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“Mission: Impossible — Fallout” Is Sex

The new Mission: Impossible opens with two scenes that, put together, constitute a clinic in how to handle exposition in a dumb, fun action spectacle. The first is a flashback-cum-dream vision in which we see the wedding of super-agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to his long-suffering ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan). A priest (who also happens to be Solomon Lane, the villain from the last movie — don’t ask too many questions, it’s a dream) delivers the wedding vows, which gradually segue into a gruesome litany of the troubles Ethan has caused Julia over the course of this series.

Just then, an ominous, explosive flash of light wakes up our hero. Now, we see that he’s all alone, in a dark, dank room somewhere in Belfast. A message arrives. It contains the details of his next mission, which involves a maze-like network of international arms dealers and nuclear scientists and nutty Year Zero anarchists, each betraying and counter-betraying the other. It’s such a dense, extravagant cascade of gobbledygook that I actually giggled in the theater as I tossed aside my notepad and pen.

A cinematic centrifuge of acrobatic stunt work, breakneck chases, and immersive action, Mission: Impossible — Fallout is a perfectly calibrated piece of filmmaking that plays the viewer like a drum right from the start. Here’s a goofy dream vision to catch you up on the important emotional stakes. Got that? Good. Now, here’s some impenetrable blather to let you know that, yeah, it’s OK just to sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s not unlike what Whit Stillman achieves with the opening credits of his Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, in which a hilarious rapid-fire procession of character descriptions and connections conveys the surreal intricacy of class and family loyalties in Georgian England while also relieving us of having to fuss over the cumbersome details.

After that opening blast of sweet confusion, what we actually get is little more than a series of excuses to get from Shootout A to Fight B to Chase C. Some plutonium is gone missing, a terror network with a mystery leader has it, there are bombs, and secret agent Hunt and CIA assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill) have to pretend to work with one set of bad guys to stop the other set of bad guys. That results in increasingly delirious sequences in which the duo snipe at each other while ganging up on nemeses. Meanwhile, Rebecca Ferguson, reprising her scene-stealing role from the last film as British agent Ilsa Faust, appears regularly to save our heroes’ asses.

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Along the way, there’s some rather predictable sexual tension between Ferguson and Cruise’s characters — and, to their credit, both actors sell it well, despite the rather chasmic age difference. But I’d argue that there’s a more compelling tension between Cavill and Cruise: They spend so much of the movie bickering and undercutting each other that their characters’ trajectory feels almost like it should be romantic. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.) And you cannot tell me that the filmmakers aren’t a little aware of this. The physical combat — in particular a spectacular three-way fight-fest in a nightclub men’s room that at one point has the participants going at it in a bathroom stall, where they are then briefly hounded by a group of eager, turned-on men who want to join in on whatever shenanigans are happening in there — boasts a vigorous, athletic grace. Everybody always seems so damned enthused to mix it up in this movie. If dancing is merely the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, then the fighting in Mission: Impossible — Fallout could be the vertical, horizontal, diagonal, spinning, up-is-down, gravity-defying expression of, well, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, spinning, up-is-down, gravity-defying desires.

Beyond the playful double entendres and compromising positions, however, Mission: Impossible — Fallout represents a breakthrough for director Christopher McQuarrie, who also helmed the previous entry in the series, Rogue Nation. It’s the first time the franchise has allowed one of its auteurs a second shot behind the camera. Originally a screenwriter known for his sparkling dialogue, deft humor, and twisty plotting (he won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects), McQuarrie brought to Rogue Nation hefty doses of understated wit and lightning-fast sweep. But he’s become an even better director in the meantime, building on the earlier film’s accomplishments. He puts together the action in Fallout with a storyteller’s eye, making sure every face-off has some kind of shape, mini-narratives within narratives. The fights develop in unusual ways; the chases take unexpected turns; the camera keys in on an offhand detail or a subtle spatial relationship that later turns out to mean the world. The dispersal of information, be it through a shot, a movement or a line of dialogue, is one of the less heralded but more crucial tasks of mainstream filmmaking, and McQuarrie handles it exceptionally well. The story itself may be dumb, but the movie knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to action and spectacle.

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The Mission: Impossible films were once a bit conflicted on this matter. The first one went into production as a series of elaborate set pieces with little proper narrative logic to connect them. That reportedly caused some strife during production, and the finished film — as exciting and brilliantly directed as it was — dissatisfied many fans of the original TV show, who had expected clever spycraft and selfless teamwork, not Tom Cruise killing helicopters. Since then, the best entries have worked the spectacle and the stunts. So much so that Cruise’s death-defying antics — hanging onto real jet airplanes, scaling real skyscrapers — have become a regular promotion tactic for these pictures. Cruise’s insistence on doing his own stunts, and publicizing them, once seemed like a shallow movie star indulgence, but it’s now a welcome throwback in an age of animated heroes and bloodless, computerized menace.

The actor has more of those publicity-friendly antics in this one, naturally. The biggest involves climbing a rope attached to a helicopter flying over the mountains of Kashmir. But perhaps the most impressive stunt here is how he and director McQuarrie, even after all the knocks that the star’s image and career have taken over the past decade or so, have fashioned something so resoundingly exciting, so charmingly confident in its use of the star’s irrepressible charisma. I’ve enjoyed much of Cruise’s recent work, but here he does something more: He makes you believe in movie stars again.

Mission: Impossible — Fallout
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Paramount Pictures
Opens July 27

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“American Made” Is the Dark, Unofficial Sequel to “Top Gun” We Didn’t Know We Needed

Just a little more than three months ago, Tom Cruise starred in a lifeless wannabe-blockbuster called The Mummy that made little use of his innate charisma (shut up, he still has some) or his star persona, turning him into an anonymous action hero. Now comes American Made, a picture that seems unthinkable with anybody but Tom Cruise in the lead. The man who for much of the Eighties and Nineties was the biggest movie star in the world has done his share of good and bad work in the past decade or so, but American Made is his first effort in a long while that feels like an honest-to-god Tom Cruise movie; suddenly, his smile means something again. But there’s one huge, beautiful catch: Doug Liman’s electric film is clear-eyed about the cynicism and corruption beneath its hero’s anxious grin. It voraciously breaks down both the star and the country he has symbolized for so much of his career.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a workaday TWA pilot frustrated with the grind of hopping from city to city, flying planes on autopilot and coming home to crash asleep before his beautiful, devoted wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), can even put on her welcome-home lingerie. It’s the late Seventies, the era of oil shocks and social malaise. Barry has also been doing some minor smuggling on the side, transporting illegal Cuban cigars. Into his life pops “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA operative eager to recruit our man’s aerial talents to fly covert missions into Latin American countries and take spy photos of resistance movements. They outfit him with a sweet twin engine superplane (“She looks like she’s going 300 miles an hour just sitting there!”), his own front company, and lots of money. Barry can’t stop giggling in disbelieving delight.

