Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cruise control

In a world where jaded audiences are rejecting star power, TOM CRUISE RETAINS HIS A-LIST STATURE

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Tireless.

Talk to anyone about Tom Cruise, and that same adjective comes up over and over.

Those who know him, whether it's producers, directors or actors, describe a man with a focus and intensity so powerful and relentless, he literally wills what he wants into being.

"I like to say that Tom can control the weather with his mind. We never seem to have bad weather when we're shooting outdoors," says Christopher McQuarrie, who has known Cruise for five years and directs him in his latest, the thriller Jack Reacher, based on the popular novels by Lee Child and in theaters Friday.

If he's to remain in the upper strata of Hollywood and continue to have the clout to get behemoth movies made, Cruise needs all the discipline and single-mindedness he can muster. It's been a whopper of a year for the superstar, who was blindsided by a divorce filed by his third wife, Katie Holmes, in late June.

Since then, the formerly ebullient actor has been uncharacteristically press-shy, jetting from film set to film set, attending premieres and spending quiet, secluded time with his daughter, Suri, 6. This time, the actor is letting his films do the talking.

In Jack Reacher, Cruise is a former military police officer living off the grid who is adept at investigating complex crimes and righting wrongs according to his own moral code. In what could be a franchise-starter (Cruise and Paramount have optioned the entire series) Reacher looks into why a gunman appeared to shoot five people at random. It's based on Child's novel One Shot.

"I think he's bringing a no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes attitude to Jack Reacher," says co-star Rosamund Pike. "I think he gets the character completely. He gets that this is a man who won't let something go. He's like a terrier after the truth, only he's not going to stick around. He's got a restless soul. I think Tom captures that."

And much like Reacher, Cruise is calm and centered under pressure.

"He's probably more like Jack Reacher in certain respects than any other character he's played. Reacher waits for the world to come to him and I think Tom is very contemplative and reactive in that way. Jack Reacher is smart at reading a room and is always tactically thinking. Tom is also that way," says producer Don Granger, another Cruise friend.

Cruise declined to be interviewed for this story, but those close to him were happy to talk about the actor, who has retained A-list status for an unprecedented amount of time, despite a handful of box office disappointments over the past five years. With stars such as Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, Henry Cavill and Channing Tatum nipping at his heels, one has to wonder how long Cruise, who despite his boyish good looks isn't immune to the forces of aging, can maintain his status as the last action hero.

Despite forays into drama, with 1999's Magnolia and 2004's Collateral, bawdy comedy like 2008's Tropic Thunder and this summer's box office flop Rock of Ages, Cruise seems to be sticking to what he's best known for -- big-ticket action flicks. But, say his colleagues, don't bet against him -- ever.

"He's incredibly astute about storytelling and cinema and what audiences will be thinking and what they will respond to," says JJ Abrams, who helmed 2006's Mission: Impossible III, starring Cruise. "He is the hardest-working person that exists. There is no one I've ever seen or read about who puts more of himself into his job. He's tireless and sleeps so little. He sleeps for a few hours a night. He has the kind of energy and intensity that is completely unique to him."

With a passion for doing his own stunt work, on set Cruise pushes filmmaking "to its absolute limits," Pike says. "To be fair, the only time he really was concerned about safety is when I was shooting the scene where (my character) Helen gets tasered and I was five months pregnant. And I think Tom was on the edge of his seat, he was like, 'Don't hurt her, don't hurt her. Make sure she doesn't fall.' He took tremendous care of me."

On set, his Mission co-star Jeremy Renner likens Cruise to a quarterback committed to run a smooth, efficient operation. Granger concurs, recalling how Cruise kept spirits up during Jack Reacher.

"I remember I was on set and it was late in the shoot. I was standing on the stage and staring off into space. He walked by and asked if I was OK," says Granger. "I said I was thinking of some problems I had to solve. And he said, 'What problems do we have? We're making a movie. We're lucky.'"

If you met Cruise, you'd like him. He's punctual, personable, charming, gregarious, focused.

