"The Outsiders" (1983)
If "Taps" gave Cruise a taste of what it would be like to be part of a generation of upcoming actors, he hit the motherload by getting cast in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Outsiders," alongside Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Diane Lane. Based on S.E. Hinton's novel of the same name, the film is certainly beautiful to look at, and wants to be epic in scope and sweep, but somehow the story doesn't quite have the grand heft and thematic resonance it really needs. But does it really matter when the cast is this pretty? Again, Cruise takes a less central role than those actors he would soon and forever eclipse in terms of star power, but it is notable from his point of view, because here, despite some spitty, snarly play-acting, greasy hair and snaggly teeth, we discern for the first time Cruise's heartthrob potential, even in amongst so many heartthrobs. They play a gang of underprivileged kids who are involved in a rivalry with a wealthier gang that spirals out of control when one of the richer kids is killed in a brawl, and as such this also marks a rare time that Cruise would play a true outcast, a reject (as opposed to a principled loner) -- future roles may have given him a blue-collar background, but defining Cruise characters are almost always successful in adapting to, and ultimately winning within whatever social circle they aspire to. But while Cruise may be overshadowed in terms of screen time and performance this time out by the likes of Macchio and Howell, especially, according to Lowe, already back then, he was displaying the "traits that would make him famous. He's zeroed in like a laser." Lowe also recounts how even this early on, his agent and future production partner Paula Wagner was a hugely important figure in Cruise's life. Retrospectively it's tempting to ascribe a good deal of the efficient upward trajectory of his early career to her guiding intelligence -- sheer luck and raw talent can't wholly account for zero-to-hero in just five films, after all.
"Losin' It" (1983)
But if with 'Outsiders' and "Taps" Cruise might have been in danger of being pigeonholed into the "volatile friend" supporting role, his next two films would be in one of the defining genres of the era -- the teen sex comedy -- and would put paid to any such notions. "Risky Business" would of course be his breakout, before "Top Gun" three years later would rocket, or fighter jet him to superstardom, but prior to that came "Losin' It," the justly overlooked "one crazy night"-style story of a bunch of high school kids heading to Tijuana for an evening of debauchery. No prizes for guessing what the "it" is that these boys are hoping to lose. Really, in tracing the evolution of Cruise into the star we know today, "Losin It" is most notable for being the first time he really had the lead role, even if that doesn't clearly emerge until a little later in the film. So of the three friends who go on the trip, Dave (Jackie Earle Haley -- apparently born looking about 35) is the wildcard motormouth who can't keep it in his pants, Spider (John Stockwell) is the goodlooking jock who gets into fights and tries to bribe policemen while Woody (Cruise) is the sweet, slightly nebbish friend who chickens out of losing his virginity to a prostitute and is instead deflowered in a much more romantic manner by the young housewife (Shelley Long) to whom they gave a lift to TJ for a quickie divorce. So it's a romantic lead of sorts, inasmuch as this sort of film ever provided one of those, but it's Haley's wired, twitchy, OTT performance that steals what little there is to take here. A sort of interesting moment happens at the end when Long's husband reappears, but it's way too little too late in what is otherwise a tiresome palaver of a film, featuring a neat line in casual racism and a pretty revolting sexist streak that may have been par for the course at the time, but dates the film badly now. The real surprise here is that Curtis Hanson is the director. So it's not only an early low point for Cruise, then.
"Risky Business" (1983)
And so we come to the end of our journey, with a little film you may have heard of: "Risky Business" -- only the third of four films that Cruise would release in 1983 (the last being "All The Right Moves"). The story of a privileged, Princeton-bound teen who gets into trouble while his parents are away and, with the help of the call girl he falls for (Rebecca de Mornay) hits on the wizard scheme of running a one-night brothel to pay off his various debts, on paper it's not the most promising of star-making vehicles. But Cruise really goes for it, and somewhere around the time he slides into the living room sporting nothing but socks, a pink shirt and a candlestick/microphone, it appears the world woke up to Tom Cruise TM. It helps that the film, though it roughly shares a genre with the same year's vastly inferior "Losin' It," is an altogether sharper, tighter, better-written affair (writer/director Paul Brickman seldom gets enough props for that), so that it comes across more as satire than slapstick, spicing it's caper-ish antics with some fairly pointed commentary. And Cruise is really very good in it, navigating the trickier aspects of his character's moral ambivalence with ease, and turning in a confident performance that would set up the cocksure but charming persona he would default to time and again in the coming years, most notably with "Top Gun." In fact, it's the first evidence we really have of the central conundrum of Cruise's star image: in anyone else, that air of smugness -- the expectation that the world will give him what he wants because it owes him -- would be totally off-putting. But maybe Cruise's greatest talent is knowing just when to pull back from the brink of all-out arrogance and show us something real, or goofy, or awkward underneath the bravado. It's those moments, which catch the light like the flaws in a diamond, that stop us from despising his character here and in future incarnations. And that's maybe as close as we're going to get to explaining his long-lasting appeal: Cruise can behave like an asshole, he can win the way assholes win, but he gives us just bare-minimum-enough of a glimpse inside to let us believe he's not, in fact, an asshole. Cue Moms wanting to rescue him; cue teenage girls sighing over the tenderness they spy within; cue teenage boys furiously taking notes. Cue stardom.
The rest is, of course, movie history. Next up, in 2014, Cruise will be jumping out of buildings in 3D in service of yet another sci-fi epic in Doug Liman's "All You Need Is Kill," which sounds kinda like "Groundhog Day" with warring aliens (proper synopsis here), potentially to be followed by Rupert Sanders' "Van Helsing," and/or Guy Ritchie's "The Man From UNCLE" before the probably Christopher McQuarrie-directed "Mission Impossible 5" arrives in 2015. Nope, Cruise ain't going nowhere. Except maybe out the window of that skyscraper one more time.