What a Difference “Ghost Protocol” Makes

5 Jan
2011-mission-impossible-iv-role-posters_1600x1200_94935

Good morning, Mr. Cruise. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to kick major box-office butt over the holidays. It will help if you hire The Incredibles’ Brad Bird to direct.

When I began writing the Confessions of a Movie Queen blog over the summer, I’d always intended to write about Cruise’s movie Collateral one day–and maybe Valkyrie, too, eventually. Cruise’s astonishing comeback with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is an indicator that the time has come, so ready or not…

Well, unless you’re an avid moviegoer and/or a voracious fan who reads just about anything and everything related to the biz, you might not know that for the past two weekends, the #1 movie in the country has been Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol [1] starring the one and only Tom Cruise, the biggest star of the past 2-3 decades whose career took a stumble a few short years ago. The reason? He incurred some bad publicity by jumping on a sofa and boldly proclaiming his love for a new lady friend during a taping of Oprah. Cruise’s little stunt made him a bit of a laughing stock, and the media had a field day mocking him for his, what, adolescent enthusiasm, which I always thought was unfortunate. After all, didn’t a king across the pond once resign in order to be closer to the woman he loved? People thought that was romantic. They thought Cruise was foolish, but I ask you, which of these things was actually important to the well-being of an entire nation?  John Lennon once said something to the effect that he didn’t mind if people laughed at some of his antics with wife Yoko On0–such as the infamous “bed-in”–because there wasn’t enough laughter in the world, and, boy, did people laugh at Cruise, pouncing on his every word and deed, second guessing his every move for the next 2-3 years, but the masses’ distaste didn’t stop at laughter. Sumner Redstone, the commander and lord supreme at the top of Viacom, the conglomerate that owns Paramount, where Cruise had had a longstanding production deal,  dismissed him in a most public fashion, effectively saying that a man like Cruise was no longer the kind of person with which Viacom should be associated (though that’s the new Paramount logo at the beginning of Ghost Protocol, isn’t it?);  meanwhile, Katie Holmes, Cruise’s girlfriend, and now wife, was told her services were no longer required for future episodes of the newly relaunched Batman franchise.

Again, why was there all this commotion? Because a grown man let his enthusiasm for his newly recharged love life get the best of him? Really? We’re such a cynical society when we start chastising people for proclaiming their love for one another. After all, here’s what Cruise didn’t do:

  • He had not left his wife for his new love; they’d been divorced for a few years
  • His new love, while younger than he, was not jail bait
  • He wasn’t busted with a prostitute, stripper, or “rent-boy”
  • He did not throw a cell phone at any one
  • He was not caught cheating at sports
  • He did not commit a felony and then stage a fake crime scene in order to cover his tracks
  • He did not post lewd photos of himself on the Internet
  • He did not slug a reporter
  • He was not caught driving drunk
  • He did not use racist/sexist epithets
  • He did not stomp off a set in a drug fueled huff and jeopardize the jobs of his crew
  • He did not elope in a frenzy of lust and file for divorce only a few days later
  • He was not caught shoplifting
  • He did not pass out from a drug induced stupor in the bedroom of a neighbor
  • He was not hauled downtown in the wee hours of the morning for waking up his neighbors while playing bongos in the nude

I think you get the picture.  I’ve always thought that Cruise was in many ways a victim of religious intolerance, that is, that he’s  been penalized simply for his affiliation with the so-called cult of Scientology. The truth is, while I have absolutely no desire to become a Scientologist, or to even read one word of the group’s literature, I actually kind of applaud Cruise for sticking to his beliefs, especially when those beliefs are protected by the Constitution of the United States. The truth is, we have freedom of religion in this country, per the First Amendment, and I’m good with that. Cruise has as much right to practice Scientology as anyone else has to practice the religion of his/her choice; however, there is a lot of bigotry in this country directed at anyone who’s not a Christian, and that’s a slippery slope. Don’t get me wrong: I have read a little about Scientology, and I have to admit that it sounds a little suspect. Of course, I have to consider the source. Did the person who wrote a fairly damning piece about the group have an axe to grind? If so, can I really trust that the writer of said piece was objective and relied on credible, verifiable information to support his/her claims? Also, I have to admit that people who’ve been raised to believe one creation myth are not likely to embrace a religion or philosophy that presents an alternative, which is why religion is a matter of faith, but I digress.

