Critic's Notebook: After 'The Mummy,' Tom Cruise Needs to Get Back to Acting

Tom Cruise Collateral, The Mummy, Interview with the Vampire Stills - Split - H 2017
Courtesy of Universal Pictures (Center); Photofest (Left, right)

The star is still a viable action hero, but he would be wise to mix in some challenging character work with all the big franchises — especially following the fiasco of 'The Mummy.'

After roughly 40 films made across 35 years, Tom Cruise has starred in notably few absolute stinkers. Sure, Cocktail, Vanilla Sky, Lions for Lambs and Knight and Day were pretty bad, but, by and large, he's maintained a pretty good batting average. Certainly nothing he's ever done before compares in its absolute awfulness to his latest, The Mummy. As we fled the screening the other night, my son joked that we had just witnessed the collision of the Hindenburg and the Titanic, while my first thought was that the film should go directly to its proper home on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The Mummy is the kind of creative fiasco for which everyone involved should go to movie jail for both penance and re-education — except for Cruise, who should merely do whatever it takes to make sure he doesn't have to star in any sequels. Surveying the actor's impressive filmography, it's the one picture for which it's impossible to figure out why he agreed to take it on: Did he really need to be part of a third franchise? Aren't Mission: Impossible (the sixth entry of which is now filming in Europe) and Jack Reacher (which, after the lackluster second installment last year, is probably finished) enough? Certainly the Mummy enterprise needed Cruise far more than Cruise needed it, so you just have to figure that Universal ended up throwing so much money and/or first-dollar financial participation at him that it became impossible to say no.

Can Cruise possibly need the loot? As one of the first words one associates with Tom Cruise is "discipline," one would have to think not. After all, Cruise is no Johnny Depp, someone for whom discipline — creatively, financially and consumption-wise — has clearly become something of an unfamiliar concept. One month shy of his 55th birthday, Cruise looks phenomenal, at least a dozen years younger than he is. In all of Hollywood history, I don't think that there's ever been a handsome male movie star who's looked so convincingly young this far past the half-century mark: Hell, at 55, Gary Cooper looked like a dirty old man opposite Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon; Jimmy Stewart was playing old-timers in Westerns; Sean Connery won an Oscar as an old beat cop in The Untouchables; Marlon Brando had become fat and bald up the river in Apocalypse Now; the perennially attractive Paul Newman had gone gray in Absence of Malice and The Verdict; and Tyrone Power, perhaps closest to Cruise in Black Irish great looks among all film stars, had died at 44. (On the other hand, Burt Lancaster still looked pretty damn good at 55 doing laps across Connecticut in The Swimmer.)

So, in addition to hanging to the sides of flying airplanes and racing motorcycles without benefit of stunt doubles, Cruise is still an entirely plausible leading man, with the widest range of roles available to him. Looking back over his career, it's clear that, at his creative height, the actor shrewdly chose projects that offered meaty and challenging roles — occasionally those he wasn't ideally suited for, such as Interview With the Vampire and Valkyrie — as well as the opportunities to work with strong directors and worthy co-stars. And while always steering clear of "arty" projects, he not infrequently stepped out of his comfort zone with directors he decided to trust, challenging himself very successfully in Born on the Fourth of July with Oliver Stone, Magnolia with Paul Thomas Anderson and Collateral with Michael Mann. And no matter that he wasn't really right for the part he played, how could he have passed on the chance of a lifetime to work with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut?

For a while, Cruise also seemed to subscribe to a one-for-them, one-for-me policy in terms of picking his projects, happy, and perhaps even anxious, to occasionally separate himself from his cocky, Top Gun hot-shot persona. But lately he's been more keen to push himself physically (notably in the flying and driving sequences) than dramatically — even The Mummy features a scene that exists for no other reason than to show off one of the most ripped 54-year-old bods in the business.

After The Mummy is mercifully re-embalmed, hopefully forever, Cruise has Doug Liman's 1980s-set CIA drug-running thriller, American Made, coming up in September; from the trailer, it looks promisingly out-there, if anchored by wild flying and driving. The sixth Mission: Impossible will arrive a year from now, and then perhaps, if it's finally ready to go, the next Top Gun will follow. Has it crossed Cruise's mind that his old cohort Paul Newman reprised, and won an Oscar for, his role as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money 25 years after having originated it in The Hustler? It's now 31 years and counting since Cruise played Maverick in Top Gun.

Maybe Cruise knows that his days of high-octane, hyperventilating action are, in fact, numbered, and he's trying to cram in as much of it now as he can before it's too late. But surely he and his team know that the actor's career and reputation would be best served by mixing some other courses in with the red meat, alternating the franchises with one-off adventurous projects involving top writers and directors. I once asked Cruise what director from Hollywood's past he would most liked to have worked with; he immediately named Billy Wilder, and it's very easy to imagine Cruise in any of the director's bitter melodramas, from Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard to Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17 — or even, I would venture, in Tony Curtis' role in Some Like It Hot.

The record shows that no one knows what's best for Tom Cruise better than Tom Cruise himself; he had a lapse, arguably the biggest of his career, in taking on The Mummy, but I'd be willing to bet that the experience will help him remember what's most important.