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Tom Cruise: Brand to the Bone

The ageless action star always puts himself on the line for his audience.

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Tom Cruise could be delivering TED Talks on career branding and longevity. At 56, he is winning!! With Mission: Impossible – Fallout, his sixth installment of that franchise — which he has transformed from a beloved TV espionage show featuring a crack team of secret agents into an action series that currently scores 97 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

One thing Cruise has done to resuscitate his brand and movie star status is to choose projects, like the role of Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible, which showcase his particular talents: athleticism, good looks and an All-American team captain sensibility — with a major side of tenacity. He remains decidedly on point here by creating a franchise that, like him, has improved with age. Through trial and error, he’s found what works, what makes money, what satisfies his audience – and delivered.

mission impossible
Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in “Mission Impossible: Fallout”

Another thing that Cruise has done is identify talent and surround himself with writers and directors who may not have been A-list but are committed to the one core value: access and burnish Cruise’s star power. Producer-writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, 50, may have started out penning the Sundance hit that made Kevin Spacey a star – The Usual Suspects – but this is his third time directing Cruise following Jack Reacher (2012) and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015). He has some form of screenwriting credit on six of Cruise’s movies since 2008’s Valkyrie.

McQuarrie is very brand aware – as was clear when he made a surprise appearance on Monday night before a preview screening of Fallout at Manhattan’s AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 on Broadway. He regaled an audience that included the critic from the trade Variety among many others with a series of stories about the making of the film — particularly the stunts and the fact that Cruise, like Jackie Chan before him, performed his own stunts.

That appearance by a director before an all-media screening is relatively rare – and McQuarrie addressed the delayed movie in the IMAX Theater with enthusiasm and specific talking points. The central one was this: “all of the stunts are real.” He identified and discussed Cruise’s HALO jump from a plane at 25,000 feet — a skydiving sequence that no actor has, apparently, done before. McQuarrie explained that the film was “audience driven…it wasn’t that Tom is a daredevil. [He wanted to create] the most subjective first-person experience.”

In short: Cruise is doing this for you. For those who believe the actor has a Messiah complex, he’s dying for the audience’s sins, their desire for bigger and bigger thrills beyond the movie green screen. And, if the mood during the movie (or The Hollywood Reporter rave review) is any reflection, his market research was absolutely correct.

McQuarrie also explained that this kind of physical risk-taking wasn’t limited to jumping out of a C17 aircraft. He noted the incident that had occurred previously when shooting the film in London in which Cruise shattered his ankle while leaping from one tall building to the next without Superman’s cape. Cue the video:

Not to put a fine point on it but in McQuarrie’s words: “every shot in the foot race, every time he puts his food down, it hurts.” Watch the film: you can see him favoring his left foot.

If this talking point hadn’t been clear enough, McQuarrie noted that when Cruise jumped off the C17 over the UAE 106 times to get the shot right – he did so on a broken ankle. “He does that all for you,” said McQuarrie, “We do this for you.” Million dollar director McQuarrie has just served as Cruise’s fluffer. He’s under no illusion: his success in Hollywood is currently all in for Cruise action star and box office giant.

But this is not director as Pygmalion with Cruise as his Galatea – it is the reverse. Cruise has seized control of his career by carefully choosing creatives and investors around him that will not sidetrack his single-minded vision. He has seized control of his career with the tenacity of his Ethan Hunt clinging to a Kashmiri cliff with a detonator just out of his reach – and that whole-hearted commitment has paid off.

The lesson: play to your blockbuster strengths. Ignore negatives (the taint of Scientology, failed marriages and rumors of homosexuality). Embrace the brand and stay on message. And, specifically, prepare for a potential North American opening weekend in the $60M range that will confirm that Cruise’s career rehab is complete.