Another truth is that whatever I might think about Cruise as a person, I’m really more about who he is as a movie star. Once again, I worked in the movie biz for 22 years, and, to a point, I’d rather play a hit movie over a dud any day. By the time I quit the biz in 2004, I was at the point where I was embarrassed to take people’s money for the crap we were playing, but that was seldom the case with a Tom Cruise movie, and boy, could his name help sell tickets. Here are some stats from the annual Quigley poll in 2006 when Cruise was voted the top star by theatre exhibitors (the people who own and operate movie theatres) fresh from the success of the War of the Worlds remake with Steven Spielberg (that movie managed to escape the bad rush of publicity that would snowball for awhile):

  • Cruise has been voted number one in the Quigley poll 7 times
  • He has placed in the top 10 of the Quigley poll 18 times

To put that in context, consider the following:

  • Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Burt Reynolds and Bing Crosby have been voted number one 5 times each
  • Doris Day, Shirley Temple, and John Wayne snagged first place finishes 4 times each
  • John Wayne still has a leg up on Cruise in that the former was voted in the top 10 a staggering 25 times between 1949 and 1974

Still, when Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire hit the 100 million dollar mark in early 1997 (I believe the same weekend as the Golden Globes), he became the first actor–ever–to star in 5 consecutive films that hit that magic number at the box office: A Few Good Men (1992), The Firm (1993), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Mission Impossible (1996), and Jerry Maguire (1996). Of course, that wasn’t the last time a Cruise film grossed 100 million (though these days that figure is not considered the mark of a genuine blockbuster that it once was). Mission Impossible II (2000), Vanilla Sky (2001), Minority Report (2002), The Last Samurai (2003), and Collateral (2004) also earned that much and more. The problem began when War of the Worlds and Mission Impossible III managed to crack 100 million, and then some, while simultaneously earning less than initial projections, thereby reducing the returns of sizable investments since Cruise is one of the very few actors in the business who commands a percentage of the first dollar of each ticket sold. Of course, this was also during the time that Cruise was being relentlessly barbecued by the media as though those parties could not wait to see him fail.  Like I said, as someone who used to sit in a lonely box-office day after day, I just appreciated the fact that his instincts were always as sound as they were. As I once told a friend, regarding The Last Samurai, every time a Tom Cruise movie plays to a full house, an angel gets its wings.

That noted, there is good and bad of anything, and Tom Cruise is no exception, but I would like to share my thoughts on some of Cruise’s more celebrated films.

1. Risky Business (1983): Granted, this movie about teenage entrepreneurs, who decide that playing pimps to a stable of call girls, is certainly not a wholesome thing. In fact, it’s downright odd, even creepy; however, taken as a satire of the the whole 1980’s corporate “Greed is good” mentality, it’s somewhat more bearable, and it is funny–if dated–in spots; moreover, it’s stylishly done thanks to the smooth direction of Paul Brickman (who has scarcely directed a movie since then), the score by Tangerine Dream (including tracks by the likes of Phil Collins), and cinematographers Bruce Surtees and Reynaldo Villalobos. When I got the idea to write this particular piece on Cruise’s comeback, I had not intended to include Risky Business in the mix because it was so long ago and because Cruise has certainly gone on to bigger and better things (btw: did you know he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Joel Goodsen?); however, I’ve recently noticed a commercial in which Cruise’s ecstatic lip synch to Bob Seger’s  “Old Time Rock-n-Roll” is parodied yet again. See, this brief interlude, in which Joel is so glad to be rid of his parents for a few days that he cranks up the stereo and awkwardly dances around the living room wearing a long sleeved button down shirt, underwear, and socks–not too unlike scads of teenagers before and since–is an iconic moment in American cinema: it has been aped–and/or deconstructed–by almost everyone from Ron Reagan Jr. on SNL to sitcoms such as The Nanny, The Simpsons, and South Park to more than a few movies and a whole host of commercials including a series of spots for Guitar Hero. Cruise’s original bit even came in at number 100 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 most memorable musical moments in a 2004 retrospective. Oh, and check out the numerous video tributes /parodies on You Tube. There are dozens. This is the moment when Cruise became a star, and I bet Bob Seger appreciates all those royalties.

