Crunch-time for Tom Cruise

Has a string of flops hit him where it hurts (at the box office)?

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Tom Cruise’s latest film ‘Oblivion’, which comes to cinemas this week, may well turn out to be a make-or-break moment for him. The actor has been near the top of Hollywood’s power ladder for more than half of his 50 years – but is his Teflon coating beginning to show a few scratches?

As one of the few stars of his generation still trusted to open a movie, Cruise has weathered his share of high-profile flops (‘Vanilla Sky’, ‘Far and Away’). Not to mention PR speed bumps (a messy divorce from Nicole Kidman, that outburst of Oprah couch-jumping, his controversial involvement with Scientology) with little damage to his commercial clout. But even by his standards, 2012 was a rough year for the Cruise machine. ‘Rock of Ages’, the jukebox musical in which he wittily played against type as an ’80s hairmetal stud, was one of the summer’s biggest bombs. Months later, his back-to-business action flick ‘Jack Reacher’ –while not a complete embarrassment – performed well below industry expectations. (Worse still, Twitter seemed more excited about Werner Herzog’s loony cameo.)

It’s also likely that Cruise’s niceguy reputation has taken a hit following his latest high-profile divorce, this time from Katie Holmes.

Media reports of Holmes’s flight from Cruise – painting him, rightly or wrongly, in an unflattering light – put public sympathy firmly on her side. And a Vanity Fair cover story detailing the church’s extensive ‘audition’ process for a bride (before he married Holmes) didn’t help his cause either.

But you could argue that Cruise’s star had been on the wane long before things soured in TomKat land. The dull military drama ‘Lions for Lambs’ (2007), the dim Nazi thriller ‘Valkyrie’ (2008) and the dreadful action-romcom hybrid ‘Knight and Day’ (2010) all stiffed at the box office. Bar his Golden Globenominated cameo in ‘Tropic Thunder’ (2008), Cruise’s only certifiable hits in the last eight years have been the last two instalments of the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise.

Right now, everyone in the Cruise camp must be pinning their hopes on his new apocalyptic action movie, ‘Oblivion’. Adapted by Joseph Kosinski (‘Tron: Legacy’) from his own graphic novel, this lush-looking sci-fi adventure is the first blockbuster of the season. Set in 2073, the battle for Earth is already lost and the few human survivors have been banished to floating settlements hovering somewhere above the clouds. It’s not all bad news, though: Cruise is still fighting our corner. He plays Jack Harper, a former Marine now entrusted with extracting the planet’s remaining resources. The arrival of a beautiful interloper (Olga Kurylenko) from a felled spacecraft causes Jack to question whether he’s fighting with the good guys. ‘Oblivion’ was pulled forward from its original July release date, and screened too late for Time Out to review. None of which helped manage expectations for a blockbuster that has more riding on it than most this summer.

Still, you’d be mad to write off Cruise just yet. He’s still has plenty going for him as a leading man. He was named Forbes’s highest-paid entertainer last year, and even heading into his sixth decade, he looks better than most lads half his age – to the extent that every official synopsis of ‘Oblivion’ includes the random detail that his character is 37. Moreover, say what you like about ‘Rock of Ages’, but there’s electricity to his stunt turn in that film that betrays a star quality matched by few of his juniors. And yet there was a time when Cruise surprised us not with Axl Rose karaoke, but collaborations with filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick (‘Eyes Wide Shut’) and Paul Thomas Anderson (‘Magnolia’). So if he doesn’t start taking bigger risks, ‘Oblivion’ could well turn out to be his career prophecy.

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