Thus begins an insane journey in which Barry (who was a real person, by the way, though much of this story has been Hollywoodized) spends years hopscotching the international underworld, much of the time in service to his country. Along the way, he makes buckets of cash and regains his virility to boot. The CIA gig makes him an erstwhile bagman for Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, which then leads him into a lucrative and dangerous arrangement with the Medellín drug cartel, and then he finds himself running guns to the Nicaraguan Contras, only the Contras don’t really want the guns (it appears they prefer porn and alcohol), so the guns go to Medellín, the drugs go to the Contras, and the Contras come to the U.S. for training.

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At least, I think that’s what happens. If this sounds convoluted, it’s meant to be. The film even flashes forward to a series of videotaped confessions Barry made in the mid-Eighties in nondescript motel rooms; even this does relatively little to clear it all up. But Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli don’t really want to explain; they prefer to drop us into the seething, sleazy tangle of drug dealers and gunrunners and terrorists that the U.S. did business with in the 1980s, all in the name of Brand Freedom. “If this ain’t the greatest country in the world…” Barry exclaims on video — we don’t hear the rest of the sentence, because neither he nor we want to entertain the notion that this country isn’t. His patriotism is skin-deep, yet unquestioned.

The film has momentum, hurtling forward with the kind of energy we might imagine courses through Barry’s (and, frankly, Tom Cruise’s) veins. The unmoored camera jigs and shuffles, and Cruise delivers an equally restless, frantic, and wide-eyed performance, his mouth fixed between grin and grimace — at any given point, we don’t know if Barry’s marveling at his luck or misfortune. It is hard to tell: The guys pulling guns on him could just be looking for a deal, providing him with another revenue source.

In another era, this movie would mostly glorify American drive while only subtly exploding it. Today, its raw, proud cynicism is a mark of the times, and an appropriate one. But with Cruise in the role, the film dares to become something more, something self-aware. Because once upon a time, the bright, shiny cinematic ode to American ambition that this would have been would also have starred Tom Cruise. We’re reminded of that early on, when Schafer first approaches Barry and offers him his new destiny. Why does the CIA want this man? Because, as Schafer reminds him, Barry was once a hotshot aviation superstar, the youngest pilot in TWA history. He “graduated top of his class,” we’re told, whatever that means. “We’re building nations,” Schafer says. “It’s America at its fucking finest, and we could use someone like you.” Think of American Made as the real, secret sequel to Top Gun: the one where Maverick enters the private sector and pursues the capitalist dream of selling drugs and guns to murderers and calling it Freedom™.

American Made
Directed by Doug Liman
Universal Pictures and Cross Creek Pictures
Opens September 29

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Why Is Tom Cruise In “The Mummy”?

Over the years, Tom Cruise has been many things, but he’s almost never been marginalized — not in one of his own movies. Oh, he’s played supporting parts and done cameos here and there, but even in those smaller roles (in films like Tropic Thunder or Rock of Ages), he carries something of the Cruise persona: You can see what in the projects has interested him, even if he’s pointedly playing against type. That’s what’s missing in his latest. Maybe this only jumps out at those of us who came of age during the Golden Era of The Cruiser — when the supernova of his stardom was an inescapable cultural fact — but as far as I can tell, The Mummy is the first Cruise-starring picture in decades in which his part seems like it could have been played by anybody. It could be Steve Zahn up there. Or Kenan Thompson. Or, hell, Brendan Fraser.

That wouldn’t be a problem if the movie surrounding Cruise were in any way worth it. But alas, The Mummy turns out to be a drab, nonsensical affair that squanders its potential for humor, atmosphere, and sweep — qualities that the much-maligned, Fraser-starring 1999 Mummy had in droves. In this one, Cruise plays Sergeant Nick Morton, a treasure-hunting U.S. soldier in Iraq who, alongside beautiful archaeologist Dr. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), comes across the ancient Egyptian tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a princess who once made a pact with Set, the god of death, in an attempt to gain power. (Yes, this Egyptian tomb is buried in Iraq. Don’t worry, the film has an explanation for that. Sort of.)

Unleashed, Ahmanet starts bringing down planes with sandstorms and flocks of birds, and sucking the life out of unsuspecting bystanders and enlisting their rotting (but still quite active) carcasses into her army of the undead. She also starts haunting Nick’s visions, having selected him as her Chosen One — the man whom she will stab with an ancient dagger and thus bring about the human manifestation of Set.

There’s an idea here, and it might even be a good one: Tom Cruise trying to remain a good guy while struggling against the mental hold of the evil, seductive Ahmanet. It’s a conceit that could play to Cruise’s strengths: the narcissism of his characters, their cocky bluster and charming opportunism. Unfortunately, as directed by Alex Kurtzman and written by a platoon of screenwriters (including Cruise’s most recent Mission: Impossible collaborator Christopher McQuarrie), the film fails to turn any of this into a compelling cinematic through line. This Mummy plays like a wan assemblage of underdeveloped concepts.

There are some weak stabs at humor. Nick’s goofy companion Chris (Jake Johnson) dies early on but keeps coming back for some agonizing repartee. Early on, Nick is portrayed as an impulsive, adventurous rascal, but the lines fall flat, and Cruise can’t really do Harrison Ford– or Kurt Russell–style roguishness. Though I’m not sure he ever really had a chance, as he’s saddled with lines like, “We are not looters! We are liberators of precious antiquities!”

Later, there’s some weird back-and-forth between Nick and Jenny, as each alternates between credulity and disbelief at the situation they’ve found themselves in. First, she tries to convince him the Mummy is real; then, he tries to convince her. Don’t ask: Maybe all this was supposed to make for some bubbly, pseudo-Hawksian shenanigans, but it’s so clunkily handled that it only results in confusion and tedium — which is a drag, because Cruise can do humor, and McQuarrie can write it. All this drab banter often comes during thoroughly uninspired action scenes, and the film even somehow manages to waste Boutella, the electrifying French-Algerian dancer and actress who made such an impression in Kingsman: The Secret Service and Star Trek Beyond.

