Welcome back to Five Great Movies, a new series we tested out a short while ago to honor the passing of the great Ken Russell. Every Wednesday we’re going to take a look back at the career of one particular actor or filmmaker, and pick out five of their movies which are particularly great. They may not always be the most popular picks, or even the most critically acclaimed. This isn’t their five best movies, necessarily, it’s just five great ones that you owe it to yourself to see.
This week, we’ll be looking at the cinematic oeuvre of Mr. Tom Cruise. The star of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was once among the brightest stars in the Hollywood galaxy, but after the well-known… unpleasantness on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he hasn’t had a big hit since 2005’s The War of the Worlds, unless you count his scene-stealing cameo in Tropic Thunder. (We don’t.)
Cruise was one of the breakout stars of the 1980s, appearing in such pop culture classics asRisky Business, Top Gun and Rain Man before settling into heavy duty blockbuster mode in the 1990s, headlining such big to-dos as the Mission: Impossible series, Interview with the Vampire and Jerry Maguire. Cruise may not be the most respected thespian on the planet, but honestly, we’re all big fans of his work. With the right material he can be an exceptional performer, and he’s got three Oscar nominations to support that statement, for Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire and Magnolia.
But as popular and, in many cases, excellent as all those films we just mentioned are, none of them made our Five Great Movies this week. Here’s what did:
LEGEND: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (dir. Ridley Scott, 1985)
The original 1985 release of the action-fantasy film Legend was, like many of Ridley Scott’s movies, chopped to hell before its theatrical release. Major subplots were removed from the film (we didn’t even know Mia Sara was supposed to be princess, for Pete’s sake) and they scrapped the orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith in favor of a “hip” synthesized score by Tangerine Dream, Yes lead singer Jon Anderson and Bryan Ferry. That version works pretty well, but the director’s cut is a revelation, and belongs on any list of the greatest fantasy films ever made. The pacing is improved, the story makes sense now, and the more classical music finally gives the film the epic sweep that was always intended.
Cruise plays Jack, a penniless free spirit who woos a princess, played by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off star Mia Sara, by introducing her to a pair of magical unicorns. But their love is cut short when an evil demon called “The Darkness,” played beautifully by Tim Curry, kidnaps Sara and chops off the unicorn’s horn in order to bring about a new age of evil. Cruise teams up with a gang of wood sprites to save the day, in a film filled with unique, sumptuous production design and original fantasy concepts (a rarity in any age). Somehow it was only nominated for one technical Oscar, for Best Makeup, which it totally would have won if it wasn’t up against David Cronenberg’s The Fly that year. One of Cruise’s most underrated films. One of Scott’s, too.
EYES WIDE SHUT (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
Eyes Wide Shut may have been the most anticipated release of 1999. The film was the latest (and sadly last) release from the great Stanley Kubrick, the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, amongst many other timeless classics. It starred Tom Cruise and his then-wife Nicole Kidman at the height of their popularity (and marriage), and was shrouded in secrecy. Rumors abounded about the film’s classified plotline, even though the novel it was based on had been available for decades. The centerpiece of the film, an orgy scene, had to be censored for the American release. And yet the film was released to mixed reviews and, despite a strong opening weekend, general audience malaise.
But time has proved Eyes Wide Shut to be yet another powerful entry in Kubrick’s filmography, sending Cruise on a dark journey of jealous anxiety after the unexpected revelation that his wife (Kidman, in a truly stellar performance) almost abandoned him to have a purely sexual affair with a total stranger. The events of the evening, from an encounter with a seductive Lolita played by Leelee Sobieski to that famous orgy scene, all represent Cruise’s neurotic preoccupation with his own sexual potency. The aftermath is a particularly dark morality tale, showing that Cruise’s temptations nearly led to such dangers as HIV and, even worse, murder. The message of the film, about the importance passionate sexuality in a meaningful relationship, is bold and unexpected, and Cruise’s performance is one of his best.
MINORITY REPORT (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2002)
Cruise’s first collaboration with Steven Spielberg was an unexpectedly dark, Hitchcockian sci-fi mystery based on a story by Phillip K. Dick. It’s also one of the best sci-fi movies of the last ten years. Cruise stars as John Anderton, who leads a team of law enforcement agents who arrest murderers before they commit their crimes thanks to the precognitions of a group of seemingly comatose psychics. The ethics of arresting somebody for a crime they haven’t committed are confronted head on when the latest vision of the future accuses Anderton of killing a man he’s never even met. In typical Hollywood fashion, he goes on the run to prove his innocence as fate leads him closer and closer to the murder he’s destined to commit.
Spielberg directs this “man on the run” story with an enormous amount of energy and creativity, crafting a unique vision of the future that he mines for constant suspense. Car chases are a very different type of action sequence when the vehicles attached to the highway by magnetic rails, and hiding your identity is impossibly hard when advertisements constantly read your retinas to market products directly to your history of purchases. But it’s the twisty-turny plot that really makes Minority Report the sci-fi classic that it is, culminating in powerful third act that many think isn’t necessary, since it follows a powerful emotional climax, but is in fact absolutely required to wrap up the otherwise hopelessly loose ends of the smart storyline.
COLLATERAL (dir. Michael Mann, 2004)
Although Cruise likes to play heroic types, every once in a while he whips out a creepy performance that proves he has a broader range. Everyone remembers his iconic misogynistic performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but we’re fonder of Michael Mann’s intimate crime drama from 2004, Collateral. Cruise stars as Vincent, a contract killer who employs the services of a Los Angeles cabbie (Jamie Foxx, Oscar-nominated for his performance) as he knocks off a series of targets over the course of a single night.
Cruise’s icy performance anchors Collateral, which like many of Mann’s films emphasizes style and mood over the actual plot. But the plot is so crisp and eventful that the balance is more successful here than in films like Miami Vice. Mann really gets into the heads of his characters, and his heavily digital cinematography emphasizes the immediacy of Foxx’s experiences, earning him greater sympathy and imbuing Cruise’s villain more disturbing weight. It’s a cold thriller, but a truly superlative one.
VALKYRIE (dir. Bryan Singer, 2008)
Tom Cruise’s post-Oprah films have mostly been box office bombs, but many of them are actually quite good. Knight & Day was more entertaining than it had any right to be, and Mission: Impossible III is the best in the series. But his most underappreciated film from this era has got to be Bryan Singer’s World War II thriller Valkyrie, a film that dared American audiences to root for the Nazis. Or rather, the Nazis who tried to assassinate Hitler and stop the war.
Valkyrie is based on a true story, and like all WWII films (except Inglourious Basterds obviously), it suffers a bit from the fact that we all know how it ends. These potential heroes, led by Cruise’s Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, failed to kill the rat bastard. But the film is about how unbelievably close they came to pulling it all off, and Singer’s direction is so razor sharp that by the time the third act rolls around it almost seems like they might actually succeed anyway. Cruise is merely the centerpiece of an impressive ensemble cast that includes Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp and Carice van Houten, but earns his spot amongst such impressive company with an earnest, charismatic performance.
Come back next week for more Five Great Movies!