Celebrating today's release of Top Gun: Maverick, our writers return to their favorite Tom Cruise movies, in appreciation of an on-screen persona that's evolved over decades.
Something was seriously wrong with Tom Cruise's face. That's either the main plot or one key visual idea in so many Cruise movies from the middle of his career. Vanilla Sky and Valkyrie left him mutilated, minus one eye or plus a few scars. Minority Report body-morphed jowls onto his cheekbones, after an eye transplant. Tropic Thunder swamped him in prosthetic paunch. Did this very famous man want to hide in plain sight — or was he defacing himself as an act of self-reclamation? Would the world still love him if he wasn't beautiful anymore? Or would he wind up wandering, alone, the one guy at the orgy not getting any?
Warner Bros.; Moviestore/Shutterstock
Eyes Wide Shut came out in July 1999. Mission: Impossible 2 landed one summer later. They are not similar movies in any obvious way. One is Stanley Kubrick's last, least explicable movie, a dreamlike erotic thriller about marital maintenance. The other is Cruise's loopiest Mission, a longhair fantasia about why viruses are great for stock options. I love both movies, but neither was adored upon release. Cruise was at his pinnacle as an audience draw, so Eyes was Kubrick's highest grossing movie and M:I 2 topped the 2000 box office. Don't interpret those numbers as positive feedback, though. Casual moviegoers were still going to the theater on autopilot, seeing "the new Tom Cruise movie" without knowing what they were in for. I recall general bafflement at Eyes, and a slow-boil resentment at M:I 2's rap-rock silliness.
Eyes Wide Shut's reputation has improved considerably; M:I 2 is so generally loathed that its defenders (hello!) have gotten louder. And the two films rhyme. In Eyes, Cruise plays Bill Harford, a doctor living well in Manhattan. One night, a casual stoned chat with his awesome wife (Kidman) takes a strange turn. He tells her he never worries about her cheating; she tells him maybe he should. The mere possibility of infidelity sends him on a whole-movie spiral, mulling sexy temptation to get back at his wife for having any urges whatsoever. M:I 2 has its own zigzag-of-jealousy plot, imported directly from Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious with zero shame. When superspy Ethan Hunt meets superthief Nyah Nordhoff-Hall (Thandiwe Newton), they fall for each other mid-car chase. But Ethan's IMF superiors have a mission for Nyah. They need her to go undercover with a former boyfriend, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a rogue agent with global-plague plans.
Bill and Ethan are both romantically tormented, cut off from their loves by physical distance and the possibility of another man. Credit this as a vague comparison — Bill does not rescue Alice from a murderous motorcycle ex, Ethan does not go undercover in any spite orgies — except for the fact that both films also have their own strange strategies for approaching Cruise's famous face.
Watching Eyes Wide Shut, it's clear that Kubrick was sparking more to Kidman as a pure performer, whose scenes combust with crackling undercurrents of domestic ennui, seductiveness, and genuine love. Cruise feels more stunt-cast, like Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon: a famous handsome star who serves as the audience surrogate. He's the watcher, never the most interesting person in the room, variously fascinated and appalled by the strangeness of his odyssey. In the movie's most famous and misunderstood scene, he wanders the halls of an aristocratic sex party, full of occult gyrations and full-frontal decadence. Hidden behind a mask and a cowl, he could be just anyone. When costumed courtiers demand that he reveal himself and remove his clothes, it's an upside-down vision of celebrity: Bill didn't want to be the center of attention. Now everyone won't stop looking at him.
Masks are also a key part of M:I 2. The franchise loves its surprise identities, a latex face torn off to reveal whoever was really someone else. But John Woo's entry in the series has the least intricate plot, and seems vividly uninterested in the espionage part of Ethan Hunt's job. This film was the real invention of Daredevil Maniac Tom Cruise, the very famous actor who is actually dangling off a cliff in Utah in the pointless-for-any-obvious-plot-reason mountain-climbing prologue. The actor had just spent half a decade playing somewhat regular humans in Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut, and Magnolia. So I think this second Mission was meant as a soft comeback, or maybe just an expression of pent-up action-guy frustration: Damn it, I just wanna be freaking awesome. Now Ethan Hunt knows martial arts, and drives a mean motorcycle, and can bungee-jump off a helicopter through an entire skyscraper.
It's ridiculous, but there's an intriguing twist thrown in: M:I 2 is the one Mission that keeps turning the signature mask gag back on its hero. The first time we see Cruise, he's actually Ambrose pretending to be Ethan. "He doubled you, what — two or three times?" asks the IMF Commander (Anthony Hopkins). An interesting window into IMF procedure here: When their top guy is unavailable, they slap an Ethan face onto a lesser agent and hope for the best. This is a quietly mind-boggling revelation, the kind of thing that drives vast fan theories in other franchises. (Do different movies feature different Ethans? Is that why he seems so dour in Ghost Protocol?) And M:I 2 honors Woo's fascination with parallel good-and-evil identities. Ambrose pretends to be Ethan again later, fooling Nyah away from her moonlight escape. Toward the end of the movie, Ambrose captures Ethan and fires nine or ten bullets into his enemy's body. Of course, it's not Ethan, but the upside-mood lingers.
Malicious Neck-Snapping Cruise, Bad Boyfriend Cruise, Simpering Tortured Dead Cruise: You feel the actor exploring the outer range of his comfort zone, doing all the stuff his characters never really can do. Call these very different movies a linked set of nightmares. M:I 2 turns Cruise into a face anyone can wear. Eyes Wide Shut takes that face away entirely, reducing him to impotence and terror. Was that dwindling too much for Cruise to bear? The future was full of Missions, hyperbolizing Cruise into the stratospheric "living manifestation of destiny." Whereas who knows with the Harfords, but some marriages just don't last.