01/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Defense of Tom Cruise

I know what Tom Cruise did to make people bash him on a regular basis. He's a Scientologist; he says things that he has no business talking about on national TV (the Matt Lauer episode); and he has come across as insincere, bordering on nuts (the couch jumping).

I get it. It makes it hard to distinguish between his personal life and his acting. But I just don't care about any of it. I don't care about his marriage, his religion, his kids, any of it. Because I don't go to the movies to witness the thrill of seeing an actor's personal life unfold before me. I go to the movies to sit back and to be entertained by a good movie.

So when a Tom Cruise film comes out, I want to see it because it is almost always going to be a good movie.

Here's why: effort. When I see a movie starring Mr. Cruise, I always get the impression that he has poured everything into the film's success. He just looks like he works hard. He acts as if he does not want us to waste our money, and that he believes we've put our faith in him, and so he's going to repay us by making a good movie. Do I sound like I'm bordering on nuts, too? Perhaps -- but I'm also right.

If Tom Cruise did not work so hard, he would be Timothy Hutton. No offense to Hutton, an excellent actor who won an Academy Award, is now starring on a good TV show, and who starred in Taps with Cruise. What do I mean by comparing Cruise to Hutton? I'll explain by making a sacrilegious comparison: I'm going to compare Cruise to Michael Jordan.

Here's the difference between Michael Jordan and, say, a guy like Reggie Miller. Reggie Miller was a great shooter who, more often that many, hit an amazing array of shots and proved to be an extremely clutch player. But he didn't do it every night. He didn't do it every game. And when you watched a game where Miller hit crazy shot after crazy shot, you said, "Why doesn't he do that every night?" If he did do it every night, he would have been Michael Jordan. But no one did what Jordan did -- Jordan was the guy who outworked everyone else, every game, and performed at the consistently highest level imaginable. Whatever an opponents work ethic was, Jordan just outworked him. Reggie Miller did the best he could do -- he just didn't have that extra gear that Jordan has.

Tom Cruise has that extra gear. He came up with some great actors, and they did some great movies at the beginning -- The Outsiders, the aforementioned Taps. But Cruise separated himself from the pack of Dillons and Huttons. He separated himself by choosing his roles wisely, from the start.

I can go back to the beginning -- to the great, All the Right Moves, which is just as good when viewed today, to the underrated Risky Business. Those movies came out around 25 years ago. Then came Top Gun, and then the more serious vehicles with other brilliant actors that brought him from box office star to serious actor: The Color of Money, (Paul Newman) Rain Man, (Dustin Hoffman) and Cocktail, (Bryan Brown). Okay, maybe the last one wasn't serious, but I enjoyed it as much as any of the others; actually, I enjoyed, and I have watched it, more than any other film Cruise has made.

There have been many other excellent ones along the way. The Firm, A Few Good Men, Jerry McGuire, The Last Samurai. There have been some clunkers, and it seems more of them have come lately. Minority Report, with Spielberg; Eyes Wide Shut, with Kubrick; War of the Worlds, again with Spielberg. Good efforts, but they didn't pan out.

Still, if you look at the overall track record, Tom Cruise is to films what (forgive the sports analogy again) Babe Ruth was to baseball -- the most likely to hit the next one out of the park.

Now, I have no idea if Valkyrie is going to be good, or the worst movie ever. I do know that many critics seem to be savaging Cruise for sport. You can almost hear them giggling as you write their reviews of his latest offerings. He's been bloodied, and now they seem to want him to die.

But I don't want Tom Cruise to stop taking risks, to stop making movies. Let me put it this way: when I hear that Bruce Springsteen is coming out with a new CD, I want it to be great. He's got the best record of any musician working today. Many music acts today are one hit wonders. Not Springsteen. He maintains his status as the best musician of his generation, because he's a poet, but also because he just seems to care so much about his music. Doesn't it sound that way when you hear him sing? I don't know much about Springsteen's private life, and I don't care. I listen to his songs, and I find them to be incredibly well conceived. When someone is so good at what they do, we should hope that they continue to do it.

Tom Cruise is one of those rare people -- someone who consistently gives a good product to an extremely fickle audience. I'm not saying he's a poet, but I am saying that he's great at his job, and that job is movie star. Actors tend not stay big stars for long these days (how often have we heard that someone is the "next Tom Cruise?," Colin Farrell? Jude Law?) and Cruise has managed to maintain star status for more than 25 years. That's saying something.

So when Tom Cruise makes a movie, count me as one of the people who believe it's going to be well worth seeing.