Back in 2014, Missile Test held Arnold Schwarzenegger month, where I watched and wrote about every significant Arnold flick. There was no abiding reason for featuring Arnold movies for an entire month, other than I just felt like doing it. I followed that up in 2017 with a month of Sylvester Stallone reviews. Then I got the bright idea to do a month of Tom Cruise flicks, but my soul ran dry after watching Rain Man. Anyway, I’ve had ten reviews of Tom Cruise movies sitting in a folder for years, now, collecting digital dust. So, since Cruise month isn’t likely to happen, for the next couple of months I’ll be posting these old-ish reviews on Wednesdays.
Cruise’s filmography has fatter pickings than Arnold’s. I was surprised by this, at first. But, Arnold had his peak as a movie star more than twenty years ago, and it was not all that long. Arnold has also never been content with being just one thing. Champion bodybuilder, movie star, politician. He has filled all these roles in succession. I can only guess, but Arnold seemed to be moved by new challenges. Upon reaching the top of the mountain, he’s already looking about for another mountain. Cruise, on the other hand, has always seemed to pursue Hollywood stardom as a singular obsession. His career and public persona are no less manufactured than Arnold’s, but success doesn’t seem to create longing for something else in Cruise. Arnold is about the journey. Cruise is about the destination, and, once arrived at, staying put until age finally takes its toll.
First up is Cruise’s second appearance in film, but his first significant role, in 1981’s Taps. Cruise has a costarring role as Cadet Captain David Shawn, alongside Timothy Hutton as Cadet Major Brian Moreland. Those tortured titles should have given some clue to potential viewers that Taps takes place at a military academy; in this case, the fictional Bunker Hill Military Academy, led by the stern visage of headmaster Brigadier General Harlan Bache, played by George C. Scott.
It’s the end of the year at Bunker Hill, but festivities have been darkened by news that the upcoming year is to be the school’s last. The school sits on a huge reserve of land that could be better used, and the school has a strained relationship with the locals. The final nail in the coffin is an accidental shooting at the front gate, leading to Bache’s arrest, after which the general suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. Because of the shooting, the school is to be shuttered immediately, but Moreland and his charges have other ideas, barricading themselves inside the school and demanding that the school remain open. It’s a silly and hopeless path for the boys of the school to take, and threatens to damage their futures beyond repair, but they have weapons and live ammo. They are no longer playing soldier.
Director Harold Becker could have gone a number of ways in filming Taps. He chose to make the film a far more serious affair than I expected. The subject matter could have been played as straight action. All the characters could have been made into cardboard cutout soldiers. Much less thought could have been put into the film’s characterizations and it would be no less anonymous a film than it already is. But despite the starched uniforms and stone faces, there’s a lot going on in this film. At first, it appears as if Moreland and the other cadets are striving to save something honorable—places and traditions that have been more important in shaping their lives than anything else to which they have been exposed. Bache is an impassioned man, one who seems to care deeply about his cadets. As such, the film sets up any affront to the school as an affront to an audience’s sensibilities. We want to scream at the screen, “Keep the school open!”
But look past all that, and it becomes clear that each boy at the school has been twisted and turned about by years of military indoctrination. The boys live throughout the year in a paradigm of death, answerable to only one authority: General Bache. Without his guidance, the cadets of Bunker Hill have a death jones that is disturbing to see on faces so young.
And now we come back to Cruise. His cadet is in charge of the school’s elite group of red berets. More than anyone else on campus, he is ready for death. Throughout the film, he is the devil on Moreland’s shoulder (while Sean Penn, playing Cadet Captain Alex Dwyer, is the angel on the other). Peace and war pull at Moreland with equal influence throughout the film, and it is left to the film’s climax to show which ideal wins. Cruise had much less screen time than his colleagues, but he dominated every scene he was in. Cruise’s energy can make people wary, but, in this film, it serves to make his character very tense.
This film does not star Tom Cruise, however. This is a Timothy Hutton film. His character has more subtleties and nuance than any other in the film, and that is the result of a good performance. It’s only in the second half, when it dawns on a viewer how batshit crazy Moreland is, that flaws in Hutton’s performance appear. His Moreland is a very squared-away individual, but there’s not a lot of tension to his personality. He should be burdened with immense amounts of stress, but it never feels like enough of that comes through into the performance. But that’s nitpicking. Taps is a fairly decent find for someone digging through the archives of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Sorry, Timothy, but I’m not referring to you.