Tom Cruise: The Man Inside the Machine

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Believe it or not, it’s not easy being Tom Cruise. Over the weekend, Tom Cruise’s latest big-budget scifi-actioner Edge of Tomorrow opened. To be polite, the box office returns left this $178 million picture well over the edge of being a box-office bomb with just over $29 million domestically, coming in 3rd place. In the film his character Bill Cage fights a superior and innumerable opponent in these organic machine aliens known as Mimics. This isn’t too dissimilar from where Cruise stands right now against the immeasurable tides of sequels, reboots and franchises. It almost makes Edge of Tomorrow autobiographical on Cruise’s part as he’s one of the only movie stars at his level not churning out a franchise film every year or two. And to go along with that theory, just as Cage is connected to the network that powers the Mimics, Cruise is certainly engaged with the studio system. In his own way, he’s engaging with the system to fight it. We may be witnessing one of the most interesting periods of Cruise’s career. The problem is that audiences aren’t paying to see it like they used to. Just as Matthew McConaughey had his McConaissance beginning with Tropic Thunder, Tom Cruise also had his own reinvention and risk-taking career moves following his hilarious performance as Les Grossman. Granted not all of them were wins, even creatively. This will hopefully be the only time in this article I mention the terrible Rock of Ages. But even in that dump, he was giving it his all as jaded rockstar Stacee Jaxx. Bad film and not a great performance, but I can’t stay mad at Cruise for trying to shake things up like he did with picking that role. The past 3 years have seen some Cruise taking chances on films and directors that besides Rock of Ages, range from sort of good (Oblivion) to really good (Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow) to downright fantastic (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol). For the types of films they were, they were surprisingly fresh and had Cruise giving it his honest best. But besides the last Mission: Impossible, they were of the least economically successful films in his career. Why?

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His faith in innovative directors shows in how he handles the franchise he helped create. With the stellar Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol he turned to the least likely of candidates with a director whose only previous experience came in animation: Brad Bird. It was a winning bet, with the film being arguably the best film in the franchise, and certainly the most profitable film in the series with a whopping $694 million worldwide intake, besting the 2nd highest grossing film in the series by $140 million. The rest of his gambles on directors haven’t panned out the same way however. He took a gamble on a young director with Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, with the bland but visually engaging Tron: Legacy being the director’s only previous credit. Like his debut, Oblivion suffered storywise, but was a visual treat with Cruise’s performance a capable one. What made this movie so unique in today’s landscape is that it was a big budget science fiction film not based on something with a pre-existing audience that would spend money on it. This shows Cruise is one of the only people with enough good will in Hollywood to convince a studio to spend $120 million on something that is a considerable gamble. Unfortunately it only grossed $89 million domestically, so Cruise is certainly thankful that overseas audiences picked up the slack and had the worldwide return more than double the budget with a $286 million worldwide gross.

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He broke Christopher McQuarrie out of director’s prison with the high profile adaptation of the Lee Child character Jack Reacher, which was McQuarrie’s first directing gig in 12 years since his fantastic but unseen debut The Way of the Gun. Because of the box office failure, McQuarrie was practically blacklisted from directing, but still added his talents to several studio screenplays throughout the next decade. After working with Cruise on the script for Valkyrie, Cruise lent his star power to get Jack Reacher made. Though a solidly impressive and slick classic thriller, the film failed to connect with domestic audiences, only grossing $15 million on opening weekend and minimally besting its $60 million budget with an $80 million return. Overseas it did well enough to thankfully warrant a sequel with Cruise and McQuarrie returning for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Cruise is sticking to his guns and continuing his well placed good faith in McQuarrie by giving him the keys to the Cruise franchise kingdom with the helm of Mission: Impossible 5. This is the kind of box office surefire that Cruise needs right now, and the bonus for us is that he cares about this franchise just as much as any film he’s done. For Edge of Tomorrow he turned to Doug Liman, a director who hadn’t made a film with a pulse since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The gamble paid off creatively, resulting in one of Liman’s best efforts behind the camera. It is a lively and fun picture, a fresh Summer action piece that isn’t seen enough these days. Despite the 3rd act being a bit of a letdown, it didn’t undercut the preceding inventive 2 acts. A solid and surprisingly fresh film shone bright, but a $29 million opening weekend against its $178 million budget isn’t good news for anyone.

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Cruise is taking risks and chances a movie star of his caliber doesn’t necessarily need to in order to keep his pay grade. He’ll go above and beyond to please audiences – he’ll scale the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol for your applause and die repeatedly and gruesomely for his detractors in Edge of Tomorrow. In a world where just about anything is possible with CGI, Cruise is one of the last movie stars to insist on doing stunts himself. Whatever you’re watching him do on screen, you can trust that that’s really him doing it. Cruise is turning 52 next month and even though he looks a good decade younger and can perform physical feats guys half his age can’t, it seems he’s still not enough to combat the tides of sequels, reboots and franchises that have become the top priority for studios. Franchises are machines that practically print money, and anything else is just done on good will by studios. He’s managed to greenlight some ambitious films for ambitious directors recently, but that good will may be dwindling with Edge of Tomorrow sadly being the latest of his films to fall flat at the box office. In Edge of Tomorrow his character gets to relive the same day when he makes a mistake and dies, over and over until he can find a way to change the larger outcome of the war. Unfortunately, Cruise won’t be able to redo his every mishap like Bill Cage can, but knowing Cruise he certainly won’t stop trying. I just hope audiences are willing to pay to see it. Box Office numbers via Box Office Mojo

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