Monday Morning Critic – Tom Cruise: Edge of Tomorrow (All You Need Is Kill) and The Odd Redemption Of Hollywood’s Last Movie Star – Paul Newman, Slap Shot and why the L.A Kings Can Suck it

MMC

You know what’s kind of crazy? Tom Cruise has essentially been an A-list movie star for the better part of 30 years right now. And he’s in the midst of experiencing a full circle moment, with a handful of great movie picks giving him an uptick he hasn’t had in a long time. It’s kind of crazy to think that a guy in his early 50s is still one of the biggest action stars on the planet, a genre that has traditionally favored younger men, but it tells you more about the state of the genre (and that actors like Channing Tatum are still being looked at as bankable action stars) more than anything else. And this upcoming weekend he returns for another summer blockbuster with Edge of Tomorrow, an adaptation of the Japanese young adult novel “All You Need Is Kill.”

Cruise has long since passed the point of his career where he needs to pick projects for particular reasons. He’s done everything but win an Oscar (and should’ve won one a handful of times already) but the one thing Cruise hasn’t done is chase something. He has the money, so he doesn’t need to chase a check. He doesn’t need more fame, so he’s not picking projects guaranteed to make him more famous. He’s got three Oscar nominations, an extraordinary number of hit films and anything that could be a passion project finds a way to get into production when he wants to. Even the films he walked away from, as he was slated at one point to be the lead in both the 3:10 To Yuma remake and Salt among others, aren’t necessarily bad decisions in retrospect either.

Nearly a decade after a perfect storm threatened to sink his career (his divorce from Nicole Kidman, the hilarious antics on The Oprah Winfrey Show and pronounced involvement with the Church of Scientology), Cruise has had an inexplicable change in perception that none of his peers have had. Cruise has kind of had a quasi-redemption because we’re starting to view him in a better light because of the failures of his peers. He’s kind of becoming the standard for what a movie star should be … and everyone feels secondary in comparison. He may have had a momentary blip for a short period but he hasn’t fallen hard like a number of his contemporaries have.

Years after Chris Rock pointed out that Tom Cruise is a movie star … and Tobey Maguire is just a man in tights … we’re starting to see that for all his faults that we’d rather have a guy like Cruise as a movie star then some of the people Hollywood has been force-feeding us over the past couple years. His ability to be a star is still something that can’t be duplicated and now, after nearly two decades of failed actors being pushed to replace him, we can still like him because they don’t have what he does: stardom that can’t be duplicated.

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It’s odd when you think about it. Cruise, who seemingly has the fountain of youth, has aged but has done so in a graceful manner. He’s been in big studio fare for over 30 years now, having left Hollywood in his early 20s for a couple years in fear of being lumped into the “Brat Pack” of the early 80s, and has been a staple of summer cinema for almost 30 years if you count Top Gun as his breakthrough as a movie star. It’s kind of crazy if you think about it. Cruise has been a movie star for several generations of film goers and found a way to keep getting fans, selling tickets and remaining relevant as a box office draw and actor. He predates the web, Rotten Tomatoes and everything that defines the way we discuss film in the modern world. That’s amazing in every way possible.

Cruise started out as a summer movie staple with Top Gun in 1986, when Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. By comparison our current President was just a young, twenty something lawyer in the City of Chicago trying to make his mark during the same period of time. Cruise is in the same age bracket as the President and the fact that he’s still a movie star of the same significance now as he was back then is amazing.

It’s very rare in Hollywood to see someone survive the ravages of time so effectively.

Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio are his only contemporaries in that regard (they’ve been around in the same high level position on the acting totem pole as he is for 20 years or so, give or take) and they’ve got a decade to go to match his longevity right now. All three guys are the standard when it comes to the modern movie star … and after a brief fall from the sort of near unilateral love he once had a short while ago it seems like people are kind of almost back there at this point. It’s a very curious thing for a guy who looked like he might be done on top.

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There are a couple of good reasons why, I think. It’s a six pack of reasons, actually, thus because I’m lazy right now I’m going to call it the Tom Cruise Six Pack To Redemption.

1. He never got heavy into partisan politics.

The one thing most people dislike is when they have to associate an actor they like with a political position they don’t agree with. The one thing about the best of entertainers over the years has been that they don’t shove their politics on us, they aren’t making speeches at political conventions and what they spend their money on is more of a private manner. Cruise never did that, especially in the decade since politics really got nasty (as opposed to just kind of nasty).

In an era where as soon as someone gets famous it seems like they have every desire to tell us all about why they’re the smartest person in the room when it comes to the marginal effective income tax rates on those with incomes over $50,000, et al, Cruise never talks about who he votes for and if he gives money to any politician. My buddy Christian Toto wrote about it a while back but Cruise is fairly innocuous in his politics.

He just shows up, talks about his latest project and leaves it at that. He loves telling stories and doesn’t want to talk to you about gun violence, global warming or any other number of causes in our PCU level of political awareness that parches the political discourse en masse these days. There’s a base level of respect for people like that who do the Michael Jordan style of disengagement in that regard.

