Say what you like about Tom Cruise, he certainly knows how to pick his films. He may well have had a falling out with Paramount after his bizarre, Scientology and love-inspired behaviour in the run-up to his wedding last year, but love him or loathe him he’s one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood – and you don’t get to that level of fame by appearing in bad films. Unless, of course, they’re bad films that are likely to make a huge amount of money – like Days of Thunder, Legend or the last couple of Mission: Impossible movies.
So, after being ridiculed world-wide for being a decidedly barmy follower of a strange cult who’s just married someone half his age and lost his job in the process, what does Cruise do? He sets up his own studio, reviving United Artists – the studio originally founded way back in 1919 by the four giants of the silent era, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. It’s a hugely symbolic move – Cruise, just like those huge money-makers of the teens and twenties, sticking two fingers up at Hollywood to let the studio bigwigs know that his name is big enough to make films happen all by itself.
Lions for Lambs is the first Cruise movie since his public implosion, and the first to be produced by his new-look United Artists – and he’s done himself proud. Rather than doing the obvious of opting for a typical blockbuster in the Top Gun or Minority Report mould, this is one of those serious, Oscar-contender movies that he stars in from time to time, like Magnolia or Born on the Fourth of July. Revolving around the current war in Afghanistan, it’s a dangerous subject for someone trying to escape controversy – but at the same time that makes it a wonderfully brave choice for Cruise’s comeback movie, and almost perfectly designed to force his critics to rethink.
But lest this sound like it’s all about Cruise, he’s also gone a good way towards
shaking off accusations of egotism with this film, taking third billing to fellow A-listers Robert Redford (who also directs for the first time in seven years) and Meryl Streep.
Streep never has anything to prove, being one of the most consistently reliable – and single most Oscar-nominated – performers in Hollywood history, but Redford most certainly does, if not quite so much as Cruise. His last directorial outing was the misjudged and critically panned The Legend of Bagger Vance, the film that almost ended Matt Damon’s career, while he arguably hasn’t put in a good acting performance in a decent movie since 1992’s A River Runs Through It. Yes, he’s done wonders in promoting new talent – including Quentin Tarantino – via his Sundance Film Festival, but though he can recognise it in others, for the last 15 years or so he seems to have lost his own.
So, two living Hollywood legends, both with something to prove. Can they pull it off? With Streep’s incredible reliability, Redford’s easy charm and knack of getting the best out of his actors, and Cruise putting in another of those complex, mature and almost self-parodying performances – as in Magnolia – perfectly calculated to silence his critics, it’s hard not to see this ending up among the lists of Oscar nominees. He may be odd, but Cruise is most certainly a very, very canny movie professional.