwise solid-to-inspired “Mission: Impossible” franchise just manages to pip it at the post in terms of pointlessly overblown vacuity. In fact the film is maybe most memorable now for the series of Ben Stiller riffs it inspired at the MTV movie awards where in various sketches he played Tom Crooze, Cruise’s fictional stand-in/stunt double, who keeps on offering not particularly useful advice to the real Cruise. (It’s saying something when an idea that Crooze suggests, whereby Ethan Hunt should pause mid-motorbike stunt, look to camera and say “This mission just got a whole lot more impossibler” seems like it might actually have been a perfectly natural inclusion in retrospect). The plot is silly, of course, something to do with a deadly virus and its antidote falling into the hands of Dougray Scott’s ex-IMF agent gone rogue, but that’s par for the course for the franchise. More detrimental to enjoyment is the terribly self-serious tone and the lack of anything remotely resembling emotional stakes throughout. Thandie Newton gets one good sequence early on as a sexy cat burglar type, but is quickly thereafter reduced to damsel in distress, and even the face-swapping hi-jinks so enjoyable in the first film are used here at puzzling junctures like it’s a narrative device the writers have to include for contractual purposes but can’t think of anything very clever to do with. All could maybe be forgiven if Woo’s direction was a little more measured, a little wittier, a little more ironic, but no, this is 100% Bon Jovi video bombast all the way, with kinetic editing, helicopter shots and swelling music all being used, often simultaneously, to plug the gaps in storytelling or to provide noisy cover for the fact that we’re watching something as inherently boring as, for instance, Newton standing, looking sad and wan, and waiting.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? If the film has one redeeming sequence, it’s the pre-credits scene where Hunt, doing a little free solo climbing while on holiday in Utah, is contacted by IMF with news of the mission he may choose to accept. Here Woo’s OTT style is reeled in and anchored by some truly impressive physical work from Cruise (who tore a shoulder ligament performing the famous leap from one rock face to another). There’s a simplicity to the sequence, as well as the basic thrill of seeing Cruise do a lot of the work himself, that almost saves the movie from the bottom spot, except that it then highlights just how gimmicky and absurd the whole rest of the film is.
11. “Days of Thunder”
In the pantheon of “Top Gun” rip-offs, there’s none so base and cynical as “Days of Thunder” which had the gall to reunite director Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise with 100% of the plot from the original, merely transposing it to the more earth-bound world of Nascar racing in the hopes that we wouldn’t recognize we were being sold exactly the same package all over again. Only this time involved with a sport that no one gives a hoot about anyway. Featuring the number one stupidest character name ever, Cruise’s Cole Trickle is a bad-boy racecar driver who we’re supposed to get invested in despite being given no reason to (his introduction, riding to the track on a motorbike while screechy rock plays is supposedly all the back story we need). Cruise also fails to spark off Nicole Kidman (who gets exactly one good speech) in a romance subplot which is surprisingly chemistry-free, given that they'd, you know, get married thereafter. In fact the film is such a dull rehash of beats and notes hit so much better in “Top Gun” that it’s kind of impossible not to wish you were watching “Top Gun” instead. Brief flares of interest are occasionally thrown up by the reliable Robert Duvall as Trickle’s crusty but thawing head engineer/crew chief Harry, but even he can’t overcome the plodding dullness of the script, while seeing John C. Reilly play one of the pit crew is kinda fun when you consider how, many years later, he’d be sending up this very film in the also-not-very-good “Talladega Nights.” Some of the driving and crash footage is well done, though again, it can’t help but feel less exhilarating than “Top Gun” being as it’s, you know, road-based and therefore missing a whole extra axis of action that we get with planes, and story elements, like the enemy-who-turns-into-a-friend, or the doing-it-for-my-sick/dead buddy, or the gotta-conquer-my-self-doubt arc all feel tired to the point of exhaustion already, just four years after “Top Gun.”
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? Nothing, sadly, though he does briefly leave the ground while flipping over during a crash. You could also say he launched himself right off the career credibility high point of his Oscar nomination for “Born on the Fourth of July” and plummeted parachute-less to the ground with this leaden retread, but only if you were stretching a point.
10. "Knight & Day" (2010)
The action comedy is a genre that's always tough to get right: perhaps shown by the way that Cruise has tended to be reluctant to get involved with the sub-genre — even on this action-heavy list, there's not a lot of (intentional) laughs to be had. His aversion is probably backed up by James Mangold's "Knight & Day," a bullet-riddled rom-com co-starring Cameron Diaz that, a decade earlier, probably would have been a smash, but circa 2010 massively underperformed after debuting to pretty poor reviews. Diaz plays June, an ordinary woman who encounters a charming stranger (Cruise) on a plane, only for him to be attacked by everyone else on board. It turns out he's a secret agent, on the run from the CIA after allegedly having a break with reality, but who is actually trying to save an inventor (Paul Dano) who's invented a perpetual battery. At least we think that's what's going on. The script famously amassed well over a dozen writers over years in development (and almost as many titles, "Knight & Day" arguably being the worst of them), and it shows, as the plot would be easily dismissed as utter nonsense, except you sense that no one involved actually cares that much about it. It's meant to be the frame for a genre-blending romance, but this sort of thing needs to feel effortless to work, and for the most part, you can sense the flop sweat coming off everyone, from the uninspired, CGI-crippled action sequences to the vacuum of chemistry between the leads. Mangold does do some interesting structural stuff in terms of leaping from location to location, and there's some intrigue on a meta level, given the possibly unhinged nature of Cruise's character, which seems to be a conscious reference to his couch-jumping public persona at the time. He's certainly game (when is he not?), but there's little to recommend of the film beyond his sheer commitment to the role.
What Does Tom Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? For the most part, Cruise's movement is horizontal rather than vertical here, with action sequences on planes, a freeway, a train and a motorbike. There's some light building-jumping, though, and he leaps onto a couple of moving cars during the freeway chase. Oh, and off a boat, at one point, which might be a first in the Cruise canon.