Some of the Right Moves: Tom Cruise, the Athlete

Elias Stein

In his heather-gray short-shorts ensemble, Tom Cruise drains a long-range sky hook with deliberate nonchalance. He shirtlessly ducks the bare fist of a suspendered barroom behemoth and later socks an unruly horse right in the schnoz, conquering both beasts. He stalks a pool table like a predator, picks up a pick-six as college scouts look on, and delivers high kicks while brandishing a samurai sword. He is either secure enough, or enough of a phony, to wear a Yankees cap one day and a Red Sox hat the next. (Either way, David Fincher would definitely approve.)

He jumps atop a parked car, pops the collar on his sleeveless denim button-down, and nails a backflip. He breaks a window while throwing weirdly during backyard catch, plays beach volleyball in jeans ’n’ sunnies, and grinds the hardy tires on a stock car down to melted nubs. When it’s all over, he dabbles in the dark arts of trash talk, delivering sick burns to arrogant adversaries while wearing a varsity jacket. “You’re a lousy fucking softball player, Jack!” he spits at Kevin Bacon. Game, set, match.

In 1988, Cocktail director Roger Donaldson, sounding like a proud general manager on draft day, told the Los Angeles Daily News that Cruise “is a guy who’ll be around for many years to come. Maybe 30 or 40 years.” He’s almost there. For decades now, Cruise’s unchanged visage, toothy grin, and cocky glare have maniacally shone down at audiences. But from the start, Cruise has been more than just a pretty face: He’s one of cinema’s most entertaining — if unexpected — all-around athletes.

Cruise’s running gait is so hilarious and distinctive that it has spawned not only YouTube supercuts but entire painstaking catalogues that document every swinging elbow, each high-kneed step.1 His swagger is inherent and absolute. It’s hard to say which piece of equipment he swings with greater abandon — that Balabushka or that bat. Looking ridiculous never fazes him, as we well know. Never would he consider giving less than 110 percent.

As he’s gotten older, Cruise has increasingly blurred the line between the person and the performer, between what’s fictional and what’s real. He can put a minivan up on two wheels on British TV or put Jimmy Fallon to shame in a football-throwing contest. As a kid he had stunt doubles for films that weren’t necessarily all that physical; now he throws tantrums unless he can personally scale the Burj Khalifa.

On the one hand, it’s kinda badass that these days Cruise produces his own movies so he can gain, for example, the power to fire an insurer who might balk at this sort of risk. On the other, though, if ever there were an actor whose personal life you’d like to try to keep as far as possible from his art, it’s unquestionably David Miscavige’s bestest bud.

But hey, sports fans more than anyone are used to reconciling, or at least ignoring, this kind of uncertain divide. Let’s be honest: There’s a hell of a lot we’re willing to overlook so long as the athlete is sufficiently successful and/or entertaining. Cruise is both.

In his 1990 three-star review of the Cruise NASCAR flick Days of Thunder, Roger Ebert outlined the tenets of “what we might as well call the Tom Cruise Picture, [which] assembles the same elements that worked in ‘Top Gun,’ ‘The Color of Money,’ and ‘Cocktail.’” Most of what Ebert identified — the Mentor, the Trail, the Proto-Enemy and the Eventual Enemy, the Arena, the Craft, etc. — were the sorts of things you’d find in any hero’s quest, although an audience-friendly love interest, the Superior Woman, also made his list.2

“Cruise is so efficiently packaged in this product,” Ebert concluded, “that he plays the same role as a saint in a Mexican village’s holy day procession: It’s not what he does that makes him so special; it’s the way he manifests everybody’s faith in him.”

By the time he made Days of Thunder, Cruise had earned that faith. Not only was he a bona fide star, he was gaining a reputation for going above and beyond in preparing for his work. For Top Gun, he immersed himself in research (and not only figuratively, as L.A. Weekly’s Amy Nicholson pointed out; her aunt, a lifeguard who worked on a Navy base, was told to keep an eye on Cruise while he submitted himself to an in-pool Navy physical, just because he felt he should) and had three flights in an F-14 written into his contract. “When you fly in the F-14,” he told Cameron Crowe for Interview magazine, “it’s one of those experiences that is bigger than life itself. It blows your shit away.”

In the same interview, he told Crowe that, for an upcoming role as an emerging pool hustler in The Color of Money, he’d been shooting lots and lots of pool. “I’ve improved 200 percent in the last few weeks,” he said. That fall, he told Ebert that he’d spent months honing his game. “There is one scene where the camera goes in a 360-degree circle without a single cut, and I have to clean off the whole table,” he said. “We shot it 18 times.” Until you finally got it right? Ebert asked. “I cleared the table 17 out of 18 times,” Cruise said. He didn’t even have to add that his hair was perfect.

After meeting on the set of The Color of Money, Cruise spent time with Paul Newman — who had been in a car-racing film called Winning in 1969 — in and around Nissan 300ZX’s on the Sports Car Club of America circuit. (Observers joked that SCCA really stood for See Cruise Crash Again.) One driver who tutored Cruise, Roger French, reminisced to Jalopnik about working with him in those days. Cruise was an able student, but he never could quite get reined in. “The biggest thing I told him,” French said, “if he was driving the way he was he’d be out of brakes at half distance.” (He was out of brakes even earlier than that.) Cruise’s attitude, French said, was “go fast all the time.”