I’ve always thought the actors who are in it for the craft, and not the fame, are the ones who push their art first (and not their politics) … and they tend to be the ones who last the longest.

2. He had the perfect, unexpected comedy role … and never followed it up with another comedy.

It was supposed to be a secret that came out during the opening weekend of Tropic Thunder … and previews for the film leaked out that Tom Cruise decided he wanted to steal a great comedy from a ton of skilled comics. It was unexpected, hilarious and spawned talk of an entire film with Cruise in his movie stealing persona as an uncouth movie mogul. He never followed it up with a comedy, either, and we can always wonder what if he did. For as much talk as there is of a Les Grossman film … it’s been in development for some time and the time for it may have passed.

Usually spin off comedy sequels need to happen quickly, to continue to catch lightning in a bottle.

The power of “What if” is a heck of a sentiment and that performance engendered goodwill. It made you think “yeah, I like that guy” in the same way Alec Baldwin can show up for a small part in a film and make you like him. Until you see him for like more than 20 minutes, of course, but that’s the odd beauty of the most prominent Baldwin brother.

Cruise has done action comedy, and funny moments in action films, but not a straight comedy. Throw in his cameo in the last Austin Powers film and there’s a conceit that Cruise in a pure comedy film at this point would be something you’d pay attention to. He never has, though, and that ability to see that he could remains. The fact that he hasn’t ruined the good vibes of that exceptional role in the last decade is kind of respectable.

3. He never tanked his career to get an Oscar.

Jim Carrey went from being the biggest box office draw as a comedian into a formerly big star fairly quickly. Why? Because he had this intergalactic hard-on to get an Oscar nomination for such a long time that his comedy projects suffered. Cruise never went full bore “Give me an Oscar” like a lot of actors have done and has kept picking good projects that interest him over the years. There’s a refreshing honesty in someone who wants to make great films, not be given an arbitrary award that doesn’t represent the sum of the year of film.

Cruise has taken on prestige projects … but there never was the “I want an Oscar” back story to them like there are for Carrey and any number of actors.

4. He never lost that movie star swagger.

The thing you can’t deny about Rock of Ages is that Tom Cruise fills up a good portion of that film with a presence that only a few major stars can pull off. Cruise may do the everyman bit for action films, et al, but he’s a megastar and we all know it. We suspend disbelief because it’s cool to see Ethan Hunt do crazy stuff … but Tom Cruise can’t go to the gas station to get a Dr. Pepper and an energy bar without being swarmed. He’s a star … and he never lost it, either.

I think a lot of actors, before they fall from the A-list, first lose that swagger. It’s like a pitcher losing MPH off a fastball or a supermodel adding five pounds she can’t lose. Cruise, for all his personal problems and tabloid stories, never lost that “it” that made him famous. He may be older, and probably wiser, but when you see him in interviews he’s still got that megastar presence to him. It feels like a moment you need to pay attention to when he’s on screen.

It’s the difference between him and someone like Robert De Niro. You see De Niro interviewed on Conan O’Brien’s show and it’s more shrug worthy now. His time has passed, the movie star persona is over and he’s just a very famous actor. An interview with him doesn’t make you stand up and notice anymore.

5. His personal problems may have gotten tabloid coverage … but he handled them with a certain grace.

Tom Cruise is a star … and a huge one … and the bigger you are in Hollywood the more you are covered, speculated on and written about. But he never pulled a Kardashian and aired his grievances, did a reality show or had a sit down interview with someone like Barbara Walters to talk about his life after a personal tragedy. In an era where we know way too much about the famous Cruise isn’t rushing out there to sell himself like a low rent reality star like some actors (and their families) have done.

There’s a grace to him when it comes to his private and personal life; he handles things like how we’d want to do so.

There’s something respectable about an actor who could have a messy divorce, a pair of them even, and both wind up being fairly innocuous in terms of coverage. By all accounts Cruise is a good dad and you never hear interviews from Nicole Kidman, Mimi Rogers or Katie Holmes where they just go scorched Earth on him either. There’ve been implied comments, et al, but there is no smoking gun about it either. Cruise is also fairly closed and doesn’t trash his exes, either. There’s a grace to him that people can respect.

6. He never stopped picking good roles.

Say what you want about Cruise, and his films, the one thing you can’t say is that he has a history of trying to bite off more than he can chew as an actor. He may not have made films that are universally adored … but you never walk out of a Cruise headlined film and go “Man that would’ve been a great film without him.”

Cruise knows his limits and isn’t grabbing roles he shouldn’t. He’s a big enough star that he could probably get nearly any role he wants … but the ones he takes are in his wheelhouse. He doesn’t flounder outside of what he does well … and as a producer he has figured out that Tom Cruise the actor and Tom Cruise the producer are two separate personas. He could’ve just taken the Rock of Ages role of Stacee Jaxx and no one would’ve questioned it; he’s got that sort of power.

But Cruise, by his own admission, wanted to make sure he could actually sing first before taking a role that would require him to potentially set himself up for a colossal failure. There’s something in that you can respect on the outside; instead of being Johnny Depp and being a horrible singer (and still doing it anyway in Sweeney Todd) he wanted to see if he could contribute first before saying “give me that part.”

