“Tom Cruise is the Hollywood movie star,” I wrote here recently. “And maybe even the last one.”
That seems only truer today. Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick” is the American box-office hit of the year, blowing past its competitors without benefit of superheroes, CGI dinosaurs or a built-in teenage fanbase. Cruise’s star power is what really sold it — and sold more than half-billion dollars’ worth of tickets.
But I’m beginning to think Brad Pitt is the smartest Hollywood movie star, at least when it comes to building a lasting career — and a reputation.
Pitt’s “Bullet Train” opens this weekend. It’s the last big movie of the summer and, to use a rarely appropriate cliché, it’s a wild ride.
Directed by David Leitch, Pitt’s old stunt double — how “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” meta of them! — it’s a hyperbolic thriller about a speeding train stuffed full of passengers, warring assassins, a suitcase full of cash, and a poisonous snake.
Leith previously directed “Deadpool 2” and “Atomic Blonde” and co-directed “John Wick,” so you know his style — action sequences that slip into extreme slo-mo, almost laughably graphic gore and a self-conscious style heavily dependent on deadpan irony and hip Hollywood in-jokes.
“Bullet Train” adds some faux-Tarantino touches — two squabbling hitmen and a lot of junk-culture obsessions — and it’s not for everyone. (At times, it reminded me a little too much of Guy Ritchie, and ‘90s lager-lad-movies like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”) But a lot of it is fun, and most of that comes from Pitt, its star and producer.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast Pitt and Cruise, because while their careers seem parallel, they proceeded at different speeds and along different tracks.
Cruise, 60, made his movie debut in 1981, in “Endless Love,” and after a couple of years of supporting parts exploded in “Risky Business” in 1983. He’s been a star ever since. In 1996, with the first “Mission: Impossible,” he began producing as well, eventually taking responsibility for shepherding 23 movies, mostly his own, to the screen.
Pitt, 58, made his movie debut in 1987, in a forgotten comedy called “Hunk.” Years of bit parts and TV roles followed until 1992, when he stripped off his shirt and rocked Geena Davis’ world, and ours, in “Thelma & Louise.” That made him a star (and Cruise’s co-star in 1994’s “Interview With the Vampire”). He’s produced 69 films since 2006.
Although they’re barely two years apart in age, Pitt’s career had a slower start; a good decade separates their arrivals as top movie stars and producers. And whether or not that time gave Pitt a chance to thoroughly think things through, it’s clear a very different philosophy separates their approaches.
Cruise is all about Cruise. Pitt is all about the picture.
Frankly, Cruise’s first question in life seems to be, How Does This Benefit Me? That’s not indefensible, or even unusual; most of us don’t look for business opportunities that aren’t to our advantage. Except Cruise’s concerns are even more relentlessly self-focused: How does this part, in this movie, reinforce my brand? How does this new responsibility expand my power?
Cruise has occasionally taken calculated risks, accepting flashy but unsympathetic roles (like his comic cameo in “Tropic Thunder” or his self-help guru in “Magnolia”) or working for demanding directors (such as Kubrick, Scorsese and Stone). But the vast majority of the parts he takes are comfortably within his Charming, Cocky Rebel wheelhouse, and most of the movies he produces are ones he’s starring in (conveniently making him his director’s boss).
Pitt, though, takes a wider and more flexible view of his career. In fact, he often seems to have a stronger idea of what he doesn’t want to do than what he does. Trading on his leading-man looks? Doing surefire romances and standard action pictures? Only producing movies where he has a starring role? No thanks.
Instead he’s played grungy or even reprehensible characters (“12 Monkeys,” “Fight Club,” “Killing Them Softly”). He’s counterbalanced glossy entertainments like the “Ocean’s” films with arthouse gambles like “The Tree of Life” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” He’s produced, not just his own movies, but ones he wants to see — pictures like “Vice,” “The Departed” and the upcoming “She Said.”
He’s not just interested in his part. He’s interested in how he can be part of the process.
Ironically, not always putting himself first has only benefitted him. While Pitt remains an underrated actor, he’s developed a wide range, able to play World War II heroes or modern extremists, and star in caper movies or dour marital dramas. For a bright man, he’s exceptionally good at playing dopes — not with the wink at the camera his pal George Clooney gives, but full-on, bringing total, unembarrassed idiocy to farces like “Burn After Reading.”
Pitt gets to bring that sense of self-mocking fun to “Bullet Train,” playing a hitman code-named “Ladybug.” Ladybug isn’t bad at what he does; he’s just got the worst luck on the planet, always losing keys or getting mistaken for someone else. But he tries to deal with it, calmly, by constantly quoting his therapist, or a new self-help book, or some half-remembered Zen koan. It’s a portrait of the assassin as a slightly baked Hollywood actor, and it’s delightful.
And so is Pitt, whose appearances over the last few years have turned into one of Hollywood’s few reliable pleasures. He can do hipster action, like “Bullet Train.” He can do thoughtful, risky sci-fi like “Ad Astra.” Nearly 30 years after “Thelma & Louse,” he even can still do the shirtless sex-god thing, as he proved in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
The movies don’t always work. The gambles don’t always pay off. He doesn’t have the carefully engineered career or perfectly polished, predictable persona that Cruise has. He’s not a shiny, unchanging icon.
But that’s what makes him interesting — and likely to have a place in Hollywood as long as he wants one.
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