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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: For eerily boyish Tom Cruise, a vast world of movie roles awaits

Tom Cruise celebrated his 56th birthday earlier this month.

Let's put that into full context.

At Cruise's age, Erroll Flynn had already been dead for six years. Same with Steve McQueen. Humphrey Bogart was dying of cancer at that age and only made it to 57.

The ambitious film actors among America's great movie actors of the classic era, fared a whole lot better than the conspicuous heartthrobs and movie stars – ambitious actors like Spencer Tracy, for instance, and Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Jimmy Stewart. Even so, they were, in general, not nearly as long-lived professionally as their counterparts today.

People, for pity's sake, are still hiring Harrison Ford for quasi-action "adventures" in his mid-70s.

That's the astounding context for Tom Cruise at the age of 56 making zillion-dollar summer tentpole movies, like "Mission: Imposible - Fallout" opening Thursday night locally. His looks are still eerily boyish. He still insists on doing far more stunts than anyone his age ought to be doing. He shattered his ankle making a rooftop jump during the making of his new movie, his sixth in the series after Brian DePalma directed the first.

When the studio got a good look at what Cruise and his current "MI" creative partner Christopher McQuarrie had made, they practically couldn't wait to show it to people. They had a junket in Paris, no less, on July 10, to wine and dine spoiled junketeers.

Critics love this thing – not just the junketeers and barnacles in the movie hype biz, but critics whose reputable history is knowing shinola when they see it.

What's happening at 56 with Cruise is that his freakish youthfulness – as awkward as it is for moviemakers – is being used by people who get it and know how to use it without looking like idiots. Chief among them is McQuarrie, whose best and most famous credit is the wildly ingenious script for "The Usual Suspects." He knows how to keep the "MI" films so complicated the audience seizes with joy on the eight-zillion dollar stuntfest attached.

So what you have, apparently, (no, I haven't seen it yet) in "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" is a movie with roaring cars and motorcycles and all the big, noisy, money-gobbling stunt fests that many prefer over all the CGI hoo-ha which has turned three-quarters of the comic book movies into Armageddon. (A first-rate movie writer named Peter Biskind is about to publish a book about how all of our cinematic apocalypse has corroded our national sense of identity.)

By now, an actor would have to be crazy not to take a part in one of Cruise and McQuarrie's "Mission Impossible" fantasies. So in the new case, their usual suspects include Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Wes Bentley, Henry Cavil, Michelle Monaghan and, yes, a cameo by Hertel Avenue's own Wolf Blitzer.

The gig is relatively easy – unless the actor insists on making things needlessly difficult by stealing work from the stunt men and women.

If you remember TV's original "Mission: Impossible," it began in the '60s starring one of the least charismatic actors in TV history – Steven Hill. Once he was replaced by the handsome but properly patriarchal Peter Graves, the show could get on with the business of making TV stars out of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.

Starring the infernally boyish Cruise in the lead role meant he could age into the part and still look as if he's fresh from his First Communion.

These things seem to work in ways that so many Cruise movies don't. Of those McQuarrie did with Cruise, "Valkyrie" was a semi-success and "Jack Reacher" infuriated admirers of Lee Childs' novels and stories.

I've always been more than willing, frankly, to cede Tom Cruise what he's always deserved for his work onscreen. He should have won an Oscar, I think, for "Jerry Maguire" (not for that shameless Oscar bait "Born on the Fourth of July"). I'd have been a lot happier if he'd won a Supporting Actor Oscar for "Rain Man" than I was that Dustin Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for his stunt-acting in that movie's lead role.

If Cruise hadn't decided for more than a decade to browbeat everyone over the head with his religion (Scientology) and to over-sell his public devotion to wives and girlfriends he'd be, now, one of the most amazing movie stars in Hollywood history.

The world open to him now is still vast – adventure, sci-fi, comedy (more of that, please).

Erroll Flynn, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, just to name some movie legends, never had Cruise's lucky longevity. To my way of thinking, he ought to use it and enjoy it for as long as he can.

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