Less than four months ago, I made the case that Tom Cruise was still great—even after The Mummy. Yes, the film underperformed domestically, but it was a foreign success, proving Cruise can still command attention as an international star. But there were still lingering doubts from critics who believed that Cruise’s tumultuous public life had finally caught up to his career: The mischievous heartthrob who once swiveled his hips behind a bar in Cocktail was now synonymous with Scientology, high-profile divorces, and leaping onto Oprah’s couch.
However, most of those fears about Cruise should be put to rest with this weekend’s American Made. He’s really damn good in it, and still a superstar.
If you’re looking to fall back in love with Cruise, American Made makes it incredibly easy. Doug Liman’s pulpy action-comedy about a pilot who smuggles drugs for the Medellin Cartel in the ’80s has Cruise sporting feathered hair, hip-hugging jeans, and sleek leather jackets, invoking the cool he exuded in his Top Gun days. The film has the frenetic, pop art sensibilities of Go, one of Liman’s earliest hits that ironically enough enamored me with Cruise’s ex-wife Katie Holmes. Actors in a Liman film look like they’re having fun (Matt Damon in Bourne Identity owes much of his popularity to Liman, though he’s squandered it in recent years; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie made us fall for adultery in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Jumper should’ve made Hayden Christensen a star, but then there’s Star Wars) and it makes his films feel like essential entries in pop culture.
Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best sci-fi films of the past decade as well as one of Cruise’s best films, so it’s no surprise he reteamed with Liman for American Made. Liman once said of Cruise in an Esquire interview, “I don’t think there’s anybody out there who loves movies more than Tom Cruise.” It shows. Cruise has always come across like a throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age. He’s all teeth and smiles, dutifully marrying stars of high stature. Perhaps he would’ve excelled more in the period where we knew next to nothing about actors’ personal lives, but even so, he’s been a formidable star for decades.
What works best about Cruise in American Made is that it’s a role seemingly scripted for him. There’s always criticism when our best actors don’t disappear into a role and you always remember exactly who they are: a Hollywood star. I find that logic faulty. It ignores the concept of art. I’ve never found film as something you need to wholly immerse yourself in to pretend it isn’t real. I have no illusions that theater isn’t real, for example, and the concept of watching Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise in an ‘80s film is altogether Brechtian—and besides the point, really. We come to the movies because of these stars. Why wouldn’t we want to watch them on screen?
American Made succeeds as a comedy and a thriller thanks to Cruise’s screen presence, which has never diminished. If anything, it highlights the problem with the narrative surrounding Cruise this year: It’s never been about him. The Mummy was a bad idea all around, a rare misstep from Cruise’s well-oiled Hollywood machine that manages to run even when there’s dirt slung into the cogs. But this film has been well-received by critics because it’s actually good.
If it didn’t make a dent with younger audiences, then that’s hardly Cruise’s fault, and after all, shouldn’t he be allowed to make an adult film every once in a while? It’s not like the film itself was particularly marketed toward a younger audience, and he wasn’t exactly paired with a lead who would draw in that audience either. Sarah Wright is great in her role as Cruise’s wife and Domhnall Gleeson is the best he’s ever been as a shady CIA agent, but that doesn’t exactly qualify as youth wattage. Liman set out to make a great film with one of our greatest actors and he did it. Tom Cruise is really excellent in this film, and I’d wager the role is a career highlight.
So what do you do with Liman and Cruise team-ups that fail to capture audiences? Edge of Tomorrow is similarly great, but lacked the electricity to draw in a crowd. It has since become a cult film, which will probably be the fate of American Made. But what do we want from Cruise? Or Liman? I’m sure Hollywood execs will scratch their heads and think of things they could’ve done better, but from my seat it’s an ace in the hole.