Tom Cruise Week First-Round Recap: The Motorcycle Dance and the Decline of ‘Cool Cruise’

The question before you is not a simple one: Who is the greatest Tom Cruise? A man is waging war with himself; his entire body of work locked in mortal combat. We’ve given you no rubric, no criteria, and no direction. You’re on your own, not unlike Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossibles 1 through 5 … and pretty much all of his other movies, too. Greatness is indefinable, abstract, and wholly subjective, and yet you have forged ahead into the unknown. You’ve spoken and you’ve spoken loudly. Brian Flanagan of Cocktail is gone, sent off to pour whiskey shots in never-ending spring break purgatory. Dr. William Harford was kicked out of the party before the creepy pagan orgy even got started. And one of the most intriguing, mystifying Cruises of all has ridden his invisible Harley into the sunset. Goodbye forever, BET 106 & Park Dancing Cruise. You reminded us that even the most lofty icons must fall and all men must die (metaphorically speaking).

Tom Cruise is not cool anymore, at least not in the sense of being at the forefront of popular culture — he doesn’t set trends, or appear supremely comfortable in every imaginable social situation. There was a moment in the 1980s when Tom Cruise was, if not on the cutting edge, at least somewhere in the vicinity. He was more approachable than Sean Penn, less explicitly dark than Mickey Rourke, and at ease in his own skin. He was the perfect movie star for the era. You knew it really was morning in America because Tom Cruise was still smiling.

Let us never forget that it took nothing more than Cruise dancing around in his underwear and a pair of Ray-Bans to make Bob Seger relevant again. Put an older, more successful Tom Cruise in that same scene and the viewer might wonder why someone’s weird dad isn’t wearing pants. Watching Tom Cruise do Yung Joc’s motorcycle dance while promoting Mission: Impossible III is a poignant experience for anyone who is old enough to recall the guy whose magnetism could make Kelly McGillis and Anthony Edwards seem electrifying. Time and circumstance change people, and Tom Cruise sanded the last few edges off his persona and became the unapproachable visitor from another planet we know today.

Being a multimillionaire and one of the five most famous people on the planet is impressive, but is there anything hip about it? Cruise put his cool guy bona fides to the test during the rollout of M:I III, a return to the welcoming bosom of his signature franchise after the embarrassing press tour for War of the Worlds.1 It was an important turning point in Cruise’s career: He needed to reassert his dominance over the box office, and to do that, he’d have to ingratiate himself to as many moviegoers as possible. It was a perfect storm that led him to the Yung Joc motorcycle dance. If Tom Cruise is willing to free-climb a mountain and hang from an airplane for the sake of a movie, then he absolutely, 100 percent will dance on BET. Of those three, I dare say that the latter is the most daunting challenge.

Throughout this dubious performance, he keeps smiling. But the smile looks unnatural. He’s having fun because he’s supposed to be having fun. That’s what people do, right? They have fun? Coolness is defined by lack of effort. If the Fonz had to put a quarter into the jukebox at Arnold’s Diner, it wouldn’t have been nearly as remarkable as watching him turn it on through the magic of a tossed off, casual fist bump. Tom Cruise looks like he’s trying really hard all the time. That’s great when he’s pulling off an audacious stunt — less so when he’s aiming to approximate what the “kids” like.

(Honorable mention to Ving Rhames for his performance as “cool black guy” in this little basic cable passion play. Yet again, Ving acts as hypeman to his pal, Tom. He must validate the quality and entertainment value of Cruise’s dance. He can’t just hang back and clap awkwardly like Michelle Monaghan. No, he has to actually give his seal of approval and mime fanning Cruise off because his dancing is such pure, uncontrollable fire.)

The thirst of Tom Cruise has grown with every year that passes — fighting off the challenges (both external and internal) to his cultural supremacy never ends. Watching him need to be loved is unnerving. We fell in love with a guy named Maverick — he didn’t follow orders and he didn’t suck up to anyone. He might have been a loose cannon with no regard for the chain of command, but the audience was fully onboard. Of course he was a hothead. He was better at his job than everyone else. He earned the right to be a pain in the ass. The 106 & Park dance was Cruise out of his element, desperately grasping for control. Just keep revving that engine, Tom. Turn into the skid.

After M:I III, a relatively fallow period began in Cruise’s career. Smaller, less successful movies like Lions for Lambs, Valkyrie, and the shambolic Knight and Day followed. Most significant was yet another instance of Tom Cruise dancing: his turn as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. He was still flailing around in the hopes of making us love him again, but this time, he was covered in layers of makeup and nearly unrecognizable. That robotic smile was gone, too. But this time, he was finally in on the joke. And so Tom Cruise did the thing that he always did at the start of his career: he made us feel comfortable again.

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Top Cruise Region

1. “Maverick” Mitchell 23737
4. Brian Flanagan 2691

2. Joel Goodsen 20213
3. Vincent Lauria 5767

A Few Good Cruise Region

1. Lt. Daniel Kaffee 22351
4. Ron Kovic 3664

2. Ethan Hunt 15735
3. Charlie Babbitt 10396

Cruise Wide Shut Region

1. Jerry Maguire 15035
4. Les Grossman 11278

2. Frank T.J. Mackey 16330
3. Dr. William Harford 9359

Cruise of Tomorrow Region

1. Couch-Jumper 17653
4. Turtleneck 8116

2. “You’re Glib” 14092
3. Dancing 11328

Filed Under: Tom Cruise Week, Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible, BET, Tom Cruise dancing

Dave Schilling is a general editor at Grantland.

Archive @ dave_schilling