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How Tom Cruise turns great directors into his personal brand managers

Cruise built his career the way Marvel built its cinematic universe: using big-name directors in the service of canny brand management.

Tom Cruise and the ever-present cut on his cheek star in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
Paramount Pictures

Every Tom Cruise movie is, in some sense, an advertisement for Tom Cruise. He’s a product as much as a performer, a brand as much as person. And over the years, Cruise has relied on top-flight directorial talent to help sell the latest and greatest version of himself.

From the very beginning of his career, Cruise has worked with a who’s-who of big-name directors — in many cases auteurs with substantial reputations as artistic visionaries. Typically, movie directors are the authors of their films, but in Tom Cruise movies, even the brightest behind-the-camera filmmakers tend to come across more like ad agency creatives: brand managers brought in to help position the product.

It’s a canny strategy from Cruise, one of Hollywood’s most enduring and successful movie stars, and it has resulted in decades’ worth of entertaining pictures, and, at times, some truly excellent films. But it also flips the director’s relationship with the work, turning the artist and storyteller into a star’s personal image caretaker.

The Mission: Impossible films are directors’ showcases—but they’re also Cruise showcases

Cruise’s strategy with directors is most apparent in the Mission: Impossible films, Cruise’s longest-running franchise and the series that has been most responsible for his continued stardom.

In the Mission: Impossible movies, Cruise plays secret agent Ethan Hunt, a character whose defining feature is his lack of defining features. Throughout the five films in the series, we’ve learned almost nothing about who Hunt really is: His likes and dislikes, his personal history, his life outside the stories told in the movies. In the third film, he shows up married; his wife makes only a cameo appearance in the follow-up, and is totally forgotten in the fifth installment.

The franchise isn’t really about Hunt as a character, in the way that, say, the James Bond movies are about Bond, or the Iron Man films are about Iron Man. Even the Jason Bourne films, about a super-agent with memory loss, are about discovering the hero’s hidden past. Hunt, on the other hand, never really has a past. That’s because Hunt isn’t a character; he’s a blank action-hero template for its star to inhabit. Instead, the series is entirely about Cruise, the star and the brand.

And yet rather than turn his star vehicles over to generic, easy-to-manage hacks, Cruise — who is a producer on the films and exerts enormous influence over them — has chosen to work with a series of high-profile directors known for their strong cinematic visions.

Things blow up in Mission Impossible.
Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.

Brian de Palma’s original Mission Impossible was a twisty, pyrotechnic thriller; John Woo’s sequel was a gun-slinging, slow-mo Hong Kong action built out of an identity psychodrama; J.J. Abrams brought his blend of breathless pacing, relatable family drama, and empty McGuffins to the third; for his live-action debut, Incredibles director Brad Bird turned the fourth into a highlight reel of impeccably staged action set pieces; for the fifth film, Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of The Usual Suspects, mixed old-fashioned sequences with political intrigue and stylish misdirection.

Each of the Mission: Impossible films is a big-budget showcase for its director’s distinctive aesthetic — but they’re also showcases for Cruise, designed to show how well he fits into their disparate visions. Here is Tom Cruise planning and executing an impossible hack; here is Tom Cruise with long hair, riding a motorcycle and shooting things in slow motion; here is Tom Cruise playing relatable family man, and cartoon super-spy, and dapper, dashing agent, and so on and so forth. They’re product demos, or lavishly produced infomercials, crafted to show off the wide array of features that the newest iteration of Tom Cruise has to offer.

Cruise’s director choices suggest a desire for quality, but also a kind of vanity

It’s not just the Mission: Impossible films, though: Cruise has chosen to work with top-tier directors throughout his career, going back to the ’80s, when he starred in films like Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money and Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, and on through the ’90s, when he lent his star power to Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and P.T. Anderson’s sprawling valley epic, Magnolia.

The latter two may be Cruise’s best movies, in part because they play off of Cruise’s image. In Eyes Wide Shut, he’s cast as a wealthy husband opposite his then-wife, Nicole Kidman; the movie is a performance of behind-the-scenes marital stress between a well-known married, but soon to be divorced, couple. In Magnolia, Cruise plays a popular proto-men’s-rights guru who has invented a fictional past for himself. Both roles offer a sly kind of meta-commentary on Tom Cruise, the tabloid star, but they don’t upset his image so much as wink knowingly at it: They come across as efforts to prove that Cruise can be self-aware, too.

Like so many of Cruise’s role and director choices, those films suggest a desire for quality, but also a kind of vanity. They are opportunities for Cruise to show that he is more than just an attractive leading man; he’s an actor, too. Yes, he’s elevating top-tier directors, but he’s also elevating himself.

Cruise, you might say, has built his career the way Marvel has built its expanded movie universe,: lending out its properties to various directors to stamp their particular vision on the product, but always ensuring that they stay firmly on brand.

These days, Cruise seems most intent on demonstrating his physical prowess. He performs many of his own stunts, which include flinging himself from wires attached to the top of the Burj Khalifa or strapping his body to the exterior of a cargo plane as it takes off. Thirty years after the beach volleyball scene from Top Gun, Cruise, now 54 years old, still frequently appears shirtless in his films, as if to declare that he can still compete with Hollywood’s young, increasingly ripped action stars. Tom Cruise today may be an older model, but the product is still as capable and feature-filled as ever, and he works with directors who can show that off.

Cruise’s latest film, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, comes across as more of the same: Reacher is another characteristically blank action hero, whose only history lies in his vague military background. There’s a lot of physically demanding stunt-work — though nothing so spectacular as the Burj Khalifa climb — and sequences designed to show Cruise as both physically powerful and in command. The movie opens with a scene in which a handcuffed Cruise dominates a couple of corrupt local cops; before long, he’s knocking out a thug by punching him through a car window. Eventually, he takes off his shirt.

The film is directed by Edward Zwick, who’s not exactly an auteur, but he is an old Hollywood hand known for his lushly made, classically heroic, often topical films: Glory, Legends of the Fall, Blood Diamond, and The Last Samurai, which he also made with Cruise. Zwick’s direction here is competent, but no more, and overall the film breaks little new ground.

Yet there are a few tweaks this time around: Reacher is partnered with a woman, Susan Turner (the excellent but underutilized Cobie Smulders), and the pair end up taking care of a teenage girl (Danika Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter. Beneath the action, it’s the story of how the wandering, loner, ultra-competent action hero finally learns to be a family man.

Somehow the whole project feels weirdly nonspecific to the title character. It’s technically a Jack Reacher movie, but it comes across more like another installment in the Tom Cruise expanded universe. As always, he’s the true franchise property, and directors who sign up to work with him are just there to help maintain the brand.