It was weird there for a minute. And The Great Tabloiding looked like it had the potential and momentum do him in. The schadenfreudenistas rubbed their hands together, happily counting down Tom Cruise's public demise, and a few bland film roles, the kind less self-aware movie stars take for all kinds of wheel-spinning reasons, made it look like he was scrambling after a career of very precise choices. It was enough to make you think that there might be nothing inside but wacky science-fiction religion.

Except then came the thrillingly entertaining Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. And the off-kilter Jack Reacher (never has the line “Weird to meet you,” been more appropriately tossed his way). Next to Mary J. Blige singing Pat Benatar songs he was the coolest, strangest thing in the rotten Rock of Ages. He took what you believed about him and threw it back at you. Yes, a weirdo. Yes, a movie star. He would be both, no matter how long it took.

Cruise plays Cage, a military officer who’s never seen battle, functioning instead as a media specialist, the kind of guy who winks at you and gives you the smarm-chills. After butting heads with the wrong higher-up, he’s shipped off to battle against an unstoppable alien force. He dies fairly quickly in the process. Then he dies again. And again.

Why? Well, sci-fi reasons, necessitating that Cage learn, vintage video game style, how to zig right instead of zagging left like he did the last time he died. Or else he dies again. Along the way he meets jacked-up killing machine Rita, played by Emily Blunt (that’s right, “Emily Blunt” and “jacked-up killing machine” in the same sentence – and yes, she’s perfectly cast against type and it’s entirely plausible in context). She trains him. Then he dies again. He gets used to it.

Supporting this strenuous and possibly doomed stint in alien-battling boot camp is exactly what every movie star needs to make him look his best: a vehicle that gives a damn about its own existence. That’s not to say it’s a movie about much, unless the new definition of “much” encompasses the relentless killing of monsters that resemble deadly tumbleweeds made of razor wire. But Doug Liman’s energetic direction, the witty, mostly coherent script from Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, the breathless, brutal and still comprehensible action sequences and tightly rhythmic editing from Dion Beebe and James Herbert, respectively, create a kind of delirious descent into blackly funny futility. Collectively, they take their actor, turn him into Mecha-Sisyphus and then hammer you with his despair. For a second you believe he may not make it out alive.

But this is Tom Cruise. He's going to make it, whether it's here or in his somewhat analogous off-screen life. It’s aliens he’s fighting or it's bad PR or it's another ex-wife or it's collective public side-eye. Not important. With each new on-screen test, his face shifts slightly, eyes dart back and forth more rapidly, reflexes sharpen, response time shaved down to nothing. He's in competition with himself. He will work harder and harder and harder until he gets it right. He will not give up. Aliens will die, and the world and its movie star system of checks and balances will be saved again.

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