If that sounds a little bit like one Cole Trickle, it’s not surprising: In 1986, Cruise and Newman were introduced to NASCAR’s Rick Hendrick. One thing led to another, and soon Cruise found himself getting to test-drive a stock car at Daytona International Speedway. A 1990 Rolling Stone article makes his experience sound, well, almost Scientologific: “Roaring down the straightaway while slung low over the asphalt, Cruise felt as if he had entered a different dimension. His vision became clearer and sharper, though every time he blinked, another hundred yards flashed by.

When his joyride ended, Cruise climbed out of the car and immediately announced his intention to make a film about it. Four years later, Days of Thunder premiered.

If you squint a bit, you can sort of daisy-chain Cruise’s notable onscreen athletic appearances together to generate the single sports narrative of one (quasi?) fictional guy. After his full ride to Cal Poly, (All the Right Moves), Cruise trades his crucifix necklace for dog tags and becomes a Top Gun pilot — one so enamored of the scent of his own musk that he sees no problem with finishing an iconically sweaty and shirtless beach volleyball game and immediately pulling on a T-shirt (OK) and fur-lined bomber jacket (what?!) without so much as toweling off.3

Devastated by the death of his friend Goose — the Kerri Walsh to his Misty May — he goes through a bit of a quarter-life crisis, reinventing himself in mysterious ways at each turn. Emotionally stunted, he gets a job at a toy store and hangs around pool halls (The Color of Money), but when he reaches the pinnacle of the sport and still feels empty inside, he decides to go back to school and earn a business degree. He tends bar for a while, listlessly shoots some hoops (Cocktail),4 moves to Jamaica, fathers twins, freaks out, and hits the road with a need for some speed.

After getting concussed on the race track (Days of Thunder), our amalgamated Cruise goes through an ill-considered boxing phase (Far and Away) before opting for the simpler, less brain-damaging pleasures of company softball. He sucks up to a judge on a basketball court at Harvard Law (The Firm), laments that there aren’t any racquetball or squash scenes in that movie, and absolutely books it with a briefcase like a guy trying to catch the 5:31 to Cos Cob.

Fed up with the rat race, he sheds the suits and becomes one of those guys who get all weirdly obsessed with martial arts in their forties. (Cruise trained for eight months and studied for four more for his role in The Last Samurai.) When that trend goes the way of Tae Bo, he latches on to the latest one: extreme fitness.

Let’s face it: Throughout the past decade, give or take, Tom Cruise as an athlete has essentially been living his CrossFit phase.

Tom Cruise is thousands of feet in the air, just a speck on the side of an enormous red rock face, holding on by one hand. He is hanging on to the side of the world’s tallest building, holding on — you guessed it — by one hand. Again. For Cruise, this maneuver might as well be part of some morning WOD scrawled on a whiteboard.

He is dangling by wires above lasers. He is blowing up an enormous fish tank and outrunning-and-jumping the 16 tons of water within. Speaking of water, he is submerged in it for one minute, two minutes, three minutes, more: He has trained with free divers to hold his breath for longer than it takes to belt out the entire “Bohemian Rhapsody” suite. Very, very frightening indeed.

“Man, if he ever got really hurt, you’d have a couple-hundred-million-dollar movie going down,” an impressed stunt coordinator told Vulture of Cruise’s involvement in his own tricks. “The other producers must not go to set and watch this stuff — they’d have a heart attack.”

Cruise’s actual high-wire acts are in many ways the logical culmination of a career spent chilling with pilots, drivers, and samurai warriors and writing it off as research. Cruise has disdain for CGI the way dedicated fitness buffs roll their eyes at the elliptical; he gets the same jolt from putting himself in harm’s way for the sake of cinematic aesthetics as Tough Mudder lovers get from encountering actual voltage.

By and large, Cruise has been able to transcend his frequent displays of zealous quirkiness — even creepiness — by being so incredibly skillful when it comes to performing his contracted role. He’s like so many headcase-y athletes that way: If you’re bold enough, if you would so clearly rather go hard than go home, then your attendant weirdnesses start to seem more like features than bugs. Hey, even that Oprah couch bit was pretty impressive, when you think about it: A backward box jump onto an unstable surface is tough!

He may be a totally bizarre runner, and he may be in serious need of a baseball tutor,5 but in general Cruise possesses that sort of maddening up-for-whatever physical competence that you either have or you don’t. “Have been wondering,” NBA TV’s Trey Kerby mused on Twitter the other day, “if they don’t let Tom Cruise on American Ninja Warrior because they know he’s win.”

And he has a keen sense of progression with respect to what the fans want. In one of those earliest roles, as blue-collar cornerback Stefen Djordjevic in All the Right Moves, Cruise competently sold himself as that ’80s archetype: the stubborn high school football stud. In his latest film, meanwhile, he has somehow shifted his displays of athleticism to be both more classical and more futuristic. Physically clinging to the outside of a military transport aircraft as it takes flight?

You truly can’t get much more Citius, Altius, Fortius than that.

Filed Under: Tom Cruise Week, Tom Cruise, Katie Baker, All The Right Moves, The Color of money, Top Gun, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Days of Thunder, The Last Samurai, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes