Recently I had the chance to see two Tom Cruise flicks on video back to back: Mission Impossible and Rain Main.
While never a fan of Tom Cruise as an action hero, I've found myself pondering as to what makes even flicks like Mission Impossible work despite the significant flaws. This, of course, leads me to wonder how Cruise will handle the upcoming War of the Worlds film and if the back story Steven Spielberg has spun into the role might give deeper meaning to the character and the film than is the case with films like Mission Impossible.
I never liked Cruise in Top Gun - but when Rain Man came out, I dug deep in my pocket for repeat performances - as I also did for The Color of Money.
I resisted seeing Mission Impossible for years, partly out of resentment against the filmmaker for messing with one of my favorite TV shows. I knew from the start that no one would be able to top the original.
And as my recent viewing of the film uncovered, I was right.
Yet somehow, in the midst of an extremely flawed film, where gaps of logic and over obvious plot devices seem destined to make viewing a miserable experience, the film survives - Cruise, and his old style movie star appeal apparently managing to keep the film from completely falling a part.
On screen, Cruise is bigger than life, recalling for me some of the power I got from people like Bogart or Gary Cooper, managing by sheer presence to transform the film into something special.
Mission Impossible would have been a phenomenal flop without his face being broadcast through critical scenes. The villain - who is obvious from the first scene - is hardly convincing. The plot line trite and often boring on too confusing even for the most paranoid. The clever tricks typical of the original Mission Impossible relied too much on modern technology, showing just how unimaginative the writers were in developing solutions to problems. In fact, the most traumatic scene deep inside the CIA's headquarters was lifted straight out of a 1950s jewel thief movie - except for the lap top computer. Having seen the original so many times, the watered down version in Mission Impossible provided no new thrills.
Lacking experience as a trained film critic, I needed to see Cruise in a more critical context to better appreciate his talents and what it is he brings to each film, flawed or not. In Rain Man, Cruise is pitted against one of the monumental character actors of our time, Dustin Hoffman, and somehow manages to hold his own.
Part of his success on screen is the huge back story Rain Man provides for Cruise's character, where we see his contemporary actions illuminated by the glow of the past, his bitterness towards his father, his greedy need to success, his shallow-front that hides painful feelings. In many ways, Cruise and Hoffman become mirror images of each other, but twisted in an important way. Hoffman's character's defects are on the outside, shown from the start with the story gradually pealing them away to reveal something powerful and tender behind the mumbling and bumbling. Cruise's character's flaws are all hidden behind a slick front, a player whose schemes will eventually allow him to break through and become important. But something constantly gets in the way of his plans, some unrealized being struggling to escape the hip shell he has manufactured the way Hoffman's character's internal being is attempting to escape the defective shell.
Rain Man is about these two inner personalities emerging, drawn out towards each other, each needing the other to make some complete interaction.
In viewing the spectrum of Cruise's roles in these two films, I began to understand how talented a performer Cruise is, able to hold our attention even with a flawed cartoon character like the one he plays in Mission Impossible where the plot is largely a string of action sequences and daring acts that lack any real attractiveness except to keep up guessing long enough for us to plunge into the next scene.
Cruise's character is an agent betrayed, but beyond that we know little about his past, or what really makes him tick. Who is he? Where did he come from? Where will he go when the movie ends? Why should we like him and side with him when the plot shows that he has been betrayed?
Somehow Cruise carries along, convinces us with body language and subtle expressions that he really is on the right side, and gives us a slightly deeper character without a script to justify it. Perhaps in his head, he built his own back story, playing it out without words in order to make his character convincing.
Of course, it is unfair to compare the two films since Mission Impossible was never meant to be more than a lump of sugar for us to digest while enjoying a few hours reprieve in an air conditioned movie theater at the height of the summer heat. The movie was never meant to move us in any meaningful way - the way Rain Man was.
In covering the scene of Cruise's latest movie, and sorting through the clues to the new character for the new summer block bluster, I find a kind of cross between these two movies, with War of the Worlds promising to be a summer block bluster that will also provide a significant back story against which Cruise can play, and if his talents are up to the task, we might have more than just another sugary treat to digest when the film is released on June 29.Contact Al Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org