Playing a Young Man's Game

Age is turning Tom Cruise into one of the great action stars of our time

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In Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, there is a moment where super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) clings onto an Airbus A400M during take-off. Cruise did this for real, the 53-year-old star harnessed onto the side of the plane as it climbed to 5,000 feet. In another Rogue Nation scene, Ethan dives 120 feet into a water tank and holds his breath for three-minutes-plus, which Cruise didn’t quite do himself—in reality, he went further, totaling six minutes underwater before coming up for air.

This, apparently, is something Tom Cruise is wont to do now. The actor hasn’t taken on a full-out acting role since Valkyrie seven years ago; since then, he’s dedicated himself solely to blockbusters (cameos in Tropic Thunder and Rock of Ages excepted). There’s been a marked shift: with every passing film, Cruise’s roles are increasingly sparing with the dialogue and heavy on the physicality. At one time, Cruise was making drama with Kubrick and Crowe, with PT Anderson and Oliver Stone. Now he’s an action man, keeping the acting-muscle-flexing to a bare minimum.

Not that Cruise has gotten lazy. Cruise has always favored doing his own stunts where possible, but lately said stunts have taken on an unprecedented intensity. Along with the aforementioned Rogue Nation feats, Cruise did all his own driving for 2012’s Jack Reacher, neglected wire work for 2010’s Knight and Day, and—in a pièce de résistance—dangled off Dubai’s mile-high Burj Khalifa building for 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Such death-defying, near-uninsurable stuntwork has seen Cruise swap his matinee idol image for a Buster Keaton-like appeal.

Now, Cruise is doing things no other modern star actor would. As he scales new heights and reaches faster speeds, it all feels suspiciously like Cruise has become aware that he isn’t going to be a star for much longer. Not according to tradition, anyway: Liam Neeson aside, most male movie stars emerge from their 50s as headliners no more (though they shouldn’t quibble too much, the women are lucky to make it to 40). Cruise will only be all too aware of his age—that all interviewers must now remark how good Cruise looks for a man of his years means he’s never allowed to forget.

So what has been Cruise’s response? Drop the acting-with-a-capital-A for the time being, and commit to the most daring, most physically demanding work of his career. Cruise, like most star actors, has an ego, but one suspects the idea behind his recent derring do was not just to reinforce the notion that he’s some kind of superman. Rather, he’s proving his value, defying the perceived limitations of his age, and showing Hollywood—and the world—that he still belongs as a blockbuster lead. It’s a midlife crisis played out on-screen, a multimillion-dollar bid to delay the inevitable.

See, as proof, the money-shots in the two most recent Mission Impossible movies, produced by Cruise and filmed in such a way that there’s no confusion as to who’s performing the stuntwork. A continuous take during Rogue Nation’s plane sequence shows Cruise latched on the side of the craft from tarmac to air, whereas in Ghost Protocol, the camera moves from inside to out along with Cruise, as he fixes himself onto the glass of the Burj Khalifa. These are exhilarating action cinema moments, but they serve another purpose for the films’ producer-star: they make him look indispensable.

People are already asking how Cruise is going to top Rogue Nation’s plane stunt, and God only knows what crazy antics he’s going to have to commit to next in order to keep his audience interested. It would seem Cruise is cornering himself into a specific, strenuous niche. The big budget action movies aren’t coming to a halt, as already Cruise has got a CGI-free Top Gun 2 (“I’d like to fly those jets … but we got to do [it] practical”), sequels to Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow, and the sixth Mission Impossible movie lined up for the next couple of years.

Of course, this can’t last forever. Providing he doesn’t perish filming a shootout on a rollercoaster (or something) for Mission Impossible 6, there will inevitably come a point where Cruise will no longer be able to keep topping himself, where his body won’t be able to physically take it. Then we’ll be into another, arguably more interesting phase of the Cruiser’s career, where he’s required to rely on his acting skills alone, and perhaps reintroduce some of those fine character qualities he displayed in the likes of Magnolia and Collateral. Until then, strap in, and enjoy the ride; Tom Cruise is raging wildly against the dying of the light, and we’re all invited to watch.

Brogan Morris is a UK-based freelance writer, and editor of online film/TV magazine Screen Robot. Opinions on film range from the pretentious to the frankly laughable. Find him on Twitter.