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Tom Cruise: A Star in Slow-Motion Career Meltdown

If there’s one thing you can count on when you see a Tom Cruise franchise action movie, it’s the look on his face. It is cool and poised, sleek and alert; it’s all dashing resolve. But during “The Mummy,” I kept looking at Cruise and having a strange sensation, which is that the emotion those familiar features seemed to be radiating was, in a word, confusion. Throughout the movie, he looked a little slack and a little blank, a little what-the-heck-is-going-on? It could, theoretically, have been an element of Cruise’s performance. His character, a tomb raider named Nick Morton, gets invaded by the spirit of an Egyptian mummy; his soul then becomes a battleground between good and evil (at least, that’s the idea). That could be enough to leave one confused. The truth is, though, that the slightly discombobulated look on Cruise’s face throughout “The Mummy” didn’t really strike me as an aspect of his performance. It seemed more like Cruise himself thinking, deep down, “Where am I?”

For the last 10 years, Tom Cruise has been doing a version of what he’s always done — making “Mission: Impossible” thrillers, and also big-scale flashy-concept sci-fi movies (like “Oblivion” and “Edge of Tomorrow”) and introducing new franchises, like “Jack Reacher” and, now, the Dark Universe films. He’s become a bit of a franchise addict. The very thing that allows a film series to define a brand is that a star tends to do one of them at a time, so that it can be…you know, defining.

But Cruise now seems to be throwing franchises against the wall to see which of them will stick. Another “M:I” film, another “Jack Reacher” mystery, now “The Mummy,” and what’s next? He’s all these characters, but in another way he’s none of them, because the characters (except for Ethan Hunt) aren’t sinking into moviegoers’ imaginations. They’re like suits of clothing he’s rotating through. He has just announced the sequel that no one was clamoring to see, “Top Gun: Maverick,” which sounds like a case of cannibalizing his greatest star hit by grinding it up into another franchise. What could be less of a maverick move?

Some of what’s faltering is Cruise’s judgment. Take the “Jack Reacher” series. The whole premise of it is that Jack Reacher is a nihilistic loner who investigates crimes — a pursuit that, in his case, involves recklessly dressing people down and beating the crap out of them. He’s Sam Spade meets Dirty Harry. But, of course, the problem with “Jack Reacher” (2012) and its recent sequel, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” (2016), is that the character of Jack, as portrayed by Cruise, is a badass who isn’t bad enough — a hellion polished and honed to be “audience-friendly.”

Yet why take on a role like this one if you’re only going to water it down? Cruise, as an actor, is like an image consultant, or a studio executive giving notes to himself (“I think there’s an opportunity here to make the character a little more likable…”). What’s insidious is that the reason he was drawn to playing Jack Reacher in the first place is that he obviously regarded it as an act of image management — a way to keep pace with the times by letting himself get down and dirty (but not too much). Is it any wonder that these films are tonally out of focus? With deadening calculation, they whipsaw Cruise’s image in two directions at once. That’s why they barely even feel like a franchise. They’re just two more middling Tom Cruise films.

The middling Cruise movies are stacking up, and over the last 10 years he has squandered his star capital with them. He now seems devoted to working with anonymously talented journeyman directors (Bryan Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Joseph Kosinski, Alex Kurtzman). Is that his way of retaining the power? Let me say up front that I’ve always been a Tom Cruise believer (just check out my gallery of his 10 best films, in which my reverence for movies like “Top Gun” knows no shame), but the eerie thing about Cruise’s career in the last decade is that he has been churning out the cinematic equivalent of holograms. It walks like a Tom Cruise movie, it talks like a Tom Cruise movie (it’s got speed and “intensity,” even a soupçon of cleverness), but it’s a Tom Cruise movie that leaves no shadow. It’s a piece of virtual entertainment.

The new Cruise era really kicked off with “Valkyrie,” the 2008 historical-curiosity thriller that cast him as a one-eyed German officer who became a secret member of the anti-Nazi resistance, leading a plot to assassinate Hitler. As ideas for movies go, this one wasn’t bad, but I remember being struck by how jarring it was that Cruise didn’t even try for a German accent. I realize, of course, that this isn’t exactly an issue of the strictest historical accuracy (the Germans didn’t just speak with German accents, they spoke German), but the point is: If you’re going to sign on to do a film like “Valkyrie,” why not use it as the opportunity to change up your persona? Don’t just give us the same-old same-old Tom Cruise, only now in an eyepatch and Iron Cross costume.

The movies that Cruise has made since then — “Knight and Day,” “Oblivion,” etc. — have played like imitation Tom Cruise movies, and that’s because the thing that they’re mimicking, as if it were there in the way it always has been, is his identity as a superstar. Another big summer movie, another franchise, another brand boost, another countdown to the opening-weekend gross — and even if those numbers are not what they used to be (“Jack Reacher”: $22 million, “Knight and Day”: $20 million, “The Mummy”: $31 million), at least they look like they’re in the blockbuster ballpark; globally, the final tallies often are. They prove, each time, that Tom Cruise is still in the game. And that’s what matters to him: his continued existence as an ageless movie demigod — the Cruise we’ve known and loved, hopping from one hit to the next, never even changing his haircut.

But does he really want his legacy to be “Look! My last movie grossed as much money as ‘Warcraft'”? For a long time, not just in the ’80s and ’90s but right up through the middle of the ’00s, Tom Cruise did vigorous and sometimes extraordinary work with great filmmakers who challenged him. (Most stunning example: His lacerating and revelatory performance in “Magnolia.”) Have the great filmmakers stopped calling? I can’t believe that the answer is yes. This fall, he’ll star in “American Made,” a true-life drama of drug-running and politics directed by Doug Liman.

Tom Cruise could still be a powerful actor, but the irony of his career, at least for now, is that at the very moment when he should be taking on more character roles, easing into a post-superstar creative freedom zone (as actors from Julia Roberts to Kevin Costner to Meryl Streep to Leonardo DiCaprio have done), he’s doubled down on one thing and one thing only: the awesome global transcendence of his image. He’s still choosing movies like he’s king of the world. He’s got it half right: He is Hollywood royalty. But proving that, each and every time, by making movies that exist for no organic reason but to win the box-office contest they’re not even winning anymore has become, for Cruise, a game of diminishing returns: for his fans, and for himself, too.

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