In 1996, Tom Cruise Made His Best Comedy. But He Chose ‘Mission: Impossible’ for His Future

The Oscar-winning love story ‘Jerry Maguire’ could have pointed the star in a new career direction. He decided he’d rather be an action hero instead
In 1996, Tom Cruise Made His Best Comedy. But He Chose ‘Mission: Impossible’ for His Future

“Is Tom Cruise funny?” 

That’s how critic Steven Hyden opened his 2015 Grantland essay “The Comedic Stylings — Intentional and Otherwise — of Tom Cruise,” and it’s a question that still gets debated a lot. A year ago, Collider argued that Cruise was a modern-day Buster Keaton in terms of his ability to meld action and comedy, making us gasp and laugh simultaneously when he pulls off his latest ridiculous stunt. Recently, Comic Book Resources made the case that his new blockbuster, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, is actually really funny. 

As for Hyden, he answered his own query by suggesting this: “For most movie stars, comedy typically derives from inserting the actor into a strange or outrageous situation, allowing him or her to react. … But in Tom Cruise movies, the setup is inverted: He is the strangeness that the rest of the world must contend with.” Clearly, Cruise is a talented, charismatic actor, but we’re not quite sure about his funnyness because he doesn’t do funny the same way other performers do.

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The 61-year-old star has been making movies since the early 1980s. Other big names come and go — they have their moment and then recede into the background — but Cruise has stayed in the spotlight for almost the entirety of those 40-plus years. He started off doing sex comedies both forgettable (Losin’ It) and iconic (Risky Business), but since then he’s largely focused on action and drama. There’s humor in those films, too, of course, and fans will point to his bizarro turns in movies like Magnolia and Tropic Thunder as proof that he can be very funny on screen. (I’d also cite a personal favorite: He’s a lot of fun as hair-metal god Stacee Jaxx in the cheesy rock musical Rock of Ages.) But you’d be hard-pressed to name your favorite Tom Cruise comedy because, basically, he’s never done one. Sure, he’s done action-comedies and other hybrids. But when did he just play a purely comedic character in one of his star vehicles? 

There was a moment where maybe that would have changed. In hindsight, it perhaps seems inevitable Cruise would continue to pursue action flicks — especially when it became part of his brand, anointing himself The Savior Who Would Preserve the Majesty of the Big-Screen Experience. But in 1996, he presented us with two different Cruises: one, the action hero; the other, a sensitive, flawed guy in a grownup rom-com. One was the first Mission: Impossible, the other Jerry Maguire. Personally, I think Jerry Maguire is the slightly better film — and easily his best comedy. But it’s not the direction he decided to pursue. I’m not saying we lost out on a comic genius. But more than 25 years later, Jerry Maguire hints at what could have been.

Starting with 1986’s Top Gun, Cruise made it his mission to get asses into seats. But he had other ambitions as well: Starring in Oscar-winning dramas like The Color of Money, Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise got good reviews, demonstrating that he could hold his own against acting titans (like Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman) and intense directors (Oliver Stone). He did blockbusters, but they weren’t necessarily action blockbusters: For every Days of Thunder, there were movies like A Few Good Men, The Firm and Interview With the Vampire. But Mission: Impossible, based on the 1960s and 1970s series (which came back in the late 1980s), was different. This was going to be a big action-spy film at a time when Pierce Brosnan was trying to rescue the James Bond franchise from irrelevance. Mission: Impossible had the potential to be Cruise’s next Top Gun.

“Basically, it was a film I wanted to see,” Cruise explained in an L.A. Times profile shortly before the release of Mission: Impossible, his first as a producer. “I make my decisions about pictures by: Would I want to see it? It’s fun working on this kind of movie, because you are the audience. It’s, ‘Okay, what do you want to see? What would be really cool?’ It’s as basic as that sometimes — what do you think is really cool?”

It wasn’t easy-going, though. There were reports of tension behind the scenes. Director Brian De Palma had issues with the script, which was being rewritten frantically throughout filming. And Cruise was feeling the pressure to prove he could hack it as a producer overseeing a huge bet on the part of Paramount, which would be releasing the film. “Even though I’ve been successful as an actor,” he told the L.A. Times, “this is a different game.” 

But the gambles paid off: Opening in May 1996, Mission: Impossible was one of the year’s top moneymakers, setting the stage for a franchise that continues to this day — although Cruise’s director never understood the appeal of sequels. (“After I made Mission: Impossible, Tom asked me to start working on the next one,” De Palma later recalled. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ One of these is enough. Why would anybody want to make another one? Of course, the reason they make another one is to make money.”) In the U.S., it was his biggest hit to that point, but he was already deeply invested in his next project, something much more small-scale, a story about a sports agent who becomes disillusioned with the business, blowing up his career and starting over again.