As you might expect, we also get some cumbersome world building involving Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who heads a secret organization that purports to seek to contain evil but seems fairly sinister in its own right. All that will presumably come into play as part of Universal’s attempt to build out its “Dark Universe” franchise of revitalized monster flicks. I’m still not convinced that this is an entirely bad idea; I’d actually love to see a straightforward Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptation starring Russell Crowe. But then again, what do I know? I was once excited to see a movie called The Mummy starring Tom Cruise.

 

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The Smart Edge of Tomorrow Keeps Killing Its Star

In 1986, peaceniks were mad at Tom Cruise. That year, the Navy thanked Top Gun for boosting enlistment another 20,000 recruits. Since then, he’s made more critiques of military than advertisements, most of which (Lions for Lambs, Born on the Fourth of July, The Last Samurai, Valkyrie) j’accuse bad leadership of wasting the lives of a few — or a million — good men.

With Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise comes full circle. He plays Lieutenant Colonel Bill Cage, a medaled propagandist who goes knock-kneed at the sight of a paper cut. In peacetime, he was an ad man who had dabbled in ROTC. Now that Earth is under siege from the Mimics, whirling space monsters that look like dreadlocked wigs dipped in steel, he’s been drafted to serve as a slick talking head who goes on Fox News to urge the poor and dumb dregs to sign up and be slap-chopped to shreds. As he cops to his commanding officer (Brendan Gleeson), “I do this to avoid doing that.”

Cruise’s Cage has zero intention of joining the fight. But Gleeson’s exasperated general conks him out and ships him to the front, where Cage wakes up on a pile of luggage and discovers he’s been demoted to private and will be off to battle the next day. If you’re expecting a hero, which you are, as this is Tom Cruise, you’ve met the wrong guy. Cage dies immediately. But then he snaps awake back on those bags and realizes he’s going to relive and re-die the last 24 hours until he either wins the war or goes utterly mad from the Promethean torture.

Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), Edge of Tomorrow is a classic war movie crossbred with Looney Tunes. Like the world wars of the last century, the enemy is embedded in Europe and spreading across the globe, with humanity’s hopes pinned on reclaiming the coast of France, a fight that Liman stages with the chaotic carnage of Saving Private Ryan. However, instead of olive drabs, the soldiers are decked out in 80-pound exoskeletons that force them to walk with the heavy, high-stepping lurch of drunks in raver boots. It’s a novel mash-up, a gray-toned, serious war picture with all these overdressed goofballs stomping around. Underneath his metal chaps, one soldier cheekily refuses to wear pants.

To work, Edge of Tomorrow must both make light of death, lest the audience be ground into despair, and rally us to care whether Cage lives. Liman walks this tricky tightrope: We chuckle when fellow soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt, whose biceps look bigger than Cruise’s) shoots Cage like a fallen racehorse so the day can restart, but every time he jolts back to life we feel for his gulping, startled agony. The Wile E. Coyote fatalities are fun, but it’s that repetitive moment of horror that holds this bipolar stunt together: Cruise, bug-eyed and gasping for breath as he shakes off his fear and grimly prepares for the next suicide mission.

The middle of the film is an exhausting montage of murder, the bracing opposite of all those movies whose heroes race through bullets as if they were as harmless as raindrops. The script works better when it slows down and the screenwriters (Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) toy with our definition of suspense. As Cruise and Blunt make a daring dash for help, our hearts race. Will they outrun the Mimics, find a working helicopter, dodge that plummeting plane? Slowly, it sneaks up on us that Cage himself isn’t scared: He’s lived and died through this before, and is just working through every doomed option like a kid dutifully reading each page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Practice has made him perfect, at least up until a point, allowing Liman to rework the bedlam of the opening battle until it resembles a beautiful, deadly dance.

Cruise hasn’t physically aged out of action roles (whether he’s matured out is another question). Now 51, the new bags under his eyes make his character’s boyish hucksterism seem even more desperate. Despite the gizmo suit, we’re always aware that he’s a man, not a machine. Edge of Tomorrow carries itself like a groundbreaking blockbuster, but at its core, it’s simply asking the same question that Spock raised in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Do the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few? While Cruise has the ability to save the individuals in his platoon from their fates, is it moral to let them die if it means he can end the war? With godlike pressures like these, it’s no wonder he looks like he hasn’t slept.

Edge of Tomorrow is the rare summer shoot-’em-up that understands the fragility of life. More hopeless than heroic, it’s not going to boost military enlistment rates. But Cruise’s perpetual sacrifice makes us want to salute this soldier who bravely, and often blindly, flings his body in harm’s way — and especially those troops in our own universe who know real life doesn’t have a reboot.

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How YouTube and the Internet Killed Tom Cruise, America’s Last Movie Star

It was Jason Tugman’s first day of work. Almost a decade later, he still remembers the screams.

A former circus fire-eater, he’d taken a job as a lighting technician for The Oprah Winfrey Show after burning off a chunk of his tongue. The pay was $32 an hour and he didn’t want to screw it up. But as Tugman carefully hung black curtains in Studio B, directly behind the orange set where Oprah taped, those screams wouldn’t stop. The crowd sounded as if it might tear the building down.

“I could just hear the audience going absolutely apeshit,” Tugman says. “Just the absolute losing of minds.” He glanced at a monitor that transmitted a silent live feed. Tom Cruise was on a couch.

You can probably picture it in your head: Cruise, dressed in head-to-toe black, looming over a cowering Oprah as he jumps like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Cruise bouncing on that couch is one of the touchstones of the last decade, the punch line every time someone writes about his career.

There’s just one catch: It never happened.

In May 2005, the same month Cruise went on Oprah, the world of celebrity changed. Perez Hilton and the Huffington Post launched, with TMZ right behind them, and the rise of the gossip sites pressured the print tabloids into joining them in a 24-hour Internet frenzy. Camera phones finally outsold brick phones, turning civilians into paparazzi. YouTube was a week old, and for the first time, a video could go viral overnight.

The Internet finally had the tools to feed us an endless buffet of fluff, chopping real events into flashy and sometimes false moments that warped our cultural memory. The first star to stumble in front of the knives was the biggest actor in the world, and the one who’d tried the hardest not to trip.

Tom Cruise had always been edgy around the press. When Risky Business turned him — a 21-year-old kid with three bit parts and one flop on his résumé — into an overnight sensation, he disappeared. “I’m not personally ready to do this,” he told the film’s publicity team. Instead of giving interviews and swanning around Hollywood with best friends Sean Penn and Emilio Estevez, Cruise ditched the flashbulbs and escaped to London, where he hid out for two years while filming Ridley Scott’s ill-fated Legend.

By the time Cruise flew back to America, he was half-forgotten, a breakout talent who’d been shortlisted as one of 1983’s “Hottest Faces” by the Los Angeles Times, only to vanish. Meanwhile, his buddies had been christened “the Brat Pack” and Penn was marrying Madonna, exactly the kind of splashy spectacle Cruise wanted to avoid.

To promote Top Gun, Cruise finally agreed to his first round of major interviews in 1986. He wanted to make one thing clear. “I want no part of that or this Brat Pack,” he insisted to Playboy. “Putting me in there is absolutely absurd, and it pisses me off, because I work hard.”

He didn’t want to be a trend. He wanted to be a legend. That meant controlling his public image: no drunken nights, no false moves. The attention had to be on his work. After Top Gun became the no. 1 box office hit of 1986, Paramount offered to quintuple his salary if he’d rush into Top Gun 2.

Instead ,he agreed to play second fiddle to Paul Newman in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. Money versus Money, swagger versus respect. It’s the most telling choice in Cruise’s career. He seized the chance to learn from, and link himself to, the old-fashioned, closemouthed, actor he wanted to become. Forget the new Brat Pack — he’d be the last classic movie star.

“When I get to be Newman’s age, I’m looking to still be playing the great characters he plays,” Cruise said in his first cover story, for Interview (written by Cameron Crowe, his future Jerry Maguire director).

After The Color of Money, Cruise turned down more leading-man offers to take second billing to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Like Newman the year before, Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for the film.

Those awards might not exist without Cruise’s selfless supporting performances. Cruise was proving he had the talent to work with the best and demonstrating his box office clout. His name on the poster not only got an oddball movie about autism funded; it made it the top-grossing hit of the year. Cruise was the rare star who used his power to make good movies that matter: He could both rescue Born on the Fourth of July from 11 years of development hell and turn in a barnstorming, heartbreaking performance that earned him an Oscar nomination.

But what he didn’t do is equally striking: Cruise didn’t make an action movie for the first 15 years of his career. Even in Top Gun, he never throws a punch.

“I’d been offered a lot of different kinds of action movies, but nothing really interested me,” he explained to Boxoffice magazine in 1996. “I thought I’d seen it before.” When he finally did launch an action franchise, that year’s Mission: Impossible, he produced it and hired auteur Brian De Palma.

Meanwhile, he kept his private life private. When Cruise married Mimi Rogers in 1987, even his agent didn’t know. Three years later, when he married Nicole Kidman on Christmas Eve, People dubbed it 1990’s “Best-Kept Hollywood Secret.”

At about that same time, Cruise linked his future with another woman: publicist Pat Kingsley. The media had started asking about his new religion, Scientology, which he claimed had cured his dyslexia. How to field endless questions about his minority beliefs while still charming America?

Kingsley was adamant about keeping Cruise out of the tabloids. At press junkets, she demanded that journalists sign contracts swearing not to sell their quotes to the supermarket rags. Then Kingsley expanded her reach and insisted that all TV interviewers destroy their tapes after his segment had aired.

Reporters were exasperated, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. Kingsley had a slew of other big talents (Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Al Pacino) on her roster. Thanks to media consolidation, she was able to keep the media on track by making a few phone calls threatening to cut off access. The eight-headed tabloid hydra was easily slain. If the papers refused to toe the party line, they could be sued: for claiming Cruise was sterile, that he and Kidman had to hire sex coaches, that he’d seduced a male porn star. He won or settled those cases and gave the proceeds to charity.

But the Internet was about to transform the gossip world. What if, instead of eight heads, the tabloids had 800?

Mario Lavanderia Jr. loved tabloids. In college, he cut them apart and lined his New York University dorm room with homemade collages of celebrities. “I had a lot of Leonardo DiCaprio, like every girl,” he admits.

Lavanderia, better known by his pseudonym, Perez Hilton, wasn’t tech-savvy. His apartment in L.A., where he’d moved after graduation, didn’t even have Wi-Fi.

But blogging software had just hit the tipping point. In the course of 2005, the number of blogs skyrocketed from 10 million to 25 million. The majority were online diaries written for an average audience of seven people.

“People didn’t really use the Internet to talk about celebrity news,” Hilton says with lingering amusement. “In fact, the celebrity magazines like People and US Weekly didn’t even use their own websites to talk about celebrity news back in 2005. They just used their websites as a way to get subscriptions, like, ‘Go here to sign up to get a subscription.’ It was all about the print. They were not about breaking news online.”

Hilton’s timing was perfect. From his table at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Sunset Boulevard, he could publish stories in minutes, not days, and trump the print tabloids that had spent decades playing softball with publicists.

“Because it was all so new, celebrities were behaving differently,” Hilton says. Like rabbits stumbling into a snare, they and their handlers realized too late that no space was a safe space. Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and, yes, Paris Hilton were making headlines every day. Perez Hilton had already nicknamed Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie “Brangelina.” When Cruise coupled with Katie Holmes, he was thrilled to have another massive romance to flog. TomKat went public on April 27, and PerezHilton.com embraced the relationship with exuberant cynicism. “We can’t get enough of the TomKat show because eventually the paint will start to chip and we will hopefully see all the ugliness as openly as we’ve been shoved the lovey-dovey bullshit,” he wrote.

With gossip sites mushrooming like a nuclear cloud, Kingsley’s fear tactics no longer worked. In fact, she wasn’t even around to wield them. She’d spent a decade and a half shielding Cruise from questions about his religion. But as Scientology increasingly drew fire from the media, Cruise seemed to have decided to be more vocal. When he sought to promote Scientology on his press tour for The Last Samurai in 2003, Kingsley later told The Hollywood Reporter, she told him to cool it. A year later, in March 2004, he ended their professional relationship, replacing Kingsley with a fellow Scientologist, his sister, Lee Anne De Vette.

As then-In Touch editor Tom O’Neil told Variety in 2004, “Tom’s sis doesn’t have Pat’s secret weapons. She can’t nuke a media outlet’s access to other A-list celebs if a journalist doesn’t bathe Tom in honey.” And even if De Vette did, for Perez Hilton and the bloggers, access didn’t matter.

“The rise of the Internet changed how I do my job,” says veteran publicist Joy Fehily, who was mentored by Kingsley. “Everything started changing at once, and the conversation moved a lot faster.”

Fehily found herself spending less time coaching her clients about how (and whether) to do interviews, and more time coaching them how to live their lives. “I just remember having to explain to clients how nothing is private anymore,” she says. “It’s about walking down the street as a normal person, because everybody has the ability to take your picture, to catch you doing something.”

