Film Studies: What will it take for Tom to grow up? Failure and fraudulence perhaps?

Click to follow

There's a side to Tom Cruise that knows the risks he needs to take, and the opportunities that, as he edges into his forties, could make him more than the boyish Tom Cruise we're accustomed to.

There's a side to Tom Cruise that knows the risks he needs to take, and the opportunities that, as he edges into his forties, could make him more than the boyish Tom Cruise we're accustomed to.

So he agreed to work with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, which turned into a couple of years' servitude and a deeply disappointing picture. He signed on for Magnolia with Paul Thomas Anderson, and delivered what many consider the major performance of his career so far. One up, one down. He joined with Steven Spielberg on Minority Report, a fascinating venture and a brave erasure of the Tom grin, but a no-decision. So you can easily understand that Cruise would want to work with Michael Mann, who has a talent for filling the screen with glowing, shifting imagery that no one now surpasses.

On the face of it their new picture, Collateral, is filled with promise - especially if you enjoyed Mann's last outing on the sleek, troubled streets of Los Angeles, Heat. This one starts at night - indeed, it's all night. Jamie Foxx is a taxi driver, and at the airport he picks up Jada Pinkett Smith and drives her to a downtown hotel. They get on, in an odd, interesting way: she's in town for a court trial, and he is so good at reading her from a few bits of evidence that she's impressed and tickled. We learn that the cabbie is a dreamer, and probably a bullshit artist who has sold himself on the idea of having a limo service one day.

But as Pinkett Smith goes into her hotel, Foxx gets another client: it's Tom Cruise, with iron-grey hair and a silver-grey suit (in Mann's films, the crooks are inevitably cool enough to be dressed by Armani). Cruise wants to hire the cab for the night. What for, Foxx wants to know. Oh, it's just the five hired killings Cruise has to do before morning, by which time he intends to be on a plane outtahere. What kind of deal is this, you ask. Well, essentially, it's the outline for a movie that can be expressed in 10 seconds and which is a "go" if you can get Tom Cruise to play the killer.

At that level of sucker bait, Collateral is a very efficient entertainment in which Mann demonstrates that no one does cars blurry with speed on the night streets better than he does. And when it comes to having Cruise enter a packed nightclub and Steadicaming his way through the seething crowd just so that he can kill a fat Korean, no matter that there are cops and bodyguards in the place like maggots on old meat, you know you are in the hands of the master.

So long as you never pause to ask why am I enjoying all this random killing (a lot of bystanders get wiped too), or why do I take it for granted that fat Koreans are so innately obnoxious (and so anti-cool) that it's OK for the impeccable Cruise to put as many bullets into them as possible?

Collateral is shockingly lazy, as well as serenely amoral: it has no interest in anything but action and the iconography of its chosen myth, and it never bothers to uncover something that might resemble character in Cruise's killer. This tendency to decadence was there in Heat - a far superior film - but even there, you knew that the attempt to argue that the killer and the cop (Al Pacino and Robert De Niro) were existentially alike was a pandering to the star system, to mindless violence, and the notion that holding up a bank in broad daylight and killing anyone who got in the way really was very like what the cops do in LA.

Heat got away with its fantasy for a variety of reasons, the chief of which was a total commitment from Robert De Niro, an actor who looks as if he might have served time in prison, who would as easily shoot you as share a cup of coffee, yet who has strange, lingering dreams of leading a decent life. And whereas Pacino tended to ham in Heat (his mode for too many years now), De Niro shrugged off the recent history of so many unworthy films, dug in and proved what acting can be. So it's hard, by contrast, not to look at Cruise and conclude that he feels like a kid wearing his dad's suit and trying to act tough.

In a way, no one needs to worry on behalf of Tom Cruise. He is one of our few superstars, commanding $20m or more an outing. And on the two Mission: Impossible films so far (a third looms) he would have made much more than that because he was a co-producer, too. He does what he likes, and his presence can get unlikely ventures made. At the same time, he is still short (one of the things that was underlined in his marriage to Nicole Kidman), he is eager to the point of sometimes seeming shallow, and he begins to be mistaken for someone less than his real age.

Not that he seems inclined to play things safe. Look at Magnolia again, and see the way the actor (as well as his character) sits still for the inexorable process of psychic paint-stripping. Look at Eyes Wide Shut and that scene where a bunch of louts on the street treat him as if he were a faggot - which he's not, is he? (He has legal judgements to support the claim.) No one does those two films without being at a point of needing to take great risks with his identity. And Cruise, I think it is clear now, has been left somewhat adrift after the divorce from Kidman. He gets along, of course, romantically as well as career-wise. But then consider the way her ambitions seemed liberated after the split. Look at the sequence of daring films she gave herself to.

Notice her Oscar. And think of Tom somehow feeling not quite up to speed. The Last Samurai, for instance, showed not only that Cruise had scant notion of how to do period; it also looked like the manifestation of an actor's adolescent adoration of a certain kind of male archetype. The kindest way of describing Collateral would be to say that it is a modern version of the samurai myth. But pursue that line much further and you come to the conclusion that samurai-ism may be very close to twaddle.

The test is severe, for Cruise's most fruitful path may be to play failures and frauds, guys who have the smile wiped off their faces. That's what made Magnolia work, and Jerry Maguire, and it's plainly visible as an attempt in Eyes Wide Shut, Minority Report and Vanilla Sky. But just how far can Cruise, self-made man and Scientologist, go in diminishing himself?

The danger, of course, is that once he becomes convincingly ordinary then he may no longer be the awesome movie star, the guy who can get nearly any picture made - especially the kind that aren't going to be of much help to Tom Cruise the middle-aged actor.

'Collateral' (15) is released on Friday