Summer of Cruise III: The era of the “Tom Cruise Picture”

“I’m more afraid of being nothing than I am of being hurt.” – Cole Trickle, Days of Thunder

The only thing more difficult than becoming a movie star is remaining one, and that is the challenge Tom Cruise faced in the wake of Risky Business and Top Gun. Many an actor has gotten big breaks like those, only to quickly fade away into the background. However, if you are familiar with Cruise’s personality and work ethic, you know he was not going to let that happen. In fact, he barely even took a moment to appreciate his own success, and he spent the rest of the ‘80s stringing together hit after hit in order to keep his name in the spotlight. He was smart about it, too, balancing commercial projects with slightly more prestigious fare. We will get to the latter category in a later post, but for now, let us focus on three films in which he attempted to capitalize on the “young hotshot” image he so successfully created in Top Gun.

In his review of 1990’s Days of Thunder, Roger Ebert describes the several elements that make up what he calls the “Tom Cruise Picture,” and he quite aptly sums up this phase of Cruise’s career. In the Tom Cruise Picture, you will find:

“1. The Cruise character, invariably a young and naive but naturally talented kid who could be the best, if ever he could tame his rambunctious spirit.

2. The Mentor, an older man who has done it himself and has been there before and knows talent when he sees it, and who has faith in the kid even when the kid screws up because his free spirit has gotten the best of him.

3. The Superior Woman, usually older, taller and more mature than the Cruise character, who functions as a Mentor for his spirit, while the male Mentor supervises his craft.

4. The Craft, which the gifted young man must master.

5. The Arena, in which the young man is tested.

6. The Arcana, consisting of the specialized knowledge and lore that the movie knows all about, and we get to learn.

7. The Trail, a journey to visit the principal places where the masters of the craft test one another.

8. The Proto-Enemy, the bad guy in the opening reels of the movie, who provides the hero with an opponent to practice on. At first the Cruise character and the Proto-Enemy dislike each other, but eventually through a baptism of fire they learn to love one another.

9. The Eventual Enemy, a real bad guy who turns up in the closing reels to provide the hero with a test of his skill, his learning ability, his love, his craft and his knowledge of the Arena and the Arcana.”

Not coincidentally, Days of Thunder wound up being the film that ultimately ended the Tom Cruise Picture phase of the star’s career, but more on that later. Now, I shall start with a film that actually was released the same year as Top Gun: Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, a kinda-sorta sequel to the 1961 film The Hustler, in which Paul Newman returns as a pool hustler named “Fast Eddie” Felson. This time around, he discovers a protégé in Cruise’s Vincent Lauria.

One of the more interesting things about The Color of Money is how Cruise’s character winds up being more of a supporting player than you might initially expect. He also wound up being a bit of a supporting player when it came to the buzz surrounding the movie, as it went on to win Newman an Academy Award. While certainly a Tom Cruise Picture in every sense of Ebert’s term, in the second half the film’s focus shifts primarily over to Newman’s journey, which ultimately builds up to the wonderful final line of “I’m back!”

Cruise has charisma to spare in this film, but the nature of the plot, along with Scorsese’s direction, ultimately doesn’t leave him with many chances to leave a mark. However, he did himself a huge favor by actually learning how to play pool and do it well. This not only helped his performance, but it allowed Scorsese to pull off some breathtaking shots of what should be a rather un-cinematic pastime. In many ways, Cruise’s involvement in The Color of Money speaks to the genius of his early career choices. He could have jumped right into a Top Gun sequel, or some other project sure to make him all the money in the world right away. Instead, he went to work with Scorsese and Newman on a pool movie, and it shows that right at the start, Cruise was playing the long game.


By the end of the ‘80s, however, Cruise’s films were making money left and right, and he was doing it with films that would never make so much money today. No year better exemplified this than 1988, when Cruise starred in two of the top 10 grossing movies of the year. At the top of the list is Rain Man, which is pretty incredible when you think about the kinds of movies that make tons of money today. Here is a drama about a man and his autistic brother, and it was more successful than everything else that came out in 1988. If it were released today, I’d be surprised if it even won its own opening weekend.