"He's a funny guy and kind of goofy when you get to know him. There are no Howard Hughes stories," says Brad Bird, who directed Cruise's most recent hit, last year's Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol. "He really loves what he does and he's very disciplined. Tom, if you hang around him, he recognizes the costs of where he is. There's some sadness in him that he can't just walk around. I was with him several times when he tried. Sooner or later, a group would collect around him and he's in a position where he's with the public and he's grateful, so when he interacts, he is pleasant and signs and stands for photos. But he can't go out into the world. I think he would like to."

Perhaps one of the keys to Cruise's enduring success is his appreciation of his fans. No one -- perhaps with the exception of Hugh Jackman -- is as nice as Cruise. No one. There's no resentment, no annoyance, no boredom.

After Jack Reacher's premiere in Stockholm, the cast prepared to walk out "and there were two ushers who were just standing there by one of the posters, and Tom smiled at them and reached out his hand," recalls Pike. This woman said, 'Do you speak to staff? He was like, 'Of course I speak to staff.' He stopped and he said, 'You guys keep people coming to the movies. You guys run the cinema and make it an enjoyable experience. You guys I value most of all.'"

"That's another thing I learned working with him. He's out there doing it," says Renner. "If we go for dinner or somewhere, he knows we have to slide in through the kitchen. He's very gracious to everybody. He treats everyone with respect."

But often, he doesn't get that in return. There has been ongoing speculation about Cruise's personal life and especially his deep and long immersion in the Church of Scientology. His ex-wife, Holmes, has relocated to Manhattan with their daughter Suri and is now starring on Broadway. And because he has not spoken out about his divorce at all, others have jumped in to fill the void.

One example: A month ago, gossip sites buzzed about a possible romance between Cameron Diaz and Cruise. In fact, the Vanilla Sky and Knight and Day co-stars had run into each other in New York, sharing dinner with a group.

Or another: a photo that circulated of Cruise out to dinner with a mystery woman. In fact, it was McQuarrie's wife and he'd been cropped out of the picture.

Diaz says she doesn't know what Cruise's emotional connectivity is to the constant media attention around him, "but from what I've seen and how he handles stuff, I think that he's done a very good job of being able to endure a lot. Because he's certainly put through a lot." But, she adds, "To make it this long in this business with that kind of attention, if it was going to break him or if it was something that bothered him, I don't think he would be doing it at the level that he's doing it."

One respite has been his work. Cruise has spent the summer and fall shooting two mega films, All You Need is Kill and Oblivion. It was business as usual for the actor. And par for the course, Cruise had no intention of letting his personal issues stop production or costing people their jobs.

"He takes his commitments to his work very seriously," says McQuarrie.

Part of those commitments include promoting his films around the world, a process involving surgically precise movements, grueling flight schedules and constant appearances.

As Cruise promotes Reacher, he's both ever-present and uniquely unavailable, presenting a conundrum for press.

The script seems simple: Choose great films, and let them speak for themselves.

It's a strategy that matters more than ever during an era when "the heyday of the star-driven movie" is over, says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office division of Hollywood.com.

In Hollywood, concepts are now king, and the "Mount Rushmore of movie stars," like Cruise, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Will Smith, are grappling with how to proceed. "Audiences are jaded," he says. They've seen everything. Those stars who have totally relied on their bankability are in a position that they have to choose their projects more carefully than ever before."

Male-dominated action is where Cruise is keeping his laser focus. It could bode well for Jack Reacher, which is the only straight-up action flick opening in December until Quentin Tarantino's bloody slavery tale Django Unchained arrives on Christmas Day.

But with his third marriage over, it remains to be seen how female fans factor into the Tom Cruise brand. With no Jerry Maguires on the horizon, and two back-to-back epic alien-fighting films in the pipeline, Cruise's slate invites a more interesting question: does his personal life matter at the box office?

"The good news for Tom Cruise is that most guys that want to go see him kick butt in Jack Reacher don't give a darn about his personal life," says Dergarabedian. "But the girls that go with them might."

Still, one of the world's biggest movie stars may be one hit away from erasing a whole lot of headlines.

A good movie provides bounce, but a great one? That holds the power of reinvention, says Dergarabedian. "Audiences have a short memory if you create something incredible."

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2012 A14

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