For as long as there have been movies, there have been movie stars, but few movie stars have been better at being movie stars than Tom Cruise.
Forget about his personal life. Forget about what happens offscreen. If you concentrate simply on his body of work and his performances, there has rarely been a more effective leading man than Cruise. With Edge of Tomorrow hitting theaters (and reminding everyone that no one is as good at leading a mainstream action movie as him), it's time to pay tribute to current king of blockbusters. In a world where movie stars are a dying breed, Cruise makes it look easy.
He always plays a type...
There's no getting around it: Tom Cruise does play a type. Even when he's playing a funny character or a romantic lead, he tends to lean hard on his stoicism, with his trademark smile feeling a little distant and dangerous. If you ask Cruise to tackle a role that requires more than a few basic layers, he's probably not going to deliver. But that's why you rarely see him venture outside of his comfort zone: he does one thing really, really well.
...but he never phones it in.
And what's wrong with doing one thing very well? Cruise's ambition as an actor isn't that extraordinary, but you'll never find a single instance of him half-assing his particular type. You may not like Cruise and you may not care for his limited range, but few stars of his stature have ever given 110% in each and every performance. From Jack Reacher to Magnolia, Cruise gives it his all, committing to his part with every fiber of his being. When Cruise engages in his narrow skill set, he's always convincing and never boring. He owns his characters like few movie stars do.
He's an incredible collaborator.
There's a reason so many tales of movie star egotism exist: many of them are true. It's hard to say for sure what Cruise is like as a human being (the last thing we're going to do here is engage in tabloid BS), but there are few bankable stars who seem so generous and willing to share the screen with incredible actors.
Take Mission: Impossible 3, where Cruise goes toe-to-toe with the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman and lets him walk away with the movie. Take A Few Good Men, where he's seemingly happy to let Jack Nicholson rock out the film's most famous scene. Cruise may be the pretty-boy action hero at the center of so many many blockbusters, but he's the perfect slate for wilder actors to bounce off.
He's not afraid to take on risky projects...
If Tom Cruise played it safe, he never would have starred in films like Magnolia. In fact, Cruise's filmography is filled with weird and wild projects that reflect a star willing to try something strange and crazy. An actor wanting to play it safe never would have signed on to something like Vanilla Sky. He wouldn't have touched something as politically volatile as Born on the Fourth of July. Hell, it's hard to imagine any actor looking at the script for Eyes Wide Shut and deciding that making it would be beneficial to his career. Let's face it: narrow range or not, Cruise wants to partake in as many different types of films as possible.
...and he's not afraid to completely embarrass himself.
Aside from critically and financially risky projects, Cruise has a lack of shame that's uncommon in a star of his magnitude. He famously went fat, bald and hairy for his truly bizarre role in Tropic Thunder, but let's face it: the real WTF Tom Cruise performance is in Rock of Ages, where he plays an aging rock star.
Cruise can't really sing and he can't really pull off the trashy sexuality the role demands, but watching him make the effort is simply fascinating. He's obviously operating outside of his comfort zone, but he never actually seems particularly uncomfortable. Rock of Ages is a bad movie and this role one of Cruise's worst performances, but you walk away blaming the movie, not him.
His science fiction oeuvre is untouchable.
Although Cruise has worked across all genres, he's carved out a special niche in the world of science fiction. Most actors would be lucky to star in Minority Report or War of the Worlds or Edge of Tomorrow, but one guy? That's unreal. Although critical reaction to Oblivion was mixed (spoiler alert: it's pretty good!), Cruise has found himself attached to sci-fi spectacles that actually try to do things we have never seen before.
From Minority Report's massively influential world building (which has spilled into real-life technology) to the emotionally devastating 9/11 allegory of War of the Worlds, Cruise has anchored some of the best sci-fi of the past 15 years, helping them get made in the first place with his star power. The mere fact that he was attached to lead Guillermo del Toro's tragically ill-fated At the Mountains of Madness tells us all we need to know about his taste in genre projects.
He's never gotten in a Will Smith-esque rut.
Tom Cruise has had his fair share of dry patches, but he never seems to have completely stalled creatively. Compare him to the similarly powerful Will Smith, who has frequently followed up his successes by playing things way too safe. With the exception of the fairly awful Mission: Impossible II, Cruise rarely appears in films that are creatively bankrupt and his projects never feel like they're all about him. Movie-star egos are a very real thing and they can dominate a career and lead to safe, boring choices. With the exception of the Mission: Impossible franchise, there are refreshingly few sequels in Cruise's filmography. He's too busy making epics like The Last Samurai and down-and-dirty thrillers like Collateral to worry about maintaining a specific on-screen persona.
However, a Jack Reacher 2 would actually be nice. You're probably one of the fools who skipped it in theaters, so know this: Jack Reacher is really, really good.
He refuses to let his signature franchise get stale.
Cruise does have one signature franchise and, to his credit, he's never let it get boring. The Mission: Impossible films may be a showcase for Cruise as an action star, but as a producer, he's transformed them into a showcase for a wide range of eclectic directors.
In four entries, he's worked with Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird, letting each of them deliver their own unique take on the spy genre. As a producer on the franchise, Cruise could have easily insisted that these films all feel similar or follow strict continuity, but instead he's effectively let it run as an action anthology, allowing talented people to push it in fun and interesting directions rather than follow a dull template. None of the films feel connected in any way, but that's ultimately a strength. You can go into each of them without baggage and have a great time. Bring on Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible 5, please.
He is the best runner in the movies.
It may be a long running joke at this point, but have you actually sat down and watched this man run? His on-screen athleticism is unreal. No one can sprint like Tom Cruise.
He's immortal, apparently.
Tom Cruise is 52 years old, but you wouldn't know it. Like Keanu Reeves, he's seemingly immortal, a cyborg created by Hollywood to last until the film industry is destroyed in a distant apocalypse. Or he could be a wizard. Who knows at this point? All we know is that he's still stealing roles from 30-year-olds and that's just crazy. You have to admire that.
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