TOM CRUISE – ONLY THE MOST RECENT BATON HOLDER IN A LONG LINE OF DEATH DEFYING STARS

I was watching  Cinema Sins on Mission Impossible: Fallout the other day and a thought hit me. (No injury was sustained from said impact though, despite the lack of a stunt double for me. Thanks for asking.)

There is much deserved notoriety in Tom Cruise’s penchant for doing his own stunts in many of his movies –                 his spinning helicopter ride, careening his ubiquitous motorcycle against traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, his snapped ankle acquired – on camera – jumping from one high rise to the next – all JUST in his most recent M.I. outing. These events, while generating a LOT of publicity, are not the first in his career. Cruise is notable for doing his own stunt work as much as he can get away with.  And while he does – and it IS noteworthy – it is neither unique nor new. He follows in the illustrious and dangerous footsteps of others who stood in equally brilliant limelight in previous generations doing, arguably, even more foolish tricks.

I am immediately brought to mind of Steve McQueen who, like Cruise, LOVED his motorcycles and performed almost all of his own riding stunts in The Great Escape. He tried to perform his own driving in the famous chase scene from Bullitt, but one spin-out, which almost took a cameraman with it, convinced Mr. McQueen to let the professional driver do the yeoman’s part of the work.

Gene Hackman did some of his own driving in the famous chase scene from The French Connection, which was so dangerous that the director Friedkin, himself, manned the camera stationed in the backseat because the other cameramen were married with children and he was not. (Though for the MOST dangerous shots, pro-stunt man Bill Hickman did the driving.)

And not all actor-stunt events end so happily. Vic Morrow and two children died when an effects explosion caused the tail-rotor on a low-hovering helicopter to crash on top of them.

And the insanity did not begin there.

Going back a bit further, Errol Flynn did most of HIS own stunts and sword fighting, most famously in Against All Flags, Captain Blood and Robin Hood. Basil Rathbone, playing the evil Guy of Gisbourne in that 1938 version of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest was, purportedly, terrified of Flynn, because he was SURE Flynn was  REALLY going to skewer him, so into the role the master swashbuckler would get.

1923’s silent comedy Safety Last starring Harold Lloyd features an iconic shot of Lloyd hanging precariously from a bending clock arm high above street level. Though precautions were taken, obviously, for the star’s safety, as proven in the tragic case of Mr. Morrow, bad things can happen.

1922’s Robin Hood was the biggest hit in the career of Douglas Fairbanks. He too, was famous for insisting on doing his own stunts and Robin Hood was no exception.

Of those I have mentioned, only Morrow perished attempting a stunt. Steve McQueen died during surgery for cancer, and both Flynn and Fairbanks died of heart attacks; all tragically in their 50’s. Harold Lloyd lived to be 78, but eventually succumbed to cancer. Hackman, thankfully, has made it to the ripe old age of 89 and is still chugging along. Cruise is, to date,  only 56.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the fact Cruise jumps – literally – into the fray. Though, honestly, if he were my son or brother I would NOT be nearly as amused. I’m not critiquing, just observing he is not the first. Cruise is but the most recent in a long line of men who have put their bodies where their money was; movie stars refusing the assist of stunt doubles and graying the hair of many a director who, I’m quite certain, found God, even if only for a moment, while watching their star defy death for the sake of a movie’s authenticity.

Cruise has been quite fortunate that he has, so far, walked – or limped – away from all of his grandstanding. And I pray for his sake, the sake of his family and the movie going public in general, who have enjoyed his movies for decades, that his luck continues to hold out.

AMERICAN MADE – FITTING SUCCESSOR TO RISKY BUSINESS

In 1983 Tom Cruise launched himself into stardom with his first leading role as Joel Goodson (no symbolism here, eh?) in Risky Business. Risky Business is the iconic story of a promising kid who through a series of serendipitous events goes from clean cut  college applicant to wildly successful pimp in the course of a long weekend while his parents are away. To this day people debate whether it was a social commentary, a smart offshoot of the Animal House genre, a drama with comedic elements or a black comedy. In many ways it is really a cynical tragedy of the ease with which innocence can be corrupted.

But there is no debate about the fact this movie was the start of Cruise's virtually unbroken line of blockbuster hits – Top Gun, Rain Man, A Few Good Men, The Firm, Interview With a Vampire, the Mission Impossible franchise, Jerry Maguire, Minority Report, Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow all profit hugely from that boyish winsome smile, comic timing, bursting energy, and obvious enthusiasm for his characters. His willingness to perform his own stunts is legendary and he must have hired Dorian Gray's painter because at 55 he doesn't look much older than he did as Joel sliding across his parents' marble floor lipsyncing to Bob Seeger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" in his break out performance.

