To read the snarky commentary from industry pundits over the last several days, you would think that Twentieth Century Fox spent $117 million to make “Knight and Day,” and then a whole lot of extra cabbage to promote the picture, just to determine whether Tom Cruise is still a movie star. Concurrently, the movie’s third-place finish on its opening weekend has been interpreted as the death knell for Cruise’s tenure as a top attraction. I find all of this very silly, because it’s like digging up a corpse just to be extra sure the body is lifeless. Based solely on his box-office returns, Tom Cruise hasn’t been a proper A-list movie star since the mid-2000s, but it seems as if nobody has shared this little secret with the onetime Top Gun.
Except for Sylvester Stallone, I can’t think of another contemporary movie star who has been more vigorous about fighting the inevitable slip from the top of the mountain. Team Tom has been incredibly careful in recent years with their maintenance of the Tom Cruise brand, diversifying the brand with a starring performance as a villain (“Collateral”), a supporting turn in a highbrow drama (“Lions for Lambs”), and, most effectively, an outrageous cameo in a comedy (“Tropic Thunder”). But looking beyond all the clever sleight of hand, it’s clear that ever since Cruise’s last unqualified success, 2000’s “Mission: Impossible II,” he has struggled to find audiences except when merging his brand with that of pop-culture magician Steven Spielberg, who directed Cruise in the hits “Minority Report” (2002) and “War of the Worlds” (2005). One impressive result of Cruise’s savvy career management is that Fox green-lit the expensive “Knight and Day” even though the actor’s last action flick, 2006’s “Mission: Impossible III,” underperformed.
So while Stallone hammers away at steadily lower-budgeted versions of the insipid action films he cranked out by the gross in the 1980s, making it plainly evident that his financial cachet has dwindled, Cruise has spent years obfuscating the fact that the Tom Cruise business isn’t the best business to be in these days. But now, with the high-profile implosion of “Knight and Day,” perhaps it’s time for even Cruise’s most ardent supporters to embrace the inevitable. Through no fault of his own, the product known as Tom Cruise seems to have reached its expiration date.
And, yes, I can hear you questioning why I would say “through no fault of his own.” Sure, I’m aware of the couch-jumping, the Matt Lauer interview, the Katie-is-a-prisoner mind-control gossip, and all the other Team Tom PR disasters. But I think the impact of those things is wildly overstated. Didn’t Hugh Grant score box-office hits after the Divine Brown mess? And shouldn’t accepting Grant as a cuddly rom-com star, after he cheated on Elizabeth Hurley with a prostitute, be more difficult than accepting Tom Cruise as an unhinged action hero after he revealed himself to be somewhat unhinged in real life? I don’t buy the argument that Cruise’s offscreen shenanigans doomed his stardom.
Instead, I think he fell victim to a natural phenomenon. People got tired of him, the same way people get tired of nearly every other actor whose name appears above titles. For better or worse, fame seems to be permanent, but movie stardom is fleeting. Just ask Sandra Bullock, who I’m sure was just as surprised as the rest of us when she scored two $100 million successes last year. Comebacks, oddly enough, are simply proof of the rule that audiences tire of movie stars. Like a favorite food that you can’t stand to eat after binging too many times, movie stars are as likely to get rediscovered as they are to get discarded in the first place.
To illustrate my point, consider the following list from the middle of Cruise’s glory period, the year 1994. According to the indispensable reference book “Movie Time,” the top ten box office stars in 1994 were: 1) Clint Eastwood, 2) Tom Cruise, 3) Robin Williams, 4) Kevin Costner, 5) Harrison Ford, 6) Julia Roberts, 7) Tom Hanks, 8) Mel Gibson, 9) Whoopi Goldberg, and 10) Sylvester Stallone. Eastwood is still a powerful force behind the camera, and Hanks is arguably as popular as ever, but every other name on the list is, to varying degrees, an echo from yesteryear. Williams, Costner, Ford, and Stallone have all seen recent movies skip theaters and debut on video; Goldberg is more or less retired from acting, while Roberts appears onscreen so infrequently she might as well be retired; and Gibson tanked his last time out of the gate, with the underrated thriller “Edge of Darkness.” But the point I’m after is really not the obvious assertion that stars fade, but rather the interesting trajectories of stars who refuse to fade without a fight.
Watching Stallone’s recent movies provides an object lesson in how not to play the game. I won’t presume to guess what sorts of chemical and medical tools the Artist Formerly Known as Rocky has used to hold onto a semblance of his once-golden physique, but I can safely say as an audience member that I find it difficult to take him seriously in most roles these days. Rather like Mickey Rourke, Stallone’s costar in the upcoming action flick “The Expendables,” Stallone reminds me so much of the cosmetic-surgery victims I see walking around Beverly Hills every day that I can’t accept him in the sort of Average Joe parts he favors. Just as John Wayne kept hopping onto horses and shooting down bad guys many years past the point when he looked physically capable of doing such things, Stallone is desperately scrambling to protect an ever-dwindling piece of the action-movie pie.
Conversely, Costner and Eastwood have allowed themselves to age naturally into older roles, with Costner playing dads of older and older children, and Eastwood playing granddads of older and older grandchildren. While Eastwood’s fan base has proven significantly more loyal (and in turn has been rewarded with better movies), both actors seem to realize that being a gleaming god is something that a movie star only does for one short stretch in his or her life.
And so that brings us back to Tom Cruise, who has fought time as successfully as any other actor; he’s still in such pristine condition that I didn’t laugh when the 2011 release of “Mission: Impossible IV” was announced. Plus, as he proved with his scorching characterization in “Tropic Thunder,” Cruise is still capable of surprising audiences with passionate performances. He is as viable a performer as ever, despite the damage that time has done to his viability as a box-office attraction.
So in light of all this, I’m inclined to counter conventional wisdom about “Knight and Day” by saying that the movie did the exact opposite of what the pundits have said. Instead of proving that Cruise is done as a movie star by grossing a comparatively anemic $20 million during its opening weekend, the movie proved that his viability as a movie star is unusually long-lived among members of his peer group. What other actor from that 1994 list can still deliver a $20 million opening? Only Hanks, whose popularity seems eternal (because there’s always an exception to prove every rule), and Eastwood. But even for Eastwood, one needs to add the modifier “just barely”: The 2008 drama “Gran Torino” did an impressive $29 million in its first weekend of wide release, but that’s because Eastwood kept himself offscreen for the previous four years, and because Warner Bros. relentlessly hyped “Gran Torino” as living legend Eastwood’s swan song to acting. And rather than being a milestone in an iconic career, “Knight and Day” is just another meat-and-potatoes Tom Cruise action movie.
So given the givens, I would argue that racking up $20 million in three days should be considered an unexpected success instead of a predictable failure. At a time when nearly everyone else on the 1994 list has been put out to pasture by fickle viewers, Cruise is still, somehow, amazingly, holding onto stardom even as it tries to slither out of his grasp. Say what you will about Cruise’s offscreen comportment, but in the mercurial world of popular culture, the power of his sheer iron will strikes me as something to celebrate, or at least to admire. Movie stardom may have a built-in expiration date, but irrepressible ambition is forever.