Tom Cruise takes risks. That’s pretty much his entire career now: what are the Mission: Impossible movies but an increasingly extreme collection of risks Cruise is willing to take? When he’s not dangling off the side of things – cliffs, buildings, a plane as it takes off – he’s busting his ankle leaping across rooftops without slowing down. It’s a billion-dollar franchise built around watching Cruise risk everything.
Which is exactly what he did when he made Born on the Fourth of July.
It’s easy to forget that Cruise became a star by playing one character and one character only: an all-American boy made good. He was a handsome guy with an amazing smile, and for a string of movies in the 80s it seemed like that was all he had to offer – and it was the 80s, so that smile was more than enough. Then with one film he took everything about his image and twisted it so hard it shattered in front of audiences.
With movies like Risky Business, All the Right Moves, Cocktail and Top Gun, Cruise carefully built an image as the charming, slightly over-confident boy next door. It’s how Hollywood works; if an actor plays a character audiences love, then they keep on playing that character. It may not have won Cruise a lot of critical acclaim – even working with Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese in The Colour of Money didn’t buck the trend – but when you’re riding as high as Cruise was, you’d be a fool to throw it all away.
And then with Born on the Fourth of July, that’s exactly what he did.
The film was a passion project of director Oliver Stone, who was riding high after the success of Wall Street and his earlier Vietnam War film Platoon. He’d considered a string of 80s A-listers like Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen and Nicolas Cage for the role of real-life Vietnam vet turned anti-war protestor Ron Kovic. Stone wasn’t exactly a fan of Cruise’s work after the pro-military Top Gun, but Cruise wanted to work with him and the idea of taking an all-American icon and trashing it had a certain appeal.
For Cruise it was a role designed to tear down everything he’d spent the last decade building up. Kovic starts out as an idealistic young man who willingly enlists to fight in Vietnam, only to find his dreams falling apart; his unit is massacred, he abandons the villagers he was sent to save, he accidentally kills one of his own men, and comes back home paralysed from the mid-chest down. He becomes a violent drunk seeking forgiveness from people unable or unwilling to give it to him; only in protesting against the war that ruined his life can he find meaning.
It’s a searing performance, with the young Cruise giving it everything he has (and demolishing his clean-cut image in the process). He was nominated for his first Best Actor Oscar; Oliver Stone won Best Director. More importantly, it was his first real chance to show major audiences that he could really act – that there was more to him than charm, confidence and that thousand-watt smile.
Risk-taking doesn’t work if you take risks all the time (well, maybe if you’re Nicolas Cage) – you need a steady backdrop to make the risks stand out. Cruise’s next role was as racing car driver Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder, and for the next few years he mostly stuck to playing crusading lawyers and nice guys. But he’d broken the mould; there was no going back.
After Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise has always made it clear he’s willing to take a risk (looked at it that way, jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch was just another way to put it all on the line). A decaying decadent bloodsucker in Interview With the Vampire, a sleazy misogynistic motivational speaker in Magnolia, a bloated parody of a movie executive in Tropic Thunder; nobody saw those roles coming.
In recent years the other strings to Cruise’s bow have fallen away. He hasn’t made a romantic film in years, his string of science-fiction action movies has come to a halt, and whatever he thought he was doing with 2018’s The Mummy isn’t something anyone wants to see again in a hurry. But as all his other roles have faded, the risk-taker remains. And Born on the Fourth of July remains the biggest risk of his career.
It wasn’t some little indy film he could do on the side out of sight; it was a big-budget film from a high-profile director coming off a string of hits, a film designed to take his popular image and shatter it. At a time when America was finally confronting the legacy of the Vietnam War, and especially the way they’d treated their Vietnam casualties, playing Ron Kovic was a big deal.
You could almost say it was… Risky Business. Oh wait, wrong film.
Born on the Fourth of July airs on SBS World Movies at 9.30pm on Friday 30 July.
Follow the author @morrbeat