Madonna and Tom Cruise have both been a part of the pop culture firmament for my entire life, but until recently I had never thought to compare them. Which is understandable, because Madonna's appeal is very feminine while Cruise's is very masculine - she makes dance-pop songs about sex and romance while he makes action movies about explosions that explode. But they actually do have a lot in common. They are both very physical performers who have outlasted most of their peers. They are both power-hungry weirdos that are extremely manipulative of the media. Both of them have problematic religious tendencies and they both seem to have a vacant hunger where their souls should be.
And most importantly for today's discussion: they are both very good at co-opting modern trends to extend their careers.
Now, I'm not going to go into any great depth on Madonna's history of trend-hopping because that's pretty well covered territory at this point; anyone who knows anything about her knows that she's an intellectual vampire who sucks the blood of young prodigies to extend her own career. But I do want to explore Cruise's abilities to bridge generational gaps at some length, both because I think it is less covered territory, and because he does so in surprisingly subtle ways.
The first Mission Impossible movie, which was directed by Brian De Palma and released in 1996, is a classic example of a Cruise movie that welds two different eras of cinema together. You can see why a seventies auetuer like De Palma would want to make the first half of the movie, which feels like an old school political thriller. Mission Impossible opens with a paranoid scene at a foreign embassy where some spies (lead by Cruise's character Ethan Hunt) are trying to break into a locked room without getting caught; there are some betrayals and some deaths, but there's nothing too over the top, and the emphasis is on character, not on spectacle.
But the film's ending is completely different: it climaxes with a crazy set piece where a helicopter is chasing a speeding bullet train through the remote French countryside. It is a much more modern scene since it aims at being thrilling more than it does at being logical. I'm not even talking about character logic, I'm talking about visual logic - a lot of the shots of the helicopter trying to fly through a mountain tunnel without crashing into any of the tunnel's walls are so frenetic and CGI-riffic that they are real eye sores.
In other words, the first Mission Impossible is Tom Cruise's Ray of Light - it's the movie that bridges the early part of his career with the later part of his career. Early Tom Cruise made classic dramas - you had character studies like Rain Man, you had father-son parables like the Color of Money, you had political statements like Born on the Fourth of July. Late Tom Cruise has made a lot of violent shlock like Jack Reacher and Knight and Day. And the first Mission Impossible is where those meet in the middle - almost literally, since the very center of this movie combines old school suspense with modern high concept tomfoolery.
The scene I'm referring to takes place at the CIA's headquarters: Hunt and his team have to break into a computer room without touching anything, making any noise or even generating any body heat because if even one drop of sweat touches the floor then they are busted. It's directed with classic panache: De Palma sets up the scene with an old school meticulousness and lets the tension build organically. However, the scene is scripted with the sort of goofy touches that endemic to modern thrillers - for example, the room as a whole is incredibly sensitive to unwarranted presences, but they manage to hack the central computer's password in about twenty seconds. It is a very entertaining scene, but it also the exact moment when the movie transitions from being a slightly exaggerated movie about spies to being an empty excuse for stuntwork.
Mission Impossible doesn't necessarily hold up as a movie - it starts on solid footing, but it doesn't stick the landing, since you can tell that De Palma's heart wasn't really invested in the climactic helicopter-train chase scene. But it is an interesting film nonetheless, since it sheds real light on why Tom Cruise is such a good movie star. I can think of a lot of actors who might have been comfortable in one of this movie's two halves, but there aren't that many people who would have been comfortable in both, and the fact that he managed to weld two completely different movies together semi-seamlessly is incredibly impressive. But while his claim to the highbrow action star throne is pretty much unimpeachable he's not quite the king of all pop culture just yet. After all, Madonna has not just bridged four or five different eras in music, she's also made a few films. And even though I'm sure it wouldn't be good... I do kind of want to know what a Tom Cruise disco album would sound like.