I Need A Hero: Is Tom Cruise Still The Best Action Star We’ve Got?

(Movies discussed in this post: Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.)

I had the makings of a fanboy. Things could very well have turned out differently for me, had I continued my worship of Batman and the T-Rex instead of turning my eye on the guys who put them in front of my eyes, Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg.

Instead, I evolved — and soon my “Event Movies” were the ones with names like Aronofsky and Cuaron and Greengrass attached. Names the general public probably isn’t even familiar with. What happened? In theory, I’d like to get into those big-time Event Movies the same way I used to, but lately, so many of them turn out to be a non-event. For every blockbuster, there are ten would-be tentpoles that are a plain ol’ bust.

Is it me, or the movies?

My earliest hero was Optimus Prime, but I can’t bring myself to watch Transformers: Dark Of The Moon. (I skipped Revenge Of The Fallen, too.) I saw the first one, and Michael Bay pretty much failed to capture anything I used to like about those robots in disguise. Maybe I just had bad taste as a kid; still, I think it was better than Michael Bay’s taste as an adult.

Movies I did not see this year include Cowboys & Aliens, Fast Five, Green Lantern, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Thor, Sherlock Homes: A Game Of Shadows, Battle: Los Angeles, and The Green Hornet. In theory — or in some alternate universe, maybe — they would all interest me, had they been better movies. But they just weren’t. And a lot of them didn’t particularly interest mainstream moviegoers, either. So I’m not alone.

The five-year-old boy inside me would really like to be blown away every once in awhile, ya know? There are dozens of movies every year that are marketed to appeal to him, and only a few that actually do. What’s the deal, Hollywood? Is it really that hard to entertain us like you used to? Or am I merely glorifying a few diamonds in the 90’s rough? The Dark Knight and Iron Man and a fraction of other recent hits have proven that it’s still possible to do blockbusters right, and my childhood surely saw its fair share of duds, too. Maybe the balance hasn’t shifted all that much. But with all the emphasis on 3D and complex computer effects, now more than ever it seems filmmakers are losing sight of what anyone actually cares to see up on that screen.

That said — this year there were a few Event Movies that warranted interest. A handful that were actually at least kind of good.

Captain America: The First Avenger was perhaps 2011’s strongest bid for a new superhero on the silver screen. Once Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man already have a franchise or two under their utility belts, Captain America is about the best you can do. I never knew much about Captain America, but at least his name is familiar — unlike Thor, the Green Lantern, and the Green Hornet. Then again, maybe I’m just confusing him with Captain Planet. Anyway, there was a lot riding on the film, since The Avengers is being made (by Joss Whedon!) with or without any help from The First Avenger.

Fortunately for Joss Whedon (and all who love him dearly), Captain America is a worthy endeavor. It stars Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, rendered meek by CGI effects that place his head on a scrawny body (with mixed results — sometimes it’s totally convincing, and sometimes it looks really awkward). As the legend goes, he is chosen by the military to test a serum (or something) that will turn him into a beefy hero. Today, this is called “steroids” and we’re told not to do it, but the movie takes place during World War II, so it’s fine.

The whole movie has a throwback feel to it, which works. It’s more Indiana Jones than Spider-Man. The story’s strongest element is its super-earnest superhero himself, who wants nothing more than to fight evil and save the day. He’s not dark and brooding and tortured like many of today’s leading men — not that I’d ever complain about darkness or torture. It’s just that many heroes these days seem so faux-tortured, instead of the real thing, and there’s nothing worse than watching some beefcake in tights struggle to convey that he’s had it rough. A scowl alone does not a hero make. Captain America wisely eschews the whole issue by allowing Evans to play it straight, which is kind of a novelty. I’m not sure it would work in a present day-set story, but that’s what The Avengers is for.

Chris Evans is a bit better than the script asks him to be in the role. The supporting cast, including Tommy Lee Jones, Sebastian Stan, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell (as a ho-hum love interest, the story’s weakest link), and Hugo Weaving (as the villain Red Skull), won’t knock your socks off, but they’re all game. The film’s most inventive sequences show how the Captain is used as ra-ra-America propaganda during the war, displaying a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that serves this story well. The movie ends with a cliffhanger in New York City that kicks off The Avengers; it’s a fun conclusion, but it would have been better to tease it out a little, English Patient-style — beginning the film with Steve Rogers waking up thinking it’s still the 40’s, flashing back to tell the remainder of the story, and then revealing where (and when) he really is at the end.
Oh well. As superheroes go, I will take an earnest Chris Evans over Seth Rogen any day. Here, at least, he has a little of that old school star quality — which is more than I can say for most actors headlining blockbusters these days. I like Ryan Reynolds in the right roles, but do I want to see him zipping around in CGI spandex in The Green Lantern? I sure didn’t. Leading men just aren’t what they used to be, which is probably why the newest entry in the Planet Of The Apes franchise decide to forego humans altogether and just star a chimpanzee.

Well, almost.

