Onscreen personas — I love ’em, and I suspect many of us do or else we wouldn’t go to see movies featuring our favorite A-list actors and cult commodities at the drop of a dime. There’s something comforting yet inherently fascinating to the idea of an actor or actress playing a character on top of channeling an idea and energy that they’re known for in the wider zeitgeist. Take for example someone like Robert De Niro. We as an audience go in with a preconceived notion as to what a Robert De Niro performance will be because of the persona he’s cultivated over the years. It’ll probably be something exuding measured and traditional masculinity all the while a small stream of menace and danger flows underneath. Sometimes that menace and danger is expected to make an appearance in an geyser-like exhibition (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver); other times it’s chilled into a cold professionalism (Heat, Ronin). In both cases it’s fun to see that persona rub up against comedic foils (Midnight Run, Meet the Parents) and for that persona to be subverted or played with (The King of Comedy). In all these cases it always back to the idea of the through line of who Robert De Niro is onscreen and how appears to us in the public eye.
But it’s easier to identify personas that largely exist in the realm of drama or comedy. When it comes to action there’s a large amount of hegemony to wade through, basically because so much of the genre is wish fulfillment and therefore has to cater to an audience looking for an avatar to imprint onto (cis white male, age 18-35, etc.). However, within the action star persona there’s a subset of actors that incorporate their physicality as a part of what makes them so magnetic to audiences. These actors dare tempt fate by doing their own physical stunts.
You have your gold standards in the field. Buster “The Great Stone Face” Keaton would both portray a character who largely rolled with punches in life and do the riskiest stunts (largely thought up on the day of the shoot) all while never breaking a smile or grimace. Or his modern successor Jackie Chan who embodies the persona of a man who wants peace and order but no matter how much he tries to avoid it (“I don’t want any trouble”) he has to engage with the forces beyond his control in the most convenient course of action available to him, usually involving innocuous items used in not innocuous ways. You even have somebody like cult icon Bruce Campbell whose gags are considerably more low stakes than what Chan or Keaton are doing but just as enthralling. In this case it’s Campbell’s figure as someone with old-fashioned leading man looks combined with the brain and personality of an arrogant schmuck, all topped off with the physicality of a walking vaudevillian fall gag.
While all of these are legends in their own respects and in the cannon of film at large, none of them can claim to have reached the profile that Tom Cruise has. Tom Cruise and his persona are tricky to talk about for multiple reasons. For one he’s a walking anachronism at this point. It’s pretty much accepted as fact that Tom Cruise is the last 20th century male movie star to still have the same (relative) notoriety, reverence and box office pull around the world as he did 20 years ago. That alone could be the defining element of his persona. Yet there’s also the fact that Tom Cruise’s persona changes depending on what era of his career we are talking about. Are we talking about the cocky young and gifted Cruise of the early ’80s and ’90s, working as the heir to all of the legendary leading actors of the ’70s he’s co-starring with? (Voight, Newman, Nicholson, Hoffman and Hackman in a decade? I mean, come on.) Are we talking about the measured and professional superstar working with auteurs in the mid-’90s to ’00s to play with his previous persona? Or are we talking about Cruise, the purveyor of films your dad probably wants to see? There’s also the other wrinkle of the Cruise persona the media wants to focus on at the moment. Is it the heartthrob, the crazy Scientologist, or the onscreen daredevil?
But for me Cruise’s action persona can be summed up in about two words: Infallible Maniac.
Let me just say I think all of the aforementioned elements come into play in his action movies. The Mission: Impossible series serves as a snapshot as to where and who he is in his career with some running and punches thrown in. However, the “Infallible Maniac” idea and persona is the connective tissue that brings the more death-defying movies together.