Look closely: this is Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University. Clearly, SMU’s much photographed Dallas Hall is enough of a ringer to pass as a credible backdrop for a campus demonstration scene in Born on the Fourth of July.

2. Born on the Fourth of July (1989): This was Cruise’s first Oscar nomination, and well deserved, though he lost to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot (see my article from October about Drugstore Cowboy for more details). Both actors play real life men that are wheelchair bound: DDL’s Christy Brown  is an Irish painter with cerebral palsy; Cruise’s Ron Kovic is paralyzed from the waist down while serving a tour of duty in Vietnam. FYI: Directed by Oscar winner Oliver Stone, much of Born on the Fourth of July was actually filmed in Dallas, mostly Oak Cliff (doubling for Long Island) and SMU standing in for Syracuse University). Now, I saw both Born on the Fourth of July and My Left Foot in theaters multiple times, and I have no qualms with DDL winning that Oscar–none whatsoever.  I cheered his victory, in fact. That noted, I also think that while DDL’s role is incredibly, uhm, strenuous, due to his character’s limited mobility–to clarify, he paints with his foot–and affected speech, I also think Cruise’s performance has a little something that DDL’s lacks, and that is range: DDL’s Christy Brown is born the way he is; Cruise plays Kovic from the time he’s a gung-ho so-called “able-bodied” teenager through the multiple changes he experiences after his injury, including a well documented shift in consciousness regarding the whole Vietnam war. Cruise’s performance wasn’t entirely neglected as he won that season’s Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama. The scene in which Cruise and Willem Dafoe–also in a wheelchair–square off after being stranded in a Mexican desert is grand theater if nothing else.

3. Jerry Maguire (1996): Cruise won his second Golden Globe as well as his second Oscar nomination for this 1996 comedy-drama about a sports agent who tries to rebuild his life after having a crisis of conscience that effectively costs him his job at a powerful firm. It’s easy to be cynical about this 1996 gem that was the only out and out Best Picture contender from a major Hollywood studio that year (though some of those so-called indies were more connected to the big studios than their publicists would have cared to admit). At any rate, yes, the whole “Show me the money” thing became old rather quickly, and, yes, comics have had a field day with such lines as “You complete me” and “You had me at ‘Hello.'” You know what? I don’t care. There are tons of little details in this movie that remind me of exactly where I was at that precise moment in 1996 including the part about two sisters living together and raising a child. I still think this is Cruise’s  most engaging performance. Of course, he lost the Oscar to the much more mannered work of Geoffrey Rush in the labored biopic Shine, playing the role of mentally unstable Australian pianist David Helfgott.  What I like about Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire,  this character, this performance, is that it picks up where most Tom Cruise movies would end: the hero has an epiphany, writes a mission statement that he believes will fix everything that’s wrong in his bloodsucking industry and put the emphasis back on the love of the game. (An idea recently reborn in the hit film Moneyball starring Brad Pitt.) His co-workers give him a giant round of applause and hearty pats on the back. The End, right? No, wrong. Almost as soon as the ink is dry on his widely circulated document, Jerry’s superiors and co-workers begin plotting his dismissal. Badly bruised, but not broken, he sets out to manage his one remaining, rather prickly, client (played by Best Supporting Actor winner Cuba Gooding Jr.); he also gets dumped by his ambitious girlfriend (Kelly Preston) and makes a series of foolish choices with the young single mother (Texas native Renee Zellweger)  he hires as his secretary.  Cruise’s Maguire spends most of the movie trying to fix the mistakes he thought were the solutions to previous mistakes, and it isn’t always pretty. Nonetheless, the performance is sublime. Cruise is playing a good looking one time hot-shot who often looks foolish, and I think that’s a hard thing for a star of his magnitude to evince.  I like the way he uses his whole body when he says the word “flip-out” during his exit speech at the office, and the way he struggles to sing along with the car radio when driving through Texas.  Also, Cruise is a most giving actor in this movie, demonstrating considerable rapport not only with Zellweger [2] and Gooding (can Jerry be any more desperate when he intones, “Help me, help you”?), but also adorable Jonathan Lipnicki, and the ever reliable Bonnie Hunt. Plus, he definitely has me in the climactic scene when he breaks down and says “We live in a cynical world,” so let the cynics beware. I’m with Jerry.