Technically, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes does have a homo sapien protagonist, at the beginning of the movie at least. He is Will Rodman, played by James Franco, who has even less charisma here than he did co-hosting the Oscars. How can the man be so Oscar-worthy in something like 127 Hours and so blah elsewhere? Fortunately, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes knows exactly who the real hero is and quickly lets the simian Caesar take over (both the world and the movie).
As Casear, Andy Serkis has generated some Oscar buzz for his motion-captured performance, which really is spectacular (mainly because all the people are so dull, he looks that much better in comparison). He’s as expressive and emotionally complex as any human actor could be, and much moreso than any other actor in this movie. At the outset, will is experimenting on apes, which naturally goes awry and makes Caesar super intelligent. He’s not really an ape, not really a human — and thus becomes the leader of an ape rebellion, which is when things truly get interesting. Caesar communicates with his fellow primates via sign and body language, which is the strongest “dialogue” in the movie. You won’t miss James Franco, John Lithgow, Freida Pinto, or anyone else once they’ve all but exited the film. If you came to see apes running wild throughout San Francisco, you’re going to get it; the surprising part is, you’ll probably be on their side.

Time passes strangely in this movie, probably thanks to unnecessary post-production tinkering. At one point, a title card tell us that eight or so years have suddenly passed, but no time seems to have elapsed at all. Will and Caroline behave as if they’ve just started dating, even though they’ve now apparently known each other for nearly a decade. It’s weird — but then, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes doesn’t ask you to get invested in them. Its heart and soul lies with Caesar. Is this what the movies have come to? Would we rather see computer-generated creatures in our blockbusters than actual people? Perhaps Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes purposefully makes the apes more compelling than humans — so we don’t feel bad that humanity is about to be wiped out. (Summer blockbusters are not the forum for such conflicts of interest.) Well, you won’t bad for these dull humans. Not one bit. Fortunately, thanks to those fake apes, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes delivers just enough action to put it in 2011’s rather paltry summer blockbuster plus column.No, they don’t make ’em like they used to. Is it shameful to admit that I have a fondness for the days when Tom Cruise starred in everything? I know it’s trendy to dismiss because of the couch-jumping and the Scientology, but I actually like Tom Cruise. He’s magnetic. He has charisma. He’s a good actor. Yes, he is almost always playing some version of himself, but if I am in a crowded and iconic scenic location and there are only seconds to go before the whole place goes up in smoke, I will gladly put my life in the hands of one Mr. Tom Cruise over Ryan Reynolds, Seth Rogen, or a stoned James Franco. (Or a computer-generated ape, for that matter.) I trust Tom Cruise with the responsibility of not allowing crazed Soviets to nuke us. These other guys? Not so much.

In the awkwardly-named Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (any title that requires both a colon and a hyphen is too complicated, if you ask me), Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt. To the series’ credit, each Mission: Impossible film has been directed by a different noteworthy filmmaker — Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and now Brad Bird — each of whom brought something different to the franchise. I have enjoyed each of the films to a certain degree, each having its own strengths and drawbacks.Ghost Protocol shares the most with Mission: Impossible III, which had a bit of Abrams’ Alias humor and a zippy TV mentality. Ghost Protocol takes itself even less seriously than M:I III, its action sequences even more preposterous. This is Brad Bird’s first live-action feature; he previously gave us The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and you can tell. Ghost Protocol may be the closest I’ve seen a regular movie resemble a Pixar film — it has the same breathless pace and dazzling set pieces, the same irreverent comic relief.Tom Cruise might as well be a cartoon character. But, in its fourth entry in this series, do we really want Mission: Impossible to play it straight? I doubt it. Audiences seem to be kinda over Tom Cruise as a straightforward action star — will they accept him now that he’s almost a parody of himself?

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is rumored to be Cruise’s series exit as he passes the baton to The Hurt Locker‘s Jeremy Renner. I spent a lot of the movie wondering if Ethan Hunt would be killed off (or turn out to be a bad guy), though the film’s zany tone makes this seem unlikely. Renner shows up relatively late in the story and never really takes center stage as I thought he would. That’s fine by me. Ghost Protocol takes us to Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai, and Seattle as Hunt must stop a villain who wants to start a nuclear war “just because.” (He doesn’t say that, but seriously — that’s the motive.) His reasons are as preposterous as everything else in this movie — you either go with it or you don’t. Rounding out this crackerjack team is the hilarious Simon Pegg (Shaun Of The Dead) and lovely Paula Patton (Precious). It’s a good mix, and maybe the only Mission: Impossible where the supporting characters are actually characters, rather than mere cogs in a cool machine.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol has a few truly spectacular set pieces, and an entire sequence set in Dubai is about as flawless as a spy movie can get. The more serious moments aren’t quite as strong, but there aren’t many of them. I was surprised at how much this is clearly Tom Cruise’s movie, considering his age and his younger, more of-the-moment co-star. But he owns it. Far from a rote entry in a tired franchise, Ghost Protocol might very well be some of the most fun you’ll have at the movies for quite some time. (We’re entering the bleak winter season.)

So (with perhaps one or two exceptions) that’s about it for 2011’s worthwhile blockbusters, as far as I can tell. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. (Only three movies; they just have really long titles.) And as technology advances ever moreso, I say the more everything changes, the more it stays the same. How else to explain that a Tom Cruise movie is still the best straight-up action film of the year?

I don’t care if the man is pushing 50. After seeing what he did with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, in the hands of a very capable director, I’m convinced he could keep this series going for another 15 years.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol: You should choose to accept it.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes: Get your paws on these damn dirty apes.

Captain America: The First Avenger: If there’s not going to be a Captain Planet movie any time soon, he’ll do.

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