Now comes American Made, a fitting title for a movie starring a man whose acting career is the epitome of the American dream. In Risky Business Joel becomes a manipulative self-styled entrepreneur who takes immoral advantage of the free enterprise system. In American Made, the real life Barry Seal, drug and gun smuggler, CIA courier and informant echoes in real life everything extreme about the fictional Joel's reel life in Risky Business. I can't help but think of American Made as the sequel to Risky Business. In addition, the most significant events depicted in American Made took place in the early '80's – coincidentally the same time frame in which Joel was setting up his one night brothel. I love the poetic symmetry of Cruise in both of those roles hovering about the same time period. And it can be neither a coincidence nor an unintentional homage which makes sunglasses a repeated motiff of Barry's image in American Made when the most iconic portrait of Joel from Risky Business is the poster which features Cruise as Joel peering slyly over a pair of  sunglasses. It is an in joke for anyone who has seen both movies.

American Made is the biography, told in self-made video tapes of Barry Seal. Tom Cruise quipped that Barry Seal reminded him of a Mark Twain character – pilot, devoted family man, faithful husband, good father, who also happens to be a drug smuggler, and CIA courier. At the start of the movie Barry flies for TWA but sidelines as a smuggler of Cuban cigars. His skill at this is notices by one Monty Schafer (Domhnall "Bill Weasley" Gleeson) of the CIA.

As an aside, Domhnall , although born in Dublin and the son of Brendan "Mad Eye Moody" Gleeson, does a very credible American accent.

Monty hires Barry to take photos over South America, then to be a courier between the CIA and General Noriega in Panama. Dissatisfied with the pay he is getting from the government Barry accepts an offer from the Medellin Cartel to fly cocaine, which side business is winked at by his government handlers. Assuming even half of the crazy stuff that is conveyed in the movie is true, Barry makes so much money he literally can not find enough places to store it. There is only so much laundering he can do in the small town of Mena, Arkansas where he has been put up by Monty and wisely tries not to be too flamboyant in his living habits. Joel would have been delighted.

The director, Doug Liman, chose an interesting style with which to film. The Universal logo "glitches" from the 21st century high definition we are now used to seeing to the 1970's version, making use of a random optical texture technique naturally created in old film stock by the grains which would occasionally appear in film and scratch it. He also uses the poor visual quality of the grainy old taped video to realistically show the cheap tapes on which Barry documented his exploits. This film quality effect sucks us into the time period as readily as the dated hair styles and leather jackets.

    While I understand from the article about the real man that Cruise looks nothing like the overweight Barry Seal, there is one thing spot on naturally between the two of them and that's the grin.

This is one of those rare occasions where the trailer gives nothing away. I will say this – if you liked the trailer for American Made, you'll like the movie because the movie is just more of what you see in the trailer. The language is raw, there are some adult scenes of marital intimacy, and violence is accurately portrayed.

There is a motto I have told our kids. I hope it has sunk in over the years – some money is just too expensive to get. If this IS Joel from Risky Business all grown up then he has obviously learned nothing from the danger and betrayal he experienced. But perhaps, like the gambler who lives not for the win, but for that moment when the coin flip is in the air and the possibilities APPEAR endless, Barry did what he did for the thrill of it. The way he was portrayed in the movie, Barry certainly didn't seem to need, want or respect the vast amounts of cash he was paid. The mind blowing quantities of ill gotten bills seemed to be more of an inconvenience than a dream fulfilled.

American Made is fascinating in the same way that is watching an unavoidable train wreck in progress. The entire time I was writing this review I couldn't get Glenn Frey's prescient and period perfect 1984 song out of my head, especially the lines:

I'm sorry it went down like this,

Someone had to lose,

It's the nature of the business,

It's the….Smuggler's Blues.

Alas Joel. Alas Barry.