Cruise won his third Golden Globe for his performance as Magnolia’s Frank “T.J.” Mackey, creator of the “Seduce and Destroy”  instructional series. Besides the four Golden Globe nominations specifically mentioned elsewhere, Cruise was also a contender for his work in 1992’s A Few Good Men, 2003’s The Last Samurai, and 2008’s Tropic Thunder.

4. Magnolia (1999): Cruise’s third and so far final Oscar nomination–for Best Supporting Actor, no less. Magnolia is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s attempt at an enterprise akin to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts: life in So-Cal among a disparate–and desperate–bunch of folks, paths sometimes crossing; sometimes not; people haunted by loneliness, regret, bittersweet memories.  I’m not a huge, huge fan of this one. I like it, but I have to take it in measured doses. (Paul Haggis did much the same thing, only better, with 2005’s Best Picture champ, Crash.) That noted, Cruise is fantastic as a long-haired misogynistic motivational guru. The degree of this character’s rabid ego and sexism is pretty shocking, and Cruise doesn’t necessarily make him likable. Instead, he fully and fearlessly commits, goes for broke, and lets the chips fall where they will. Again, he often looks foolish, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Instead, that foolishness is a set-up for what comes later when the layers of the character are pulled back, and the real human being is revealed. It’s a beautiful thing for those who are willing to go along for the ride. Kudos to Aimee Mann for her Oscar nominated song, “Save Me.”

5. Minority Report (2002): The first collaboration between Steven Spielberg, the most powerful, most successful, and arguably most revered, director of all-time, and the mighty, mighty Cruise. This one is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick.  Cruise plays a brilliant but flawed police captain, specializing in PreCrime recognition, who goes on the lam after he’s revealed to be the perpetrator of a future crime. This is one twisty flick, as much science-fiction as it is a “whodunit.”  Truthfully, the movie is more about Spielberg’s astonishing vision of the future (some of his flourishes now seem almost commonplace), a brilliant return to form after the embarrassing spectacle of A-I: Artificial Intelligence (2001), his attempt to bring to fruition a dream project once begun by the late master Stanley Kubrick. Still, there’s a funny story or two about the making of the movie. On one hand, we have Cruise, an actor so skilled, so in tune with his instrument, his body, that even after Spielberg told him that the FX  team could digitally create a a little bubble from the actor’s nose during a key underwater shot, Cruise still trained himself to perform the bit on camera; meanwhile, Colin Farrell, one of Cruise’s co-stars and only a promising up and comer at the time, reportedly  bungled the line, “Surely you understand the fundamental questionability of PreCrime methodology”  during take after take after a night of drunken birthday merriment. Oh, how I would have loved to have been on the set with the Type A perfectionist and the Irish playboy. Seriously, this is just a great piece of cinema with a great case that also includes Samantha Morton, Max Von Sydow, Neal McDonough, Lois Smith, Peter Stormare, Tim Blake Nelson, and a fleeting cameo by lovely and talented Jessica Harper. Though scarecely recognized by the Academy (a nomination for Sound Editing–big deal), this one received a great deal of attention from the various guilds, critics’ societies and other groups, including Saturn awards for Spielberg and Morton. Spielberg was also named the year’s Best Director by the National Board of Review for his work on this film as well as Catch Me If You Can. If you like, or love, Inception (2010), you’ll probably enjoy Minority Report.

Five more: Valkyrie (because even though the filmmakers cheat the German accent, the fact based story about a plan to assassinate Adolph Hitler–by his own guys–is better and more accurate than you might think); Tropic Thunder (because even though the film itself flaunts its political incorrectness, a barely recognizable Cruise is side-splittingly hilarious as a ruthlessly egomanical media mogul); The Last Samurai (because of the Oscar nominated costumes and art direction, and because Cruise once again shares the screen with yet another Oscar nominated co-star: Ken Watanabe); Eyes Wide Shut (because it’s Stanley Kubrick’s last film–and that should be enough); Interview with the Vampire (because even mega-selling author Ann Rice publically praised Cruise’s performance as charismatic Lestat after launching a campaign against him when he was first cast in the role).

