Home » Hammer & Thump

Edge of Tomorrow: Cruise, Again and Again

By (June 25, 2014) No Comment

edge-of-tomorrow_tom-cruiseI once reveled in mocking and deriding Tom Cruise for the obvious reasons: the shallow All-American Super-Jock swagger; the intense self-deprecatingly positivity; the mish-mash of film choices from soggily pretentious Oscar-lickers (Born on the Fourth of July, Rain Man, The Last Samurai) to cloying, image polishers (A Few Good Men, Jerry McGuire) to silly popcorn pandering (The Firm, Mission Impossible, and of course Interview with the Vampire).

Even when the actor took otherwise admirable steps to try something cinematically daring with Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky, it still felt like the ridiculously handsome and charismatic quarterback slumming it in the theater department’s avant-garde spring production. (Like Glee’s Finn, without all the overdosing.) (I’d also say Kubrick reduced Cruise to a prop, but Kubrick reduced nearly all his actors to props.)

In the midst of this came the one truly brilliant Tom Cruise performance—the only post-Risky Business role that shows actual acting ability, as opposed to the usual wind-up charm masquerading in dress-up costumes as “Serious Acting!”

That was in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, and of course the irony there is that Cruise was so genuinely good in it because he appears to show us a glimpse of what I suspect is the Real Thomas Cruise Mapother IV: A vicious, insecure huckster constantly attacking at full speed to hide the dark emptiness within. In other words, his best came from simply letting slip the carefully constructed mask for a moment.

(The Runner Up would be his hilarious–and once again, I suspect self-revealing–Tropic Thunder cameo as a profane mad-dog studio exec.)

And of course there was the whole Scientology thing that frankly became so entwined with Cruise’s career and persona that it was impossible to tell if he was an actor who benefited from a made-up, sci-fi, long-con “religion” or a made-up, sci-fi, long-con “religion” salesman posing as an actor to boost his sales of L. Ron’s starter kits.

But then a decade ago came The Loopy Melt Down on Oprah’s couch, a moment that in hindsight now feels utterly created. (As well as working in tandem with the advent of YouTube to usher in the rise of the Internet’s Celebrity Fuck-Up Meme Machine.) There soon followed the Katie Holmes contractual marriage and the firing of his PR team so Cruise could freely spread the Scientology gospel. (At the time it wasn’t unthinkable that the actor saw himself as Hubbard’s heir apparent to eventually run the Cash-Register Church.)

Tom-Cruise-Edge-of-Tomorrow-trailer-618x400And yet… lost in the gossip shallows was the fact that the film Cruise was supposed to be promoting from Oprah’s couch that summer turned out to be mostly pretty great (at least for the first two acts): Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.

While Cruise had done his usual decent job in the previous summer’s highly underrated Collateral (one of the rare times the actor’s played an outright villain), there was something almost baptismal about the Oprah debacle and the summer of Cruise live-mic nuttery that followed. The All-American Boy stood up and showed everyone that he was, in fact, an even more nationally beloved trope: The All-American Nutjob.

That turned out to be freeing—both for Cruise and us, the audience. We didn’t have to pretend anymore that he was a Great Actor (he never was) or that he made Important Films (they never were). That allowed Cruise to simply be what he had always really been: a crazy Hollywood Creation. (Albeit still a dauntingly charismatic and devastatingly handsome one.) After decades of calling Cruise a bat-shit fraud from the wilderness, once he revealed himself as exactly that, suddenly I could truly appreciate the ridiculous amount of incandescent Star Power he brings to the silliest of roles and truly enjoy his Big Hollywood Movies.

Sure, Knight and Day and Oblivion are soggy misfires, but most every Cruise film since War of the Worlds has crackled thanks to the Cruise Effect (as well as some solid director and writer pairings): The last two Mission Impossible films were genuine shallow fun; Valkyrie is another underrated crackerjack thriller; and while Lee Child fan’s would be loathe to admit it, Jack Reacher was a solidly terrific popcorn flick.

(Yes, Rock of Ages is a celluloid horror that doesn’t even work as High Camp, but bad as it and he are, Cruise’s Axl-Jagger rock-god ridiculousness is an absolute riot for all the right and wrong reasons at once.)

These post-Oprah movies all have one thing in common: Whether he’s playing a blue-collar father, an aristocratic German saboteur, an international super spy, or futuristic hero, he’s still Tom Cruise, Movie Star. And that works so much better for me on-screen than Tom Cruise, Serious Actor.

_1373935068This summer’s latest entry in the Cruise Constellation, the sci-fi action orgy Edge of Tomorrow, certainly fits into that same disposable bucket of high-gloss, star-powered entertainment.

The only significant difference is that with a writing polish from Cruise’s latest go-to screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (the sharper-than-average writer of Valkyrie and writer-director of Jack Reacher and the next Mission Impossible flick) and some ace direction chops from obsessive-artiste-craftsman Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), Edge of Tomorrow fires and hits on more cylinders than most of the other products off the Cruise assembly line.

The fact that Edge of Tomorrow is the first action film in a while that manages to paradoxically look both like it has something to say (it doesn’t) and knows how to say it (it does), has led video-game armchair warriors, geek-hyped fan-boys, and desperately needy critics to proclaim the flick quite a bit more (“an action masterpiece!”) than it is, which is a suitably fast-paced and sure-handed enough popcorner to shine out from among the usual incompetent, slap-dash, action dreck.

Based (much more closely than PR-cruising Cruise seems willing to cotton to) on the Japanese “light” (young adult) novella All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow gives us Cruise as Cage, an obsequious military propagandist who, in a near future where Europe has been overrun by unstoppable alien invaders, suddenly finds himself strapped into a cumbersome battle-mech suit and dropped into the front line of a massive D-Day-like landing at Normandy.

