This year marks the 16th anniversary of Michael Mann’s gritty thriller Collateral, starring Jamie Foxx as a cab driver named Max who gets hijacked by Vincent, a coldly maniacal contract killer who forces Max to chauffer him from murder to murder over the course of one terrifying night. (The film got a solid 4K release this week which you should check out immediately – its one of the best action-thrillers of the 2000s.) Vincent is played with reptilian glee by Tom Cruise, cutting his way through the film with quiet, smiling menace and a shock of salt-and-pepper hair (the only time he has allowed his hair to appear this way on film). He’s like a crocodile wearing sunglasses, and watching him chew his way through the movie is an absolute blast. However, in the almost two decades since Collateral’s release, Cruise has stuck to playing standard Tom Cruise heroes (with the notable exception of his incredible Tropic Thunder cameo). So why doesn’t Tom Cruise play more bad guys? He should, partially because he absolutely rules at it, but also because villains make the most interesting use of Cruise’s particular bag of tricks.
Cruise went from unknown to leading man in the blink of an eye in the early 80s, so he never really experienced a period of bouncing around through supporting roles. But one of his earliest was the 1981 film Taps, about a group of military school students who lay siege to their own campus to keep it from being sold off to real estate developers. Cruise plays the unhinged Cadet Shawn, a guy who has seemingly been waiting his entire life to fire a machine gun into a crowd of people. A lot of the qualities Cruise displays in his portrayal of the homicidally aloof Vincent are visible in Shawn, which is to say a lot of the qualities that make Tom Cruise Tom Cruise. The actor’s trademarks – his intensity, his charisma, his dry sense of humor – are all components of a perfect movie villain, which is why the rare times he decides to don the proverbial black hat are so memorable and so entertaining. His role in Taps gave us an early look at that, and one could argue that his star-making performance as Maverick in 1986’s Top Gun is 80% bad guy.
Seriously, take another look at Top Gun (which was just released in an excellent 4K SteelBook edition this month, so there has literally never been a better time to do so). Maverick is a reckless showoff driven by pride and an inferiority complex thanks to the shadow of his dead father. He constantly pushes back against his instructor and his superior officers in bouts of rage that could gently be described as petulant but are in reality closer to tantrums, and breaks the rules in ways that could actually put his teammates in jeopardy, to the point where a prideful decision leads to an accident that kills his best friend. You’d only need to rewrite two or three scenes to make Maverick unquestionably the villain, and that was the character who made Cruise a star. We were introduced to him as a man who was barely the hero of his own film, and audiences around the world responded by saying, “Yes, 40 more years of this please.” The point is, we were essentially hip to the idea of Cruise playing borderline psychopaths from the get go, and he’s generally a more interesting performer when he does.
Flash forward 13 years to 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, the long-gestating adaptation of Anne Rice’s gothic horror novel about the complicated love-hate relationship between two centuries-old vampires. Cruise plays Lestat, the chief antagonist and primary character of Rice’s ongoing The Vampire Chronicles series of books and stories. And he kills it – Lestat is simultaneously amused by his detachment from humanity and utterly obsessed with it. His loneliness and boredom lead him to transform tragic dummy Louis (Brad Pitt) into his eternal companion, a relationship that ultimately boils down to Louis quietly pouting while Lestat carves gleefully chaotic scars into a world to which he no longer belongs. He’s like Heath Ledger’s Joker if he had been born into aristocracy and was only slightly too vain to cut a smile into his own face. Lestat may be constantly at odds with whether or not he likes being a vampire, but Cruise clearly loves it, and even though it’s technically a supporting role, his presence is felt throughout the film (again, similar to Ledger’s Joker).
Rice was initially extremely upset over Cruise’s casting, insisting that the actor was the absolute wrong person to play her demented vampire prince. She’d wanted Julian Sands, better known as the dude from the Warlock movies who gets eaten by the King of Spiders in Arachnophobia, and pitched a vocal fit right up until the film’s release. She dunked on Cruise every chance she got, suggesting that they replace him with John Malkovich (I desperately want to see that version of this film), Jeremy Irons, and even freaking RoboCop himself, Peter Weller. She also tried to get the production to have Cruise and Pitt trade roles. The point being, she would’ve rather set herself on fire than have Cruise play this character. And then she actually watched the movie. After calling Cruise personally to apologize, Rice made a public about-face, writing “…from the moment he appeared, Tom was Lestat for me” in a personal statement praising the film.
Anne Rice was fundamentally opposed to Cruise’s casting, based on his heroic movie-star image, and then completely changed her mind after seeing his performance. If you can inject enough charisma into a fussy, maniacal ghoul to win over the woman who literally created said ghoul, that’s saying something. What I’m getting at is that Cruise’s reputation as the “good guy” gets in his own way, and when he puts that aside to play oddballs and villains, audiences are reminded that he’s actually a very entertaining actor.
When I say “oddball,” I am of course referring to the gloriously bizarre motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey, whom Cruise portrayed in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia to critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination. Another against-type supporting character who stands out as one of Cruise’s best performances, Frank was an unexpected treat for people who wouldn’t normally consider Cruise when picturing the cast of an epic multi-threaded dramedy. And Frank’s a sweaty, spray-tanned scumbag, allowing Cruise to make larger-than-life choices with the character that you just don’t get to do when you’re sprinting from aliens or chasing Henry Cavill in a helicopter.
And that’s pretty much it, for Cruise as villains. Now that he’s approaching 60 and found a career resurgence throwing himself across buildings for the Mission: Impossible movies, it seems unlikely that he’s going to return to the world of scene-stealing supporting roles anytime soon. And that’s a shame, because he makes such a good bad guy! He’s at his most entertaining when he’s channeling his megawatt energy and charisma into nihilistic sociopaths who make us genuinely concerned for the hero’s well-being. Seriously, I sat through the entirety of Collateral thinking “How the hell is Jamie Foxx going to get out of this?” and the answer is an appreciable “by the seat of his freaking pants.” More Tom Cruise movies should be that electric.
James Mangold is directing the archaeologist’s fifth adventure, which is expected to hit theaters in 2022.
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