The Infallible Maniac is exactly what it sounds like: a man so proficient and thorough that the sheer idea of failure is entertained but never taken seriously, while simultaneously exuding a frenzied (but other times jaw-clenchingly simmering) energy that makes you believe that this man can and will do everything within his capabilities to get the job done. This began popping up around the time of the first Mission: Impossible. It’s the tail end of his cocky, young and gifted persona but you start see him taking on stunts that give pause to his directors (and insurance agents, I’m sure). In the scene where Cruise playing Ethan Hunt is being debriefed by Kittridge we see the Infallible Maniac rear its head as Hunt immediately spots the seams of Kittridge’s set-up. Look at the intensity in Cruise’s eyes as he says “Kittridge, you’ve never seen me very upset,” leading up to Cruise smashing explosive gum on a fish tank and and manically outrunning a tidal wave of water (a stunt that was originally done by a stunt double, but Cruise insisted he do it himself. This is a constant refrain in the production of the early Mission: Impossible films).
However, I think the image really takes hold when he steps into the titular role in the film Jack Reacher, based off the bestselling series of novels seemingly designed to pull in dads (Tom’s big with the dad crowd these days) who need something to pass the time while they wait to pick their kids up from school. The novel and the film itself are essentially about a man who’s the best at everything. That honestly isn’t really an exaggeration. In this scene where Emerson (David Oyelowo) goes through his rap sheet, it almost starts crossing into parody as to what Jack Reacher is and can do.
You see the way Cruise plays Reacher as someone not to be toyed with, yet simultaneously backing up every claim in the most efficient way possible. (Also in the most analog way. I think part of the charm to this persona is how old-fashioned and tactile everything is without tipping into agro posturing…most of the time.) Take for instance arguably the best scene in the movie, the car chase. Played with almost no dialogue (and not a word from Cruise) and no score, I could go on and on about what this scene accomplishes from a filmmaking standpoint. Instead I just want to draw attention to how we see Cruise in this scene.
Look at the way he’s framed as he makes moment-to-moment decisions, jaw clenched. You can clearly tell that it’s Cruise doing every impressive tail swing of that unruly muscle car. Or take the moment he slams into barrels filled with water and the car goes dead (something that wasn’t planned and happened for real on the day of the shoot) and he begins kickstarting it. He’s somewhat panicked in the moment but he’s willful in getting that car started. And finally the culmination of letting the car ghost ride into a police blockade as he walks casually to a bus stop full of witnesses to the scene yet knowing he will get away scot free as the bus pulls away. It all serves to communicate that Cruise more than the character of Reacher is in control of every mind boggling aspect of his surroundings.
But in the year 2015, director, writer, and close collaborator (he’s been working Cruise for years but especially so in this current decade) Christopher McQuarrie decided to put this all forward as text and barely-under-the-surface subtext in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. For one, Ethan Hunt gets two introductions, one in the form of the biggest, most viscerally impressive stunt Tom Cruise had performed up until this point.
And the other introduction comes when a character calls Hunt a “legend,” asking if and not believing that all of the things about Hunt (and by extension Cruise) can be true. The movie is a summation of Cruise’s stunt persona. J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird spent their Mission: Impossible movies deconstructing and playing with the idea of a man who can and will do anything (Abrams doing so by trying to humanize Hunt, Bird opting to have whatever could go wrong for the character happen). McQuarrie decided to make it a metaphor for Cruise as a star and force of nature. It all crystalizes in the most suspense-filled scene in the film. Hunt is talking to the villain of the film, Solomon Lane (played by Sean Harris), and looks point-blank at the camera while telling Lane with his actions that he’s not only in control of the situation, but that “without me, you are nothing.”
This scene and Rogue Nation as a whole really gets to what makes Tom Cruise as a physical persona so interesting and fun to watch. With other cinematic stuntmen sometimes it can only be about the thrill of watching someone put their life on the line or the fascination of the pain someone will endure for a laugh. With Cruise it becomes more about assurance that he will succeed at whatever impressive thing he’s doing but always wondering how he will do it. It becomes more about watching a star and character lose that separating line between them and becoming symbiotic in their aims. As Alec Baldwin’s Alan Hunley tells the British Prime Minister in Rogue Nation, “Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny,” which to me sums up what Tom Cruise aims to be every time he puts on a show for us: something to marvel at for its audacity and its insanity.
Cruise’s films Magnolia and Mission: Impossible III were screened at IU Cinema in 2014 as part of a 24-hour, 12-film tribute to the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.