By comparison, TV seemed safe. When Cruise went on Oprah in May 2005, he and De Vette surely imagined most viewers would see the show live.

“YouTube changed everything,” says Portland, Oregon–based Andy Baio, a writer and coder who would go on to help build Kickstarter. He could upload a video to YouTube’s servers and people could watch it on their browsers: no downloads, no long waits, no plug-ins, no bandwidth fears, no cost. “That was mind-blowing,” Baio says.

Neither Tom Cruise nor Oprah was likely aware of YouTube when he agreed to tape an episode in early May. The site’s first video, “Me at the Zoo,” had been uploaded only a few weeks before.

A week later, Baio hosted another funny video he found on a private sharing site, a short mash-up of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Cruise’s appearance on Oprah. Dubbed “Tom Cruise Kills Oprah,” the clip features the movie star cackling in slow motion as he blasts the talk-show host with a jolt of Jedi lightning. Baio thought the video was “awesome.” He put it online and it blew up.

This time, however, it wasn’t just the geeks linking to his video — it was MSNBC and USA Today.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but six months before I posted that Tom Cruise video, that viral spread was practically impossible,” Baio says.

Tom Cruise and Oprah talked on TV for 43 minutes. “Tom Cruise Kills Oprah” lasted all of 15 seconds.

With all context gone, we’re judging sound bites of Cruise on a screen. We forget he was experiencing a live, long, and loud interaction, a literal stage performance before a raucous crowd.

Harpo Studios seats 300 audience members. The show’s producers try to match up their spectators with their guests. It’s a recipe for good TV. “They want the batshit people,” Tugman explains. “All those people that were in there were most likely picked because they’re Tom Cruise fanatics.”

If you track down the full Tom Cruise episode on YouTube — only one user from Spain has bothered to upload it — the room is deafening. Oprah’s first words to the live audience are, “OK. Let me just say you all are going to have to calm yourselves.” They don’t. They’re on their feet jumping up and down. She has to ask them to settle down twice more before Cruise even walks onstage, and then the screams get even louder. Oprah starts screaming, too. If you listen closely, you can hear Cruise say, “Wow! Is it like this every day?” “No,” Oprah says, shaking her head. After a full minute goes by, Oprah starts to look annoyed. “It’s too much,” she commands the audience. “Sit down, sit down.”

Cruise plays to that screaming room. When a fan in the crowd pumps both his fists in the air, Cruise pumps his back. When kneeling on the floor makes the audience holler, he simply keeps doing it.

Cruise was also playing to the daytime TV viewers at home, predominantly female like the studio audience. He flatters them. He brings up being raised by women, how he loves to treat women right. The women wanted to hear that he was in love, and Cruise — who had just been anointed the Third Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Premiere magazine, beating out Paul Newman at No. 6 — was finally ready to loosen up and tell them.

Oprah was thrilled. Cruise was giving his first unchecked TV interview, well, ever. She ups the energy by getting physical, ruffling his hair with both hands and grabbing his legs and arms as she presses him with personal questions about his public girlfriend of a month: Is it love, will he marry her, has he asked her father, does he want more children? She clutches both of Cruise’s hands, pulls her face close to his, and asks if he will propose to Katie Holmes today. Cruise gives a reasonable answer, “I’ve got to discuss it with her,” and Oprah leans back, disappointed.

When Cruise finally stands and grabs her shoulders — the moment that was remixed into “Tom Cruise Kills Oprah” — it’s while jokingly begging if they can talk about his new movie, War of the Worlds.

It’s a performance reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated role six years earlier as Magnolia‘s Frank T.J. Mackey. In that film, Mackey gets into a showdown with a pushy interviewer and deflects questions by showboating. When Mackey gets antsy, he does a backflip in his underwear. When Cruise doesn’t want to say if he’s marrying Holmes, he distracts attention by falling to one knee — a crowd-pleasing move Mackey stole from Elvis.

It wasn’t until after the show aired that Tugman realized he’d been a witness to pop-culture history: Tom Cruise scaring Oprah by jumping on a couch. “I heard about it as more of an Internet thing and was like, ‘Oh my God, I was there for that,'” he says.

Except Cruise never jumps on a couch.

It is Oprah who seeds the idea that he should stand on it. She thanks Cruise for attending her recent Legends Ball, where she honored Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. “I turned and looked at one point and you were standing in the chair going, ‘Yes! Yes!'” she gushes to Cruise. “I loved that enthusiasm.” Minutes later, he stands on the couch for a second, and after she and the audience cheer that, he does it again. When she continues pressing him about marrying Holmes, he exhales, “I’m standing on your couch!” as if that’s the answer he thought was enough. All told, Cruise on the couch is less than three seconds of airtime.

For two decades, Cruise had tried to keep the spotlight on his work. Now it was fixated on him. Even the old guard — after years of chafing under his publicity restrictions, and finally freed from the need to appease the powerful Pat Kingsley — happily spun everything to fit the new narrative: Cruise was crazy.

Guided by his sister’s inexperienced hand, Cruise could only oblige, proposing to Katie Holmes and then debating the use of antidepressants (which Scientology opposes), specifically by a postpartum Brooke Shields, on The Today Show with Matt Lauer.

Kingsley never would have let the Today footage air. But Kingsley wasn’t there. “Afterward, I remember the PR people coming in and saying, ‘Well, none of that stuff on Scientology and Brooke Shields, that’s not going to be on the air,'” says Jim Bell, who at the time was executive producer of Today. “I started laughing and I said, ‘That’s probably going to be on a promo in about 30 minutes. It’s going to be airing in a loop.'”

Cruise hadn’t hurt his box-office draw — his movies continued to be successful. But Hollywood was convinced he was poison, a religious fanatic, and possibly unhinged. Three months later, Paramount boss Sumner Redstone, who had partnered with Cruise’s production company for 14 years, succumbed to the bad publicity and ended their professional relationship.

“His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount,” Redstone told the press. “It’s nothing to do with his acting ability — he’s a terrific actor. But we don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot.” In the six years before, Cruise’s movies had made 32 percent of Paramount’s revenue.

The Internet told us Tom Cruise killed Oprah. The truth is the Internet tried to kill him.

Today, when even ABCNews.com runs “5 Things to Know About George Clooney’s Fiancée Amal Alamuddin,” it’s hard to remember that just nine years ago, the worlds of tabloid and legitimate journalism were more sharply defined. In turn, we’ve become more cynical about click-baiting headlines, even as celebrities have figured out the new rules. After the summer of Cruise and the couch, celebrities go on network TV fully aware that anything they say could go viral. Actors weaned on the web can wield it to their advantage: Think Emma Stone lip-synching on Jimmy Fallon.