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In an era where the phrase “movie star” is thrown around but without much meaning we have the genuine article, 30 years and still going strong. The fact that what looked like his slide into Nic Cage status turned out to be a momentary blip, and on the eve of what some critics have called his best film in a decade, is something special.

Stuff for General George S. Pimpage, Esq

I reviewed Endless Love on Blu-Ray.

Mike Noyes tackled Escape from Tomorrow.

And now on MMC … a song that doubles as a preview of next week’s DVD review. Can you guess the film?

If you want to pimp anything email it to me with a good reason why. It helps to bribe me with stuff, just saying ….

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

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This week’s DVD – Slap Shot

I can tell you when I really started to get into hockey: 2008, when the Blackhawks returned to television in an experiment. The Blackhawks hadn’t been on television, save for road games on ESPN and the like, since well before I was born. Hockey was always a sport you played in the winter … but only real diehards watched. In the days before the web you had to actually buy a ticket to see a Blackhawks game if you lived in Chicago.

It took Bill Wirtz getting all corpsed up for Chicago’s hockey team to return to television. Wirtz had built an empire on booze distribution and ran the Blackhawks in an old school way forever. His thoughts were that if you televised games people wouldn’t show up. Long after every other Chicago team was on the air, including a couple of minor league hockey teams in the local area as well as niche sports (in America) like soccer, the Blackhawks were perhaps the last sports franchise of note to get onto television in Chicago.

The funny thing is that at one point you could find Real Pro Wrestling and the St. Louis Blues minor league affiliate Chicago Wolves on television but not the Blachawks. Think about for that for a moment as a sports fan in the modern era.

I had been vaguely aware of hockey and the Hawks for a long time, of course, but the fact that a handful of road games were the only thing that got onto television for the most part for most of my life to that point made being a hockey fan difficult. I like watching sports … and following sports via the newspaper, or the radio, didn’t work for a generation of sports fans raised on television. With the Hawks back, and their rise back to prominence seemingly tied to “Dollar” Bill’s death (and his son Rocky making every right move to rectify the mistakes of his father), Chicago’s love of hockey has emerged en masse.

We’re still a Bears town, of course, but the Blackhawks are the #2 team in the city because they’re the only ones winning titles. With two in the books since 2010 things look good for the next 5-10 years of hockey in this town. And with a wild Hawks/Kings series just concluded I thought it’d be fun to look back at perhaps the greatest hockey film ever: Slap Shot.

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Simple premise. Reggie (Paul Newman) is the player coach of a minor league hockey team, the Charlestown Chiefs of the Federal League. This is minor league hockey at its most amusing, apparently, and the team is in a quandary. The local mill is about to close and with it their franchise.

Thus he comes up with a plan.

Planting rumors of a potential Florida sale to the local media, and turning every game into a fist fight, Reggie manages to stir up interest in the team and somehow turn a perpetual loser into a winner. Eschewing old time hockey, and turning every game into a fist fight on skates, Reggie manages to turn things around and at the same time piss on every great sports story archetype in the process. It’s the anti-Rocky in that regard.

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Can they win the championship in what could be their final season as both hockey players and as Charlestown Chiefe? But will it be enough to save their team? And will it be enough to save what remains of his marriage? All this and the greatest supporting characters in hockey cinema history, the Hanson brothers, turn what was a critically savaged comedy in 1977 into one of the more revered sports comedies of all time.

This is a filthy, dirty, raunchy comedy that arguably couldn’t be made today in its current form. Much like Blazing Saddles, and its love of certain words that are taboo these days, Slap Shot takes the sports film premise of how you have to do something better (some magic new way of playing, motivation, et al) and says “forget all that, just lamp some dudes and insult their wife’s sexuality a couple times.” It’s brilliantly subversive in that regard as Newman is having the time of his life to match.

It’s rare to see an actor of significance like Newman genuinely having fun being a dirtball … and it makes the film that much more enjoyable.

The nice thing is that the hockey matches minor league level that the team is supposed to be. This isn’t a cast filled with obvious former pro hockey players; Newman is terrible on the ice and so is nearly everyone else in the league. It lends a certain level of credibility to the film that can’t be taken away. This is hockey in the bush leagues, where guys who’ll never make it to the NHL (or had their shot and missed) land if they still want the coda of being a professional hockey player.

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It’s like Bull Durham in that regard. This is sport on the fringes, where guys ply their trade but there isn’t the sort of magic to the game that exists at the highest of levels. Every sport needs a film that celebrates that level and Slap Shot fills it for hockey.

Strongly recommended.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 tall boys of Red Fox and community college co-eds with low standards at the Fox and Hound

Edge of Tomorrow – Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers … with Tom Cruise.

See it – Cruise is on a bit of a late career surge and this has been getting high marks so far.

The Fault in our Stars – Kids with cancer fall in love and then probably die of it. Except in an inspirational sort of way … as opposed to a weepy sad kind of way.

Skip it – It’s a film about kids with cancer and has romance … it can’t have a happy ending for at least one of the main characters.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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