6. Collateral (2004): To borrow a line from Cruise’s own Top Gun (1986), this one might very well be ‘the best of the best.’  Actually, similar to Spielberg’s Minority Report, I think Michael Mann’s hypnotic neo-noir succeeds in spite of Cruise, not necessarily because of him; however, I’m glad he’s in it because he’s awfully good. Here’s the premise: one evening in LA, a taxi-driver (Jamie Foxx) picks up a gray haired, gray-suited “businessman” (Cruise) who pays the driver a huge fee to take him to a series of “meetings”–five in all–and then back to the airport in record time. The passenger is soon revealed to be a hit man, and the rest of the movie is a complicated game between him and the driver. It’s not necessarily a game of cat and mouse because the two are together in the cab almost the whole time, but it is a game of wits with reversal upon reversal, and the audience is sometimes put in the unusual position of  rooting for the bad guy in order to maintain the safety of the good guy. Does that make sense? It gets rather complicated, but that’s part of the fun–and why it’s worth watching and rewatching. Per the DVD featurette, the concept of the character (the gray suit and hair) was all part of Michael Mann’s vision though the rehearsal footage shows the degree of rigorous training that Cruise endured to create an individual who speaks and moves with thrillingly economical purpose. Even the other actors speak with awe about how quick his reflexes are. That noted, Mann’s visuals are the real stars of the piece. The director, who famously amped up the look of prime television back in the 80s with Miami Vice, wanted to show LA at night time the way it really looks rather than the way it looks on film. To that end, he shot much of the movie digitally, using a brand new camera called a “Viper,” which allowed him to work with low lighting and to continue through take after take without the constraints of changing film magazines, etc. The effect is eerily beautiful, what with the greenish light inside the cab and the seemingly slowed down aerial shots of skyscrapers and  labyrinthine-like freeways. There’s also a climactic shoot-out in a heavily glassed-in office suite that evokes memories of a similar sequence in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai. The Academy  better by this one than it did with Minority Report, nominating it for Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor (Foxx). Since Foxx was the clear front-runner for that year’s Best Actor prize (for Ray), his supporting nomination was almost certainly wasted. That aside, my thought is that at the very least, there should have been nominations for Mann (he won the National Board of Review award), Stuart Beattie’s screenplay, the cinematography credited to Paul Cameron (who left the project after only a few weeks) and Dion Beebe. The pair ultimately won honors from the LA Film Critics, and  the Online Film Critics in addition to being nominated by their peers in the American Society of Cinematographers. I also would have nominated Jada Pinkett Smith for her memorable supporting turn as a slightly frazzled lawyer–who becomes much less frazzled during a cab ride with Foxx before Cruise enters the picture in earnest. Foxx and Ms. Pinkett Smith connect beautifully in this key sequence. The actress was subsequently nominated for a smattering of prizes including a NAACP Image award. (The cast also includes Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem, and onetime Dallas resident Irma P. Hall.) There were lots of other accolades and such for the whole team, including Cruise, in addition to a People’s Choice nomination. This is one movie I actually wanted to write about all along with or without a comeback.

Whew! That’s a lot. Any questions?

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Note: Cruise’s newest is a spectacular success in a holiday season in which almost every other would-be major studio Hollywood blockbuster has been met with sluggish numbers, which makes it all the more remarkable.

[2] I feel compelled to point out that when Zellweger, still a newcomer at the time of Jerry Maguire, won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 2003’s Cold Mountain–how many movies and years later?–she paid tribute to Cruise during her acceptance speech, thanking him for showing her that “kindness and success are not mutually exclusive.” (Of course, the cameras cut to Nicole Kidman, Tom’s ex and Zellweger’s Cold Mountain co-star). Watch the clip:

Sources

I cannot find a link to the article about the Quigley poll that I quote at the beginning of this piece. I long ago copied and pasted the original into a word document; however, this link to Cruise’s bio on the Internet Movie Database quotes the same stats:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000129/bio

I originally read the story about Tom Cruise training himself to do a trick on camera that Spielberg said could be added digitally in either Premiere, Vanity Fair, or Entertainment Weekly. Hard to locate now. The bit about Farrell flubbing his lines was originally reported in Vanity Fair. This unofficial Farrell fansite includes a portion of the story:

http://www.colinfarrellfansite.com/?page_id=167

Read the full 2004 American Cinematographer article about the making of Collateral and the introduction of the Viper camera system:

http://www.theasc.com/magazine/aug04/collateral/page1.html

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