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Tom Cruise is trying to prove that he's still a contender in Hollywood by reviving the dormant United Artists. UA's first film under his leadership is "Lions for Lambs," starring Cruise, plus Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS: For many years, Tom Cruise was arguably the biggest movie star in the world. Audiences loved him in action movies.

(Sound of movie)

MASTERS: They adored him in "Jerry Maguire."

(Soundbite of movie, "Jerry Maguire")

Mr. TOM CRUISE (Actor): (As Jerry Maguire) You complete me.

MASTERS: But in "Lions for Lambs," Cruise doesn't slip into the personas that have proven so popular with fans. He plays a slick senator intent on selling an ill-conceived war strategy to a skeptical reporter, played by Meryl Streep.

(Soundbite of movie, "Lions for Lambs")

Mr. CRUISE: (As Senator Jasper Irving) Six years ago, you were the first to call me the future of my party, and this is me returning a favor.

Ms. MERYL STREEP (Actress): (As Janine Roth) To discuss what exactly?

Mr. CRUISE: (As Senator Irving) To see if you'd like to write an honest-to-God story again.

MASTERS: "Lions for Lambs" deals with weighty topics - the war on terror, the failings of the news media, the passivity of ordinary citizens. While Cruise argues with Streep, Redford plays a professor hoping to inspire a student. The film cuts from one conversation to the other, prompting a reviewer in Variety to call it talky.

Mr. HAROLD VOGEL (Entertainment Industry Analyst): It is not a slam dunk in terms of top of the box office.

MASTERS: Harold Vogel is an entertainment industry analyst. He hasn't seen "Lions for Lambs" yet, but he knows it faces tough odds. It's one of a glut of films aimed at adult audiences. And it's one of several war-themed films coming into theaters.

Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

Mr. PAUL DERGARABEDIAN (Box Office Analyst): People aren't really coming out for these more serious-minded films. You've got "The Game Plan" doing well and Tyler Perry's film, and the more escapist fare doing well.

MASTERS: In this tough environment, "Lions for Lambs" not only puts the focus on UA but on Cruise. This is his first film since "Mission: Impossible III" sputtered at the box office, and since Viacom dismissed him from his long-standing deal at Paramount Pictures for allegedly inappropriate behavior. That included bouncing on Oprah Winfrey's couch and tangling with Matt Lauer on "The Today Show" over the tenets of the Church of Scientology.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Today Show")

Mr. CRUISE: Psychiatry is a pseudo-science.

Mr. MATT LAUER (Host, "The Today Show"): But aren't there examples where it works?

Mr. CRUISE: Matt, Matt, Matt. You don't even - you're glib.

MASTERS: AT this point, many in Hollywood believed Cruise should do some career repair by trying an action movie or a romantic comedy. After "Lions for Lambs," says Paul Dergarabedian, UA has two more films that seem to be aimed at that same adult audience.

Mr. DERGARABEDIAN: They do not appear to be chasing the box office dollar. They look more like they're chasing Oscar or, you know, some type of critical acclaim rather than just the bottom line dollar.

MASTERS: In "Valkyrie," Cruise plays Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, an iconic German figure who attempted to assassinate Hitler. The German government - hostile to Scientology - would not permit filming at the site where von Stauffenberg was executed. The government relented but the footage was suspiciously damaged in the lab.

The next United Artists film, which doesn't star Cruise, will be Oliver Stone's take on the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

Paul Dergarabedian...

Mr. DERGARABEDIAN: I think this is part of Cruise's plan at this point in his career and his life to kind of redefine himself and set himself up for a different type of career as he gets older, along with his audience.

MASTERS: Analyst Harold Vogel says that plan may not suit UA's investors.

Mr. VOGEL: What happens if the first four pictures just don't perform or recover their costs? Then people will be very reluctant to add money to the pile.

MASTERS: At a recent screening in New York, Cruise described "Lions for Lambs" as the kind of film United Artists should be making. Unless the public shows unexpected enthusiasm, it's not clear how long the studio can sustain that vision.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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