Today’s Internet-driven media culture isn’t necessarily worse than the one run by the big, boring conglomerates Pat Kingsley expertly controlled. Even Cruise has figured out how to navigate the new playing field.

But the lesson came at a cost.

Building up to 2005, Cruise had tackled some of the most challenging dramas of any actor of his generation: Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky. Even his popcorn flicks — Minority Report, Collateral, War of the Worlds — were intriguingly dark. He’d never played it safe or shot a cash-grab. He trusted that if he chose movies he believed in, the audience would follow.

Post-2005, we’ve lost out on the audacious films that only Hollywood’s most powerful and consistent star could have convinced studios to green-light. Cruise was in his mid-forties prime — the same years when Newman made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting — and here he was lying low. Imagine the daring roles he hasn’t dared to pursue. Cruise’s talent and clout were responsible for an unparalleled string of critical and commercial hits. We gave that up for a GIF.

Like an insistent heart monitor, the box-office numbers continually prove Cruise is alive, but even he seems to have been convinced of his own premature demise. He’d finally opened up and been harshly punished. When Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol was deemed his comeback (not that he’d ever made a flop; even Knight & Day earned its money back), he decided audiences wanted only one version of Tom Cruise: the action hero he’d never wanted to become. He has even said yes to Top Gun 2.

Cruise’s present-day, crowd-pleasing action crutch hasn’t been bad. He has given every film his all, and some of them have been quite good.

His latest, Edge of Tomorrow, is ambitious fun. Cruise plays Lt. Col. Bill Cage, a smooth-talking, cowardly army recruiter forced to fight on the front lines of mankind’s make-or-break battle against alien species the Mimics. No one expects him to live more than a few minutes. And he doesn’t.

But Edge of Tomorrow‘s high-concept twist is that, to his surprise, every time Cruise is killed, time resets and he wakes up the day before the battle, alive and eager to try again until he gets it right. It’s an energetic blockbuster that balances Wile E. Coyote cartoon hijinks with his painful, unending martyrdom. It’s also a nifty parallel to Cruise himself: the last great screen hero who refuses to die.

It won’t earn him an Academy Award, but maybe he still has time. After all, Newman won his Oscar at 61.

Amy Nicholson is the chief film critic at LA Weekly. Her book Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor will be published in July by Cahiers du Cinema/Phaidon Press.

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Top Gunned

It was Jason Tugman’s first day of work. Almost a decade later, he still remembers the screams.

A former circus fire-eater, he’d taken a job as a lighting technician for The Oprah Winfrey Show after burning off a chunk of his tongue. The pay was $32 an hour and he didn’t want to screw it up. But as Tugman carefully hung black curtains in Studio B, directly behind the orange set where Oprah taped, those screams wouldn’t stop. The crowd sounded as if it might tear the building down.

“I could just hear the audience going absolutely apeshit,” Tugman says. “Just the absolute losing of minds.” He glanced at a monitor that transmitted a silent live feed. Tom Cruise was on a couch.

You can probably picture it in your head: Cruise, dressed in head-to-toe black, looming over a cowering Oprah as he jumps like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Cruise bouncing on that couch is one of the touchstones of the last decade, the punch line every time someone writes about his career.

There’s just one catch: It never happened.

 

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Summer Movies Don’t Have to Suck: 10 You Should See


The phrase “summer movies” will never not mean broad, action-driven crowd-pleasers to me: I counted the days until Batman (June 23, 1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (July 3, 1991), and Jurassic Park (June 11, 1993) were released. For every Dark Knight there are 10 Prometheuses — and that’s just among the films that are actually trying to be good — but the hype and anticipation of summer movies remains a fun spectator sport. (More fun than sports, anyway.) Here, 10 from Memorial Day weekend and after for which I have, as the song says, high hopes.

IT MIGHT GET LOUD — sci-fi/action

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23) — So far, three out of four X-Men pictures have delivered the goods. This time-traveling epic melds the cast of the first three (Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, etc.), set in “the not too distant future,” with the 1960s company of 2011’s X-Men: First Class (Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, what do you want from a movie, anyway? Peter Dinklage? Done.) Based on a beloved storyline from the Uncanny X-Men comic book, this one has the X-Men of a bleak future in which mutant-human warfare has scorched the Earth dispatching Wolverine back to the Nixon era to do a little history-tinkering. Why do we care? Because Bryan Singer, who directed the first two, has returned. There’s a severe risk this thing could be an overcrowded, incomprehensible mess, but Singer has earned some faith. Even his Superman Returns was an interesting failure, a surprisingly gentle, muted blockbuster. At least it wasn’t another cookie-cutter spandex-and-CGI multi-platform-synergy deliverable. Confidence: 70 percent.

Edge of Tomorrow (June 6) — Eerily youthful 51-year-old Tom Cruise’s second humans-vs.-alien invaders flick in two years has a Groundhog Day–like premise: Each day, his character perishes in battle trying to defend Earth, then wakes up, memories intact, to live that day and fight that fight again. If we’re to sit through the same battle scene several times, please let it be briefer and more bracing than the ones in every Marvel movie. The film is based on a Japanese novella by the superior (if syntactically suspect) title All You Need Is Kill. In the trailer, Cruise and Emily Blunt bound around in suits of powered armor like the kind Robert Heinlein wrote about in Starship Troopers. Cruise’s late-career retrench as an action star has been working for him, mostly, and director Doug Liman is a veteran of troubled productions that emerged as solid popcorn flicks, namely, The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. (Also Swingers, lest we forget, baby.) Bill Paxton is in this, too? I’m there. Confidence: 60 percent.

Snowpiercer (June 27, limited release) — After a too-successful attempt to reverse global warming ushers in a new ice age, the remnants of humankind live aboard a massive train that never stops moving, and where a rigid class system is enforced. “Absurd!” says you. “Fable-like,” says I. The South Korean–American coproduction, based on a French graphic novel and shot entirely in Prague, marks the English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who made 2006’s fine allegorical creature feature The Host. It’ll be a worldly picture, if nothing else. Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton are all in it, along with two of The Host‘s stars, Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung. Already a hit in South Korea, where it was released in August 2013, the picture sounds like a modern Soylent Green, or a smarter riff on 2013’s disappointing Elysium. Confidence: 80 percent.

