Lions for Lambs — the review’s up!

Lions for Lambs — the review’s up! November 9, 2007

My review of Lions for Lambs is now up at CT Movies.

As an amateur number-cruncher, I can’t resist noting a few extra things about this film — and specifically about its place in Tom Cruise’s career.

Going back to Mission: Impossible II (2000), Cruise is arguably the only movie star to have appeared in seven consecutive films that earned over $100 million in North America — eight, if we count his cameo in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002). I say “arguably” because it all depends on whether you think Tom Hanks‘s vocal performance in Toy Story 2 (1999) counts as an “appearance”; if it does, then Hanks has also had seven such films in a row, between Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).

At any rate, Cruise’s track record would be even better — averaging almost one such film per year as far back as A Few Good Men (1992) — if it weren’t for a couple of films he made in 1999, at a time when he apparently felt the need to prove his artistic cred, having long since proved himself as a box-office commodity. I refer, of course, to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. For a brief, shining moment, Cruise put commercial viability aside in order to work with one of the industry’s oldest and most reclusive living legends, and then to be part of the ensemble in a film by one of the industry’s hottest up-and-coming indie filmmakers.

So it is intriguing to see that Cruise, in choosing to make Lions for Lambs his first starring vehicle since he took the reins at United Artists, has apparently opted for something resembling artistic cred again, rather than anything box-office related. The new film even has echoes of the two 1999 films. Like Eyes Wide Shut, it is directed by an old Hollywood legend — in this case Robert Redford — and like Magnolia, it is an ensemble film in which Cruise spends much of his screen time giving an interview to a somewhat antagonistic journalist.

(In a weird way, the fact that Cruise shares top billing with two noticeably older and far more talented actors — namely Redford and Meryl Streep — also brings to mind that period in the late ’80s and early ’90s when Cruise made a point of co-starring with the likes of Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson.)

But Lions for Lambs is an extremely talky and didactic picture, so much so that it could almost have been a play, though not a very good one. And it’s an explicitly political movie, released at a time when audiences don’t seem to be remotely interested in explicitly political movies. With almost zero box-office potential, it’s a really peculiar choice for a movie star who is trying to revitalize an old movie studio.

At this point, I turn to Karina at SpoutBlog, who has an interesting take on the significance of this film for Cruise’s career:

As political polemic and as entertainment, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs is mostly unsuccessful, but as a statement of purpose on behalf of its co-star and executive producer, Tom Cruise, it’s mildly fascinating. Through sheer force of star power, Cruise manages to temporarily hijack this lumpy lecture, and turn it into a battle cry against the corporate media that both built and destroyed him. . . .

I can’t say Karina’s point had occurred to me in so many words, but I did notice something along these lines while watching the film.

In one of the film’s final scenes, a guy watches the news, and the major military story of the day is relegated to a text crawl at the bottom of the screen while the program dwells on sleazy tabloid footage of a Britney-like pop star and the would-be rapper she’s divorcing. I found myself wondering how that scene would have played if the footage were of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and whether making this film was basically Cruise’s way of saying, “Hey, stop obsessing over my private life, and pay attention to something else for a change!”

As it is, the experts are predicting this film will make less than $7 million this weekend — easily the worst box-office performance of any Tom Cruise movie in its first weekend of wide release since The Color of Money (1986; $6.4 million) or Legend (1985; $4.3 million), with the exception of Magnolia, which played on fewer screens than any Tom Cruise movie since All the Right Moves (1983). And you just know that the media will pounce on figures like these to say that Cruise’s career is falling even deeper into whatever hole he began digging when he jumped on Oprah’s couch.

But perhaps that’s all part of Cruise’s plan. Maybe he made this film just to show that he could throw commercial viability to the winds again, and to lower everyone’s expectations so that he can stage a big comeback with his next film.

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