Cage, whose PR talent lies in convincing young people to sign up as cannon fodder in an unwinnable war, is a useless soldier himself—frozen with fear as he tumbles onto the beachhead, he barely finds his gun’s safety before he’s ignominiously KIA.

edge-tomorrow-tom-cruise-reviewsThe novel idea of a Tom Cruise character who’s innately inept at doing the sort of bang-bang action stuff we’ve come to expect from him is a mildly amusing one, but quickly Cage undergoes a more typical Cruisian sci-fi gimmick: Post-death, he pops back up a day earlier in the time stream, reliving out the same events, only this time armed with a bit of painfully earned foreknowledge (including how to turn the safety off) that helps him get a little further up the beach before he’s killed again and resurrects once again a day earlier.

Eventually Cage hooks up with a super-soldier named Rita (Emily Blunt, having a grim cast-against-type ball) whose past victorious alien-smashing efforts had not only made her one of Cage’s PR poster soldiers in the propaganda war, but were once (but no more) aided by the same repetitive time-looping accident Cage himself is now experiencing.

And so it goes over and over for Cage, trapped by an alien time-loop McGuffin into a sped-up and butt-kicking version of Nietzsche’s Eternal Circle–better known to present-day pop-culturists as the Groundhog Day Effect or that “time is a flat circle” business Rust Cohle was going on about over a cut-up beer can in True Detective.

On the other hand, video gamers will instantly recognize the narrative as a cinematic manifestation of how first-person shooters are played: by dying over and over ad nauseum, each time coming back with a few more learned repetitive patterns tucked under your weapons belt to help you make it a little deeper into the gameplay. The film itself looks and feels like a futuristic shooter; battle scenes crammed full to the frames with CGI armament and hyper-gritty destruction splayed out against a backdrop of overblown escapist realism.

Drenched as much in dark humor as visually stimulating battle mayhem, it’s all very clever and quite a bit of guilty fun for the first hour or so—the sight of Tom Cruise dying over and over again is worth the price of popcorn.

edge-of-tomorrow-01Naturally, there are some storytelling cheats along the way. Though the plot makes it clear that only Cage remembers each “reset” time loop and therefore is the sole character who can truly “grow” emotionally throughout the course of the film, the audience (and filmmakers) can’t help but ascribe artificial layers of personal depth to Rita— our perceptions are skewed by our familiarity with this type of movie’s tropes, so at each reset timeframe, we don’t feel her as a blank-slate cipher she would be. Neither the script nor Blunt make us believe Rita truly doesn’t know Cage each new day.

Though certainly no masterpiece itself, Sakurazaka’s book at least toys with that theme of artificial interpersonal connection and delves much deeper into thorny existential questions not just about living the same brutal day over and over, but about the nature of war itself and why gung-ho young men are so anxious to fight and die in it.

We’ve no time for that sort of mamby pamby stuff here. Expertly stuffed full of adrenaline-pumping, testosterone-goosing blood-free battle chaos, Edge of Tomorrow perfectly captures the sort of war-porn fantasies brought on by endless video games where the hero’s death has no consequences, no cost.

Edge of Tomorrow is a clever-smart film for its kind, but it’s still a PG-13 summer Hollywood blockbuster. Nietzschean flat time circles and examinations of the causes and casualties of propagandized war lust don’t put over-sized popcorn butts in theater seats.

Instead, Cruise, Liman, and McQuarrie (along with co-writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) keep the focus on the enjoyable novelty of the crackerjack time-loop gimmick, at least right up until they unwisely abandon the conceit for a third-act finish that forgoes the film’s initial unpredictable innovation for a very typical, very formulaic, and very dull war-action “Men on a Mission” finish, complete with the usual predictable beats.

Infamous for his eccentric cinematic perfectionism, Liman’s more a middling mad-genius craftsman than deep thinker, and for the most part the director doesn’t have much to say about war and death. (Though at least the more jaded Edge of Tomorrow isn’t soaked in reprehensible rah-rah heroic horseshit like the recent “true story” Lone Survivor.)

o22v0xutiqeihlposbwuHowever, as a sure-footed and self-aware film maker, Liman does sneak in a gung-ho deconstruction of action films and action heroes. Rather than somehow genetically knowing how to run, jump, shoot, and blow up things with confident, superhuman invincibility, Cruise’ Cage has to learn all that action-hero stuff the hard way—his battlefield “luck” is carefully learned through repetition, every hoary action cliché attained is first shown as a miserable failure usually ending in an ignoble (albeit gore-free) splatter death. We’re reminded that 99% of what we see in most action films could never happen in real life… unless you had an alien time reset to perfect every move. Or a film, stunt, and CGI crew behind you.

And where Groundhog Day’s time loop turned Bill Murray’s jaded misanthrope into the perfect rom-com hero, Edge of Tomorrow only teaches Cruise’s oily coward how to be the perfect summer action-hero soldier. One must imagine Sisyphus armed to the teeth.

Seen through that skein, it’s also fun to also picture Edge of Tomorrow as an allegory for the creation of Tom Cruise, Movie Star. It’s not hard to imagine this was how Tom Cruise built himself into “Tom Cruise”: with relentless pursuit and practice; building performances and then a career from running headlong into mistakes and then backing up and running at them again; through tireless repetition of core beliefs and dedicated adherence to patterns and self-delusional dogma until all that obsessive effort became invisible and Everything Worked Beautifully.

edge_aIn that sense, Edge of Tomorrow is almost a riveting documentary about the price of hard-fought perfection. It’s about how we arrived with this, the Tom Cruise of today, the Ultimate Hollywood Star who embodies everything and signifies nothing.