But I digress, since Rain Man will be more thoroughly explored next month. Let’s instead look at number nine on the list of top-grossing films in 1988: Cocktail. This is another weird one, in that it’s about a Cruise character who leaves the military and starts bartending. That’s about it, and as a result this feels like a 100-minute prologue to a much more interesting movie, since it sets up a situation where our protagonist would actually have to, you know, accomplish something. This is a script that starts with a good premise and a solid enough relationship between Cruise and veteran bartender Bryan Brown, but then every development feels completely arbitrary and forced, the film loses all momentum, and then it ends. If I were to ask the filmmakers why anything happens in this movie, I feel as though they would respond with a simple “because.”

Cocktail can best be summed up in one scene, when Cruise and Brown perform an impressive bartending routine that involves throwing bottles, cups and ice cubes in the air for several minutes. It’s all very elaborate, but it results in only a couple drinks, and the bar is very crowded. It may have seemed cool and all, but it was actually an inefficient use of time and resources, and by the end not all that much had happened. Cruise’s charm has elevated, and even saved, movies before, but Cocktail is a case where his charm is pretty much all the film has. Not even Elisabeth Shue can salvage the proceedings, since the film asks her to do little else beside fall in love with Tom Cruise, and then stand off to the side until he comes to save her. The film might have had something if it was actually about Cruise and Shue running off and attempting to start their life together, but instead it ends on a very sudden note of “happily ever after” and then rolls the credits. This is a case of a film and I having fundamental disagreements on the kinds of stories we find interesting.

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Speaking of movies I don’t find interesting: Days of Thunder. I mentioned earlier that this film more or less marked the end of the “Tom Cruise Picture,” and I suppose it’s fitting that this phenomenon ended right where it began: with director Tony Scott and the producing team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Top Gun never had an official sequel, but this is probably the closest we’ve ever come to making that a reality. Days of Thunder takes the action from the skies and transfers it to the racetrack, where Cruise plays a guy who comes out of nowhere and takes the NASCAR world by storm. Right from the moment Cruise’s character Cole Trickle (yup) arrives on the scene riding a motorcycle, he’s supposed to be the coolest customer around. When asked where he learned to race, he confidently responds with “ESPN.” All in all, Days of Thunder doesn’t treat Cruise’s character much differently than was seen in Top Gun, but where the latter charmed audiences, the former wasn’t quite as successful.

Much of the blame for this can be placed on the shoulders of the Trickle character himself, who isn’t half as likable as his predecessor Maverick. He is a jerk, plain and simple, and this is never more obvious than in the scene when he first meets his doctor/love interest, played by Cruise’s soon-to-be wife Nicole Kidman. Based on an unrelated incident that occurred earlier in the movie, Cruise assumes Kidman to be a stripper who has come to entertain him. Nope, she’s just a doctor, but this truly comical misunderstanding goes on for a few minutes. It’s every bit as cringe-worthy as it sounds, and it speaks to the dumb macho energy that was driving the production of Days of Thunder. (Pun not intended.) Cruise, Bruckheimer, Simpson and Scott were all at the height of their power, and this film was the result of all their egos crashing together without a single voice of reason to be found.

While Days of Thunder was a considerable success, it was not the sensation anyone anticipated. It probably would have been if released in the middle of the ’80s, but in 1990 audience interests were starting to drift elsewhere. As such, Cruise realized that he had to adapt. With the start of the ’90s, Cruise’s young hotshot phase was over, and this transition into a new decade had the potential to derail his career. Would he survive this shift? Not to spoil future blog posts, but yes. Yes he would.

Next week: We’ll stay in the same era, but instead look at three of Cruise’s more prestigious films: Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, and A Few Good Men.

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