THE MUMMY – LIVE ACTION COMIC BOOK FUN

SHORT TAKE: The Mummy is a live action comic book – the trial run for Universal’s new Dark World franchise. It ain’t Shakespeare – or Wonder Woman – but it’s a lot of ridiculous fun.
MY TAKE:
When I was a 5 year old there was no such thing as iPods, DVDs, Nintendo, Gameboys or even cell phones. So when our family traveled in my dad’s Oldsmobile from New Orleans, LA to Disneyland in 1964, in order to keep his youngest child (me) occupied, whenever he stopped for gas he’d go into the station and buy a copy of every age appropriate comic book he could find. I must have read a hundred Superman, Superboy, Supergirl, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and Wendy the Good Little Witch magazines. So I’ve always had a  soft spot for comic books.
Jump forward 53 years. My husband and I went to go see The Mummy – a movie 118 years in the making. No kidding. 1899 was the birth year of possibly the very first movie about a mummy – a silent short called Cleopatra’s Tomb directed by George Melies – the same auteur who directed 526 silent shorts, including the famous A Trip to the Moon
So how does our trip to see The Mouse in 1964 connect with 2017’s  The Mummy? Well…I was puzzled by my own reaction to The Mummy. While I love a well done scare fest, I usually spend a good deal of time watching it through my fingers and feeling creeped out and looking underneath my car before I get in it in the parking lot. But despite The Mummy being full of staggering mummies, zombified victims, living sandstorms, and other monsters (I will not now name for the sake of spoiler prevention), I came out of the movie feeling like a bouncy kid. I suddenly realized The Mummy is not actually a horror movie – it is really an extremely well done, well plotted, well performed live action comic book!
Wisecracking, never to be taken completely seriously leading man with flawed motives, vivid images, wildly outrageous developments:  massive flock of birds taking down a military plane, a mysterious cavern found by chance by two mercenaries, the dead being brought back to life as the mummy’s slave, a pit hiding a terrible secret under a pool of mercury, an underground secret science lab full of enough sparking and exploding electric tubes to swell the heart of Kenneth (1931 Frankenstein prop master) Strickfaden, evil incarnate in the form of a beautiful scantily clad tatooed woman. The Mummy throws in homages or outright supporting spots to a number of other monster stories.
I can picture the comic book panels to almost every scene in the movie.
It has all the tongue in “shriek” of Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing, John Landis’ American Werewolf in London, the troll in the bathroom scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and  Goosebumps – the movie about RL Stine’s fictions coming to life. No matter how much they amp up the scare factor you just can’t take it seriously enough to be disturbed.
SPOILERS FOR NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS – ESPECIALLY EGREGIOUS AS THESE SPOILERS REVEAL “PUNCH LINES”
And how CAN you take a movie seriously when the lead, Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) has a quippy argument in a woman’s bathroom with his recently deceased best friend Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) on whether Nick was justified in shooting Chris just because Chris was trying to stab everyone around him after he had been zombified by the Mummy Princess Ahmanet???
And somehow the terror value is (intentionally) lost when Ahmanet has Nick held down by her zombie minions and is preparing to stab him with a ritual knife. See –  as she pulls his shirt up and rakes her fingers down his torso …. Nick starts laughing because he’s ticklish!!
OK – SPOILER FREE REST OF REVIEW!!!
The above mentioned scenes come within an inch of opera buffa or even outtake qualities but fit nicely with the tone of the rest of the movie.
And it makes sense because apparently Universal is starting its own franchise of “Dark Universe” films of which this is the golden nail in the railroad track. I can foresee it entirely possible to put all these worlds: DC, Marvel, Dark Universe within each others’ reach. And OH what mash ups are possible.
And why not! Within the last 118 years there have been mummy link ups with everything from Laurel and Hardy to Sherlock Holmes. AND, while we’re at it – why not the Hulk with Frankenstein or Dracula with Batman or Creature from the Black Lagoon with Aquaman? There really is no reason not to – if you can write a good enough plot and theme to go with it. If the scriptwriters can create the masterpiece that is Wonder Woman, then I suspect not even the sky’s the limit.
From Cleopatra’s Tomb to this year’s The Mummy, there have been over 402 films with a mummy theme – entries ranging from Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chan, Scooby Do and the Three Stoogesto the iconic Boris Karloff 1932 classic entry The Mummy, to the Brandon Fraser semi-parody Mummy franchise. There have been mummy movies with Sherlock Holmes, Abbot and Costello, and even Tom Baker’s Dr. Who! There have been mummy movies which have been frightening, suspenseful, and comic – sometimes a combination and sometimes unintentionally one or the other. And there is one my husband and I have determined we MUST see sometime soon called Bubba HoTep about an Elvis impersonator in a nursing home who thinks he’s the original and a black man convinced he is JFK dyed black by LBJ as part of a failed assassination attempt.The two team up to save their fellow residents from a shambling resurrected mummy – which makes some kind of sense because a mummy has a fighting chance against elderly which it would not have against more fleet of foot younger potential victims……I am SO not kidding. This is a real movie. Though I suspect NOT for the kiddies or the easily offended – so be advised.
Obviously, this is not a topic to be taken very seriously. But I digress.
BOTTOM LINE: There are a HUGE variety of mummy movie options. Many even with the name The Mummy. THIS The Mummy with Tom Cruise is fun and entertaining, though not for younger kids who might not be as amused as the more jaded of us by cliched over-the-top monster scenarios. Those who are panning this Mummy I think just don’t get it. The Mummy is not intended for introspective thoughful watching. It’s simply a comic book hoot. And that’s a wrap. Mums the word. Go home now – your mummy’s calling you.