Cruise Control

Mission: Impossible III

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, June 5 2006


With Tom Cruise, the glass is always about nine-sixteenths full. Sure, as an actor he's memorable merely as the personification of youthful energy, and as a celebrity, the Scientologist has turned into a pest as his once bulletproof public relations skills have broken down.

Yet, Cruise's movies are consistently better than they need to be. Since 2001, he's made the artistically ambitious science fiction films "Vanilla Sky" and "Minority Report," the silly but magnificent-looking "Last Samurai," and the limited but effective "Collateral" and "War of the Worlds." 

Only Russell Crowe's films have been consistently better, but he seems too drunk and disorderly to work as often as Cruise. Hollywood likes its leading men to set an example for the whole film crew. "Superstars do not get where they are by throwing temperamental fits, malingering on the set, or not following directions," a talent agent explained to reporter Edward Jay Epstein.

Now Cruise is starring in the action blockbuster "Mission: Impossible III," which, being the second sequel to the remake of an old TV show, sounded dreadful. "M:I-3," as it has been designated with a superfluity of punctuation, will, however, frustrate the hopes of everybody who wants to see Tom Cruise fall on his face. While it's a little too quick-witted to rake in a huge pile of money, it's an expertly concocted summer barnburner.

Since 1983's "Risky Business," the boyish Cruise has epitomized the shift in American preferences about the age of its heroes that began with the replacement of the wise Dwight Eisenhower by the vigorous John F. Kennedy. Many 1930s actors, especially hard drinkers like Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, looked older than their years, while today's health-crazed male leads (with the exception of that throwback, George Clooney) seem almost adolescent. (Cruise, however, isn't quite Dorian Gray: like many 43-year-olds, his nose keeps growing.)

Maybe you just need more energy to remain a star these days.

Cruise is not a great actor, but he has made himself a very good movie star through his Stakhanovite self-discipline. Few have responded more productively to the exhausting responsibilities of stardom in the post-studio era. In the 1930s, studios owned actors, whose responsibilities were limited to learning their lines and socializing glamorously with other screen idols. In today's entrepreneurial Hollywood, where each film is a unique business enterprise, a major star is in effect his own CEO, choosing projects, directors, and writers.

Cruise was long the champion at promoting movies, somehow persuading each interviewer that the scribe's hackneyed questions were uniquely penetrating. More innovatively, as critic Nicholas Stix wrote, "With time, the cannier movie stars, such as Tom Cruise, employed their lawyers and publicists to reinvent the studio publicity system, whereby they would contractually control every aspect of their publicity campaigns, with only those media organizations getting puff interviews that got every question cleared in advance, and that promised in writing not to engage in journalism."

But nepotism got the best of Cruise after he replaced his pit bull publicist Pat Kingsley with his sister. Last year, Cruise's usual Teddy Roosevelt-like "hypomania" -- that desirable state of tremendous energy combined with self-control -- appeared to give way to a near-manic phase during his laughably public courtship of Katie Holmes.

Still, despite Cruise apparently "jumping the couch," "M:I-3" turns out terrific, although I can barely remember what it was about a day later. The plot -- a James Bond-style farrago set in random dazzling locations such as Vatican City and Shanghai -- makes little sense overall, but each absurd twist is rationalized so cleverly that you don't have time to figure out why it was illogical before something else blows up.

As real life American spy agencies decline in competence, their movie counterparts are developing godlike proficiencies. Cruise's character Ethan Hunt works for the Impossible Mission Force, which defends our way of life from blond criminal masterminds and their excellent diction, as portrayed by that American Alec Guinness, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Best Actor Oscar in March. An odd misstep in this otherwise carefully crafted movie is that the suspense builds to a climactic fistfight between our nearly superhuman hero and pudgy little Truman Capote.

Lovely Michelle Monaghan (of "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang") adds an emotional element previously lacking in the series as Cruise's bride-in-jeopardy. My wife says she cried three times, even though her usual reaction to summer blockbusters is "Explosions make me sleepy."

Rated PG-13.


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