Tom Cruise can't sing. He's been able to obscure this fact in recent years by flirting with relatability on The Tonight Show's Lip Sync Battle and playing the boorish, perpetually shirtless Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages. Both performances required an assist from airtight studio overdubs. The last time when he gave us an honest vocal take—and one of his most vulnerable onscreen moments—was 12 years ago.
There's a memorable scene in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds where Cruise's Ray Ferrier is completely shattered. Huddling with his daughter (Dakota Fanning) in a creaky basement, he has every reason to believe that her older brother has just been vaporized. Earlier in the film, he proves to be the shittiest father left on earth, breaking a window during a spiteful baseball catch with his son, forgetting about his daughter's lifelong peanut allergy, and yelling shut up, Rachel! when she's letting out panicked shrieks in the car. Ray's at his most hopeless in the cellar, failing to deliver on every lullaby request Rachel throws at him for consolation. So instead, a teary-eyed Ray breaks into a wobbly, imperfect rendition of the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe." It was the most tender and pathetic Cruise had allowed himself to be since Frank "T.J." Mackey broke down by his father's deathbed.
He hasn't granted us this sort of emotional access, nor has he taken any role that resembles a mortal human in the years following War of the Worlds. He's come close a few times—as an embattled U.S. senator in Lions for Lambs, a German officer who attempted to bring down Adolf Hitler in Valkyrie, a ruthless and balding studio executive in Tropic Thunder—but none of them really felt like someone you'd ever meet. Otherwise, he's almost exclusively cast himself as charming, remorseless killing machines. Tom Cruise movies have become little more than charismatic vehicles for him to spit in the face of death.
While Cruise has been dangling from airplanes, scaling the Burj Khalifa, and holding his breath for longer than seems humanly possible, he's also blown up his onscreen family life. Since his irl marriage and subsequent divorce from Katie Holmes, Cruise has avoided the trappings of domesticity in his movies. Take the Mission: Impossible series: In 2006's M:I III, Ethan Hunt's wife (Michelle Monaghan) is a central character in the film and significant emotional bargaining chip for Philip Seymour Hoffman's deranged Owen Davian. But then, the franchise kills her off (but not really) in Ghost Protocol, paving the way for more romantic non-starters. And only in last year's flaccid Jack Reacher: Never Go Back has Cruise played a father this decade—but even that relationship is accidental and mostly void of attachment.
Speculate if you must about whether this shift correlates with a tumultuous personal life—or the oppressive policies of his church—but since the erosion of his family, Cruise has doubled down on playing chiseled cyborgs that defy aging. And he's set to turn back the clock even further, to a character who debuted before his first marriage, when filming begins next year on Top Gun: Maverick. Since he seems intent on making Mission: Impossible movies until they kill him, and could be tied up in a cinematic universe if The Mummy doesn't bomb, it's hard to say what—or who—might be able to pull him out of this trajectory. My money's on Doug Liman.
The veteran director coaxed Cruise's most dynamic performance of the decade from Edge of Tomorrow, the excellent 2014 sci-fi film that kills its star at least 27 times. Although Private Cage isn't a husband, boyfriend, father, or anyone with much of a discernible backstory, Cruise is forced to convey circumstances we've rarely seen in his career. Ethan Hunt often gets by on batshit luck, as the title of his franchise might suggest, but the mission rarely seems beyond his depth. Cage, on the other hand, takes a steady trial-and-error approach to evolve from petty coward to signature Cruise action figure. He cedes the heroism to Emily Blunt's Rita Vrataski for much of the movie, before blasting the Louvre and saving mankind. Even though Edge cheats its way to one final respawn, you get the sense that Cage—and Cruise—might have come to grips with their mortality once the credits hit.
His next collaboration with Liman, this fall's American Made, looks like another outlier on paper. He'll play Barry Seal, an American pilot and drug smuggler for the Medellín cartel-turned DEA informant. It'll mark Cruise's first true story since Valkyrie, and—spoiler alert—neither of these characters lived to see the original Top Gun. Whether the Cruise/Liman pairing shapes up to provide temporary diversions from his entertaining franchise output or forge a new path forward, it's thrilling to see him become something close to human again.
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