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Good article, especially the end.

Tom Cruise's career then and now: It's like 'Knight and Day'

Imagine that one morning the farmers of Kansas walk into their fields to discover that every stalk of wheat has withered and blown away.

Consider the repercussions, not only on the state's economy but for a world that depends upon Kansas grain for sustenance.

Think about the panic. A resource that has always been reliable decade after decade has suddenly vanished. All bets are off.

Maybe it's the end of the world.

That's the kind of dumbfounded desperation that has seized Hollywood in the wake of the poor box office showing of "Knight and Day." It made less than $30 million in its first five days -- the second worst opening ever for a movie starring Tom Cruise (behind the indie "Lions for Lambs"). The July 4 holiday weekend pushed its total box office to about $45 million.

On a recent visit to Los Angeles I found the town -- whose main industry, after all, is entertainment -- in a dither about the box office blow that is Mr. Cruise's latest action-comedy.

The Los Angeles Times devoted a section front to dissecting why the action adventure, which many expected to be one of the summer's big hits, was doing so poorly -- at least by Cruise standards. Was it the nondescript title? A flawed marketing campaign?

The movie is actually OK. It got some very positive reviews.

Why, then, is "Knight and Day" struggling?

You can wiggle the finger of blame in many directions, but the hard truth is that the bulk of today's movie-going audience doesn't care about Tom Cruise. For this vast army of teens he's not a major sex symbol. He's just this old guy who sometimes behaves weirdly.

These young moviegoers weren't yet born when Mr. Cruise rose to prominence in the mid-'80s. If they've seen his big hits on TV or home video -- "Top Gun" or "Days of Thunder" or "Mission: Impossible" -- they probably view him as a quaint relic of another time.

Mr. Cruise turned 48 on Saturday, so he's certainly not one of them. He is well into middle age (a well-preserved middle age, let's admit), and for that reason he holds little interest for kids who would rather watch performers in whom they can see a bit of themselves.

(It didn't help that in "Knight," Mr. Cruise is teamed with Cameron Diaz, who is within spitting distance of 40.)

In other words, after a reign of a quarter-century, Tom Cruise is no longer a movie star.

I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.

Tom Cruise is no longer a movie star.

A movie star is, by definition, a person whose mere presence in a film can guarantee a big opening weekend.

Clearly, Mr. Cruise can no longer deliver.

There's even talk that the mediocre business for "Knight" may spell trouble for next year's "Mission: Impossible IV" ... or that it may be retooled so that Mr. Cruise's Ethan Hunt passes the torch to a new, younger, more bankable M:I leader.

Now, plenty of us still like Tom Cruise. But we're middle-aged ourselves. We don't race out on a Friday evening to catch the new movies. We take our time.

(Let's see ... how about the showing at 11 a.m. Sunday two weeks from now? Ought to be able to get in without fighting through a mob of hormone-secreting high-schoolers.)

Way too often we put off seeing a movie and miss it altogether. There's always home vid.

So what's left for Tom Boy? Is all lost?

Not really. Mr. Cruise remains an actor, sometimes a good one. I'd argue that his best work was in the indie classic "Magnolia," in which he played a misogynist motivational speaker, earning himself an Oscar nomination.

That wasn't leading-man stuff. It was character work. And it turns out that Cruise is pretty good at it.

Mr. Cruise brought down the house at the MTV Movie Awards by appearing in character as Les Grossman, the fat, balding, venal studio executive he played in Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.'s comedy hit "Tropic Thunder."

We're hearing that Paramount is contemplating a "Tropic Thunder" spin-off about Grossman. I smell a hit ... but it's a far cry from the preening, sex-radiating Maverick of "Top Gun."

Tom Cruise doesn't need my advice, but that won't stop me.

Tom, it's time to emulate the career of your contemporary, Johnny Depp. He's only a year younger than you, yet he's about the most bankable actor out there.

Mr. Depp's career is plowing ahead while yours has run aground for the simple reason that he's never sold himself ("Hi there, fans, I'm Johnny Depp.") He's always sold his characters, which form a veritable menagerie of types and styles.

There was a time when Mr. Depp was a bit of a heartthrob. Now young people respond to him less for hunkiness and more for the memorable characters he's given them: Jack Sparrow and Ichabod Crane and Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter.

You could say much the same thing about Mr. Downey, now 45.

So there you have it, Tom. Quit trying to be the guy who always gets the girl and go after different, colorful characters. Stretch yourself. Take little juicy roles, and then steal the movie from the 30-something leading man. I bet it'll feel real good.

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