Initially, Cameron Crowe, whose second feature had been the Seattle-set 1993 love story Singles, had Tom Hanks in mind when we wrote Jerry Maguire. But although the Oscar-winner liked the script, he passed, largely because he wanted to direct his first feature, That Thing You Do! Hanks suggested that Crowe consider John Travolta for the role, but Crowe was already thinking about Tom Cruise.

“After Say Anything, (Cruise) called and said, ‘I love this movie and I would love to do something with you,’” Crowe recalled. “(It) was just one of the great calls. I wanted to take him up on his offer.” So he sent Jerry Maguire to Cruise. “(H)e reacted immediately,” said Crowe. “He was excited about the sports angle, the idea of playing an agent. I had never worked with anybody in that stratosphere, and friends of mine would say, ‘Watch out, they change your stuff. They’re really demanding.’ But my first conversation with Tom after he read the script, he said, ‘I’ll fly out there. I’ll sit down. I’ll read for you. You tell me if you think I’m right for the part.’” 

Cruise has always been known as a super-intense, highly-focused guy, and that was just as apparent once he started working with Crowe. Mission: Impossible came out during the filming of Jerry Maguire, but the actor downplayed its massive commercial success when his castmates were giving him congratulations. “He says, ‘Thank you, you guys. Now let’s get down to Jerry. Let’s make our movie,’” Crowe said. “The guy could pivot, right and left, to this intimate, romantic comedy side of him that I couldn’t wait for people to see.”

In later films, like Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise has gotten laughs sending up his action-star persona: Part of the considerable fun of that 2014 movie is watching his character screw up again and again, dying every time and having to go back to square one. Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt is indefatigable, but he makes myriad mistakes — which proves he’s human but also demonstrates that, for all of Cruise’s enthusiasm for delivering death-defying stunts, he has a sense of humor about his seemingly unstoppable character, and by extension himself. 

Likewise, one of the most endearing things about Jerry Maguire is that it’s really a whole movie of Tom Cruise messing up. Early on, Jerry writes his passionate, self-righteous, extremely ill-advised manifesto, which gets him fired from the high-powered agency. He foolishly thinks he’ll be able to lure his big-name clients away, resulting in repeated humiliation. He’s so naive he assumes he can get other employees to join him in his new solo venture. His last remaining client, Rod (Cuba Gooding Jr.), is a loose cannon whom Jerry basically has to beg to hold onto — hence, the now-famous “Show me the money!” scene. The one assistant who goes with him, Dorothy (Renée Zellweger), he ends up impulsively marrying, which creates further romantic and professional complications. Even Dorothy’s young son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki) spends a good portion of Jerry Maguire dunking on Jerry Maguire. 

These are all the reasons why the film, which is more accurately described as a comedy-drama — the sort that Jerry Maguire producer James L. Brooks used to make, like Broadcast News — is so unexpectedly funny. Granted, Jerry Maguire eventually gets his shit together, grows as a person, etc., but there’s little doubt that he’s an imperfect, perhaps permanently shallow person in some regards. Everybody remembers Dorothy’s “You had me at hello” line, but part of what makes that moment work is that she wants Jerry to stop trying to unload the sort of big-speech-to-win-you-back moment that usually wraps up rom-coms. Basically, she wants him to shut up and just kiss her. Yes, Tom Cruise gets to be the hero, but Jerry Maguire has no illusions about what a putz he can be. And Cruise seemed to be having a blast, disassembling the strutting, impervious onscreen persona he’d so carefully constructed over many years. 

While Mission: Impossible had been a summer smash, Jerry Maguire was an awards-season darling: Opening in mid-December, the film got nominated for five Oscars, including Best Actor and Best Picture. (Gooding won for Best Supporting Actor.) It was a sizable hit, too: Mission: Impossible was the third-highest-grossing 1996 film, with Jerry Maguire landing in fourth. If Ethan Hunt was a cocky, high-flying action figure, Jerry Maguire was a lovable fool — the two roles creating a cinematic equivalent of those “How I view myself/How I really am” social-media memes. Cruise demonstrated he had both modes inside him — the superhuman and the very, very human — and the juxtaposition of the two films released right next to each other made each of them more compelling as a result.

In some ways, the next phase of Cruise’s career was the most interesting. He and then-wife Nicole Kidman went off to England for a few years to film Eyes Wide Shut with the exacting Stanley Kubrick. (“Someone said, ‘Well, you know he does a lot of takes,’” Cruise mentioned in the L.A. Times piece. “I said, ‘I don’t care if he does a thousand takes, I’m working with Stanley Kubrick!’”) He was mostly out of the spotlight during that period, but when the film was over, he got back to being a movie star. He moved between a supporting role in Magnolia as the shockingly, satirically misogynistic self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey — he got an Oscar nomination, his latest to date for acting — and star vehicles such as Mission: Impossible 2, Vanilla Sky (reunited with Crowe), Minority Report, The Last Samurai, Collateral and War of the Worlds, all of which did big business. 