Lucy (August 8) — Six years into the glorious reign of Marvel Studios and still only vague, noncommittal rumblings about a Black Widow solo flick? Screw that. After Under the Skin — the best thing that’s sauntered into cinemas this year — we are living in the age of Scarlett Johansson. Here she stars as a drug mule who gains superpowers after a bag of whatever she’s smuggling ruptures inside her body. Quality control is nonexistent with writer-director Luc Besson, who has become the David O. Selznick of sleazy action flicks, writing and producing the Taken trilogy, among others. Here, the director of La Femme Nikita and Léon: The Professional returns to the big chair, shooting in Paris, New York, and Taipei, in one of the world’s tallest buildings. I have a feeling he and Johansson will bring something out in one another. Confidence: 60 percent.

LAUGH IT UP, FUZZBALL — comedies

They Came Together (June 27) — Talk about kicking a genre while it’s down. This fifth collaboration of director David Wain and star Paul Rudd sends up romantic comedies, positioning Rudd and the up-for-anything Amy Poehler as lovers and rivals. The script is by Wain and Michael Showalter, who wrote the inexhaustibly hilarious Wet Hot American Summer together. Among the cast of comedians — Bill Hader, Cobie Smulders, Ed Helms, Ken Marino — famous scowlers Christopher Meloni and Michael Shannon should really shine. Confidence: 80 percent.

Let’s Be Cops (August 13) — If any movie on this list could make Godzilla seem highbrow, it’s this bro-y farce about two 30-year-old frat boys who dress as policemen for a costume party before Wackiness Ensues. Why, then? The bros are Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson, who’ve already proven their comic chemistry on TV’s New Girl. Rob Riggle is here, too, along with a lot of groin-injury jokes, presumably. Come the sweltering, skull-softening dog days of August, you’ll be begging to fork over your $12. Q: Can I explain why I’m more excited for this than for 22 Jump Street? A: Not really; Channing Tatum/Jonah Hill fatigue, maybe. Confidence: 50.001 percent.

The Trip to Italy (August 15, limited) — A road movie about two past-their-prime Brits wining and dining their way through the sun-dappled Italian countryside? Only if they’re Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, reuniting with director Michael Winterbottom in this second course to 2011’s The Trip. (Like that film, this was a BBC series whittled to feature length for a theatrical run.) If The Trip is a reliable harbinger, they’ll keep the annoying foodie-talk to a minimum and the simmering mutual antagonism — and perhaps the dueling Michael Caine impressions — turned up to 11.

THE METHOD RHYTHM — dramas

Night Moves (May 30, limited) — Who knows why co-writer–director Kelly Reichardt repurposed the title of a great Arthur Penn detective movie from 1975 for her drama about environmental activists plotting to blow up a dam? Her brilliant, languorous western, Meek’s Cutoff, was the spiritual photo-negative of the “summer movie,” thoughtful and unresolved. This one has at least a whiff of a thriller engine, which could be a good thing or a less-good thing. Stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard. Sold. Confidence: 80 percent.

Boyhood (July 11, limited) — Writer-director Richard Linklater re-teams with his Before trilogy confederate Ethan Hawke for this story of a kid’s shifting relationship with his divorced parents (Hawke and Patricia Arquette). In 2002, Linklater cast seven-year-old Ellar Coltrane and shot scenes with him every summer through 2013, allowing us to watch Coltrane grow into a young man before our eyes. Has no one has used this gimmick in a fiction film before now? Not on this scale, apparently. I’m glad a filmmaker as sensitive and reliable as Linklater got there first. Confidence: 95 percent.

A Most Wanted Man (July 25, limited) — Who better to direct a twitchy John le Carré adaptation set in post–9-11 Hamburg than Anton Corbijn, the photographer-turned-filmmaker who got U2 to not-smile for album covers for decades? His prior existential thriller, 2010’s The American, was a lean, chilly gem that hearkened back to the morally ambiguous suspense pictures of the ’70s. Besides featuring one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances (the film was shot in 2012), the film features Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, and Daniel Brühl. Confidence: 85 percent.

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YOU HAD ME AT ‘TOM CRUISE’

You know him from Top Gun, Rain Man, and Jerry Maguire. But have you ever experienced Tom Cruise during the holidays? For one night only, Upright Citizens Brigade is welcoming Mr. Cruise (OK, OK, it’s comedian and Cruise impersonator Brandon Gulya) for The Fucking Tom Cruise Christmas Special. In this show, the A­-list actor spreads holiday cheer by teaching us his favorite festive songs and sharing special holiday memories about his Hollywood friends and family. If only Gulya could be joined by a Suri impersonator.

Mon., Dec. 23, 8 p.m., 2013

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Tom Cruise Can Still Be Great — Why Aren’t His Movies?

Though he’s long been among the most recognizable celebrities in the world, Tom Cruise has always seemed vaguely irritating, like the popular kid at school everybody secretly dislikes. His is an odd sort of fame: globally recognized but rarely acclaimed, he remains more reliably bankable than nearly any other actor of his generation, his presence an almost guaranteed boon to a film’s bottom line despite being a magnet for bad press and, in recent years especially, mild scandal.

Part of the problem, of course, is that our gossip-saturated conception of celebrity culture privileges private controversy over professional achievement. That’s why, in the public imagination, a few years of incriminating tabloid headlines have apparently eclipsed the accomplishments of a three-decade career, effectively transforming a once-celebrated star into a spectacle of folly.

What’s strange about this perceptual shift isn’t so much that a respected actor’s reputation has been summarily tarnished—it would hardly be the first time public sentiment curdled so suddenly, as it did with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle—as it is that Cruise’s recent bout with popular opinion began during one of his career’s most prosperous periods.

In 2005, the year of his notorious couch-hopping meltdown, Cruise had just delivered back-to-back performances in two of his most compelling films: first came Michael Mann’s groundbreaking foray into digital filmmaking, Collateral, in which Cruise played a virtuoso hitman chauffeured around downtown Los Angeles by a reluctant cabbie, played by Jamie Foxx. Collateral found Cruise consciously subverting an increasingly shopworn routine, suppressing his trademark charisma and recalibrating his charm toward something decidedly understated.

Cruise starred in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds the following year. Though not particularly well-received upon release—at least by the standards of Spielberg, whose previous film with Cruise, 2002’s Minority Report, was a massive hit both critically and commercially—it seems apparent now that Worlds represented a serious effort on the part of both director and star to grapple with some of the lingering residual anxieties of the period. In many ways the film endures as one of the definitive works of post-9/11 cinema. Our cultural conversation neglected this dimension of the film in favor of vacuous rumor-mongering, which suggests the degree to which we value watercooler gossip over deep engagement.