At the same time, though, he and Kidman split, he got involved with Katie Holmes — they married in 2006 — and he had his infamous “couch jumping” interview with Oprah Winfrey. There was that embarrassing face-off with Matt Lauer, in which Cruise criticized the Today host and spouted anti-therapy, anti-medication nonsense. (Oh, and don’t forget the story about how Cruise set up a Scientology tent on the set of War of the Worlds to convert crewmembers.) At the box office, he still seemed bulletproof, but the offscreen behavior started to cut into his popularity. By the release of 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, the tarnishing of his image was significant enough that the film failed to gross as much as either of the first two installments, inspiring talk that Cruise might be “over.”

For a while, it seemed like that might be true. Outside of his amusingly gonzo turn as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, he was popping up in unmemorable period thrillers (Valkyrie) and unmemorable action-comedies (Knight and Day). Modest hits like Oblivion and those Jack Reacher films — where everybody made fun of him because he wasn’t nearly as tall as the character in the books — suggested a star on the decline. Maybe that’s why his Rock of Ages performance in 2012 was so satisfying: Not only was it funny, his fully committed, full-throated rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is” seemed to make fun of both the aging rocker and the aging actor who played him.

Some stars might have pivoted to dramatic roles, reinventing themselves as a respected character actor, content in the knowledge that they didn’t need to top the box office anymore or prove anything to anyone. But that was never going to be Tom Cruise, who doubled-down, starting with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, where he performed the nerve-wracking Burj Khalifa stunt himself. 

Ghost Protocol’s stunt coordinator, Gregg Smrz, said of Cruise, “If he wasn’t an actor, Tom could have been a stuntman … (P)utting Tom into the harness was no different than a stunt guy.” Smrz was unconsciously echoing what David Kronke, who wrote that 1996 L.A. Times profile, had said back then: “If this movie star thing ever peters out on him, Tom Cruise just might have a promising career as a stuntman. Cruise, who dabbled in race (car) driving for a while and enjoys the odd act of aerial derring-do in his own plane, is the kind of thrill junkie who finds putting life and/or limb on the line for a ‘cool’ (his word) shot ‘fun.’” 

Fifteen years after those prophetic words were written, Ghost Protocol was a sensation, reestablishing Cruise’s star power and cementing his reputation as a guy who will do anything — anything — to wow his audience. Subsequent sequels featured their own incredible stunt sequences, each time the thrill being the audience’s realization that, holy shit, that’s actually Tom Cruise doing that crazy thing. Not since Jackie Chan had an action star put himself in harm’s way so strenuously, repeatedly and joyously for our entertainment. By risking his own life, Cruise was reborn.

He would occasionally flash his comedic side in his later blockbusters — he’s been especially loose-limbed with director Doug Liman, who directed him in Edge of Tomorrow and the underrated true-life action-comedy American Made — but as he rebuilt his stardom, the emphasis has been on tentpoles, even if they’re total duds like The Mummy, which was meant to launch Universal’s Dark Universe. (Spoiler: It did not.) As a result, there wasn’t much room for a Jerry Maguire anymore — there wasn’t space for something in which he played a human-scaled character. Only action heroes need apply.

It’s not fair to be too harsh to Cruise about this shift away from funny, thoughtful romantic comedies. Truth is, Hollywood in general has stopped making Jerry Maguires — at least at the studio level. Try to think of a movie like that from the last 20 years. Maybe Richard Linklater’s Before films? Perhaps Love Actually? Maybe La La Land? (And that’s more of an old-school musical anyway.) There’s just not a lot of those films around anymore. If anything, Cruise read the tea leaves, realizing that, if you’re going to remain an A-list star — and you’re not going to play in the Marvel sandbox — then you’d better find a big-budget franchise or two. In this century, bankable stars have been replaced by familiar brands, properties and characters. The Mission: Impossible films might be that rare, happy exception: You go for the franchise, but you also go for Cruise.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Dead Reckoning ends with something of a cliffhanger. (Part One is right there in the title.) I imagine, like me, most people will be excited to return to theaters next year to see Part Two, which may very well be the final Mission: Impossible with Tom Cruise. If so, it’s been a hell of a run in a remarkable career. He has thrived where other stars have not — all these years later, he’s still thinking about what would be cool to show an audience, and his instincts have been pretty unerring. 

Back in 1996, Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire presented two paths for where he could go next. We know which one he chose, which proved to be the smart decision, but I’ll always wonder about the path not taken. Trust me, I’m not complaining: We got so many great Mission: Impossible movies out of the deal.

In Jerry Maguire, his character is at a crossroads, and so was Cruise, who refashioned himself as the last great action hero. Mission: Impossible held the key for his future. But it’s funny to think back to De Palma’s grousing about sequels, because his complaints suggest what’s so terrific about Jerry Maguire. You didn’t need to make another one of those. It’s more than good enough on its own.

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