Not that any of this was new to Cruise, mind you. He’d already sparred with the press in a years-long public relations battle more than five years before Scientology and Oprah’s couch ever entered the discussion, when aspersions cast on his sexuality eclipsed recognition of his work. This was around 1999, the actor’s artistic peak. That was the year in which Cruise starred in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the great director’s final film and arguably his richest, as well as appearing in a crucial supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely hailed Magnolia.

What these movies share—more than simply being major, somewhat difficult works by important, infamously difficult filmmakers—is that they more or less relegate Cruise to a position of weakness, simultaneously tapping into his stardom and pointedly undermining it. Eyes Wide Shut finds Cruise being shut down and emasculated at every turn; Magnolia, meanwhile, finds his exaggeratedly macho poses thoroughly deconstructed, his persona exposed as phony.

These qualities prove intriguing, but they also prove, more significantly, that Cruise was once willing to relinquish control of his image to filmmakers whose creative judgment he clearly trusted, which resulted in work of surprising intelligence and sophistication—unsurprisingly, some of the best of his career. Lately, however, Cruise has taken the opposite approach: rather than actively seek roles that challenge his iconography and legacy, he’s receded into complacency and, even worse, seemingly desperate self-mythologizing.

When he isn’t busy reprising one of his least interesting roles—Mission Impossible‘s milquetoast hero Ethan Hunt—he’s hard at work (re)building his own reputation from the ground up, furiously reasserting his masculine prowess and utter infallibility in such trifles as Jack Reacher and the antiseptic sci-fi trifle Oblivion.

It’s not that these roles or even films are bad, necessarily—though Jack Reacher is pretty lousy—but rather that they’re uninteresting, which for an actor once respected for making genuinely daring choices is disappointing. Cruise seems stuck making films for the sake of his agent rather than for his audience or the cinema. Perhaps this is simply an extended period of downtime for an actor known to occasionally phone it in, as he did in Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.

But it’s possible that maybe this is a delayed response to how often we’ve ignored Cruise’s capacity to branch out and surprise, a kind of career shrug from a guy resigned to the fact that, no matter how hard he tries, we’ll always focus on his personal life instead of his talent. Whenever Tom Cruise most obviously deserves acclaim and recognition, the cameras are directed toward something private and wholly unrelated, and the conversation shifts from praise to scrutiny to vehement rejection.

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Oblivion: Tom Cruise is an App That Producers Can Buy to Power a Blockbuster

The good news: Here’s a lavish, serious science-fiction picture, one that on occasion transcends big-budget hit-making convention to glance against grandeur. Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, based on his own graphic novel, is one of those futuristic puzzlers whose dramatic energies are most invested not in the characters or their fates, exactly, but in the slow revelation of its own premise. You’ll begin to doubt the story’s initial setup—it’s 2077, and the Earth is mostly uninhabitable after humanity defeated an invading alien force—the second its hero mentions having recently had his memory wiped and that his wife has been “assigned” to him.

Which brings us to Tom Cruise, the not-necessarily-good news. However engaging its end-times mysteries, Oblivion is still a Tom Cruise movie. He’s rarely credible these days playing specific humans, but he is without peer as Mr. Charge-Ahead Movie Hero, the guy who feels only one thing at a time, always exactly what the scene demands. (His default mode: relentless determination.) He’s like some premium plot-moving app producers can download for their blockbusters—but he comes with the usual bugs. To witness Oblivion‘s marvels, you’ll have to watch him do all he does in movie after movie: modeling jumpsuits and sunglasses; racing about on a dirt bike; getting tied to a chair; running in that stiff and measured way that makes him look like an animated GIF titled “Tom Cruise Running.”

Here, as in Minority Report, he’s excellent when he’s in motion but risible when he slows down to ache over the normal life his characters are always denied—are we truly meant to believe these engineered-to-move Cruise supermen would prefer the familial idyll?

Still, in the first act, Cruise proves ideally suited to the role. He’s his usual everyman/automaton, a man who’s just like any of us except that he’s the absolute best at everything he tries, ever. Here, in a Yankees cap that reminds us he’s still all-American even a generation after America, he’s a technician charged with monitoring a large swath of the abandoned Eastern Seaboard as the rest of humanity, on a towering space station, preps to be shipped off to Titan. He’s called Jack Harper—is there a spigot in Hollywood that dispenses action hero names?—and each day he zips down to Earth from his home in the clouds, a Frank Lloyd Wright casserole dish speared atop a Jetsons pole. Down here, in his flying machine, he traverses the canyons of a ruined U.S. to monitor and repair the patrol drones that space station dispatches to protect—well, just what they’re protecting is a third-act revelation you’ll have to wonder about until Harper finally does. (The Cruise app never thinks more than required.)

Those drones look like Luke Skywalker’s helmet tricked out with guns and the eye of HAL; they’re wicked, next-tech marvels with the weight and presence of old-fashioned special effects—you never doubt that they’re really there, somehow, on the set with Cruise. Cruise’s early adventures with them in what’s left of New York unfold with a suspenseful patience rare in movies this expensive. At its best, as Cruise explores a ruined stadium or a cratered library, Oblivion takes on the immersiveness of the greatest video games—with apologies to the late Mr. Ebert, that’s a compliment. Here’s your cypher/avatar, picking through a wide-open alien environment, with time given for you to savor the world around you. Director Kosinski proves himself talented in ways his Tron: Legacy didn’t suggest. You might wish he’d been allowed to indulge in longer, prouder shots of his wonders, la the Kubrick he seems to admire.

But Cruise is contractually required to sprint, and drones tend to get turned on the drone-keeper. So the stately opening gives way to explosions and plot: There’s an invasive alien species to deal with, as well as the usual tattered squad of post-apocalyptic refugees. Plus, the mission-control overseers Harper reports to (they’re on that space station) seem to have interests other his own in mind.

Andrea Riseborough is officious and funny in a role that should be less familiar than it is, the hive-minded beauty chosen to be Tom Cruise’s wife. Morgan Freeman, featured prominently in the advertising, only has a couple of scenes, which also echo video games, but in the bad way. Like a cut-scene character, he doles out exposition and seems programmed to do what he does no matter how our hero responds. The third act bogs down with twists and answers, many of which you’ll see coming before Harper pauses even to consider them, but the ending—which involves another patient immersion in another strange world—inspires awe. The hard choices Harper makes are ones characters have faced since we first started telling stories, but Oblivion does achieve an inhuman majesty.