Paramount Celebrates the Manic Leading Man with BREAKDOWN & VANILLA SKY

A look at two recent editions to the Paramount Presents collection and the way they each turn the idea of the classic leading man on its head.

Hollywood’s idea of the classic leading man doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Although the times have changed, the idea of what a leading man should be has largely remained somewhat in tact despite some notable variations. Joan Didion famously wrote about seeing John Wayne on the big screen at a young age and how it greatly shaped her view of what a leading man should epitomize, namely a tough, warrior-like exterior which also exuded endless amounts of charisma. For years studios have been reluctant to stray from this mold and have presented hundreds of reworked examples of who they believe the male hero should be. These prototypes worked well into the 90s with the majority of male leads always embodying fearless confidence mixed with undeniable sex appeal.

However, near the end of the 20th century as the pulse of cinema was greatly changing, so was that image of the classic John Wayne leading man. The days of exquisitely chiseled movie stars whose careers were built on a persona and a smile were coming to a close and in their place, a new breed of onscreen masculinity started to emerge; one which would challenge the idea of where a leading man could venture and whether or not an audience would follow. Recently, two such titles, 1997’s Breakdown and 2001’s Vanilla Sky, made their Blu-ray debuts as part of the Paramount Presents collection.

In Breakdown, Kurt Russell stars as Jack, a happily-married man who is driving with his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) across the country when they experience car trouble. After Amy hitches a ride from a trucker (J.T. Walsh) to go for help, Jack becomes worried and desperate as hours go by and there appears to be no trace of his wife. Meanwhile, in Vanilla Sky the wealthy head of a conglomerate named David (Tom Cruise) finds himself torn between two women (Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz) as he embarks on a mind-bending journey following an accident which left him disfigured.

As movies, Breakdown and Vanilla Sky couldn’t be further apart in terms of Hollywood blockbusters. The former is a taut thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that has great pacing and a plot with just enough turns to keep the audience on the edge all the way through. On the flip side, the latter is a drawn out psychological thriller which questions the reality of the main character and the audience as they join him in trying to uncover what is more real than not. What the two share are the unpredictable journeys they send their protagonists on, each of which stray from those typically found in the star-driven vehicles of the day. Rather than put them in situations that would allow them to showcase their fierce heroism, both films box in these leading men and takes each one to a place so foreign and unknown, he can’t help but feel vulnerable.

Breakdown asks a lot of Russell, physically, and the actor is happy to oblige. After making his name as a leading man through a series of action films such as The Thing, Escape from New York, Backdraft and Tombstone, Russell successfully blended physicality and watchability into the kind of leading man career built from some of the most entertaining movies of the 80s and 90s. In Breakdown, the actor is game for the movie’s many stunts, and he pulls them off expertly, particularly in the heart pounding finale. Russell is of the old school where he prefers to do as many stunts as he possibly can, and the result only enhances how invested he is when it comes to Jack’s journey.

Yet it’s in the non-action movie elements where Russell is at his most surprising. Right off the bat, Jack is portrayed as someone whose reality is as far away from an action movie as can be. When he’s plunged into this new situation, a sense of alienation and the worst kind of fears begin to drive his every move for the majority of the movie. Eventually, a determination takes over, one that is driven by a refusal to believe his wife is dead and that she will return to him. Russell excels in bringing the emotional side of Jack’s plight to life almost as much as he does with the physical. For an actor who has built a career on playing men who look fear in the eye and dare it to come after them, Russell’s portrayal of helplessness and desperation reminds us just how much of a sensitive actor he is.

Even though Risky Business and Top Gun, among many others, helped establish Cruise as the ultimate movie star of his generation, few films have asked him to take as many risks as Vanilla Sky. Much of his early career saw Cruise give off a kind ethereal quality which made him irresistible to moviegoers. Unlike some stars of his caliber, Cruise was always eager to try various genres, work with different directors and genuinely push himself when it came to the men he portrayed. Even when playing characters who weren’t heroic, such as Charlie in Rain Man, the actor always won his audiences over by the end thanks to the notes of redemption he hit and that very real magic Cruise always brought to the screen.

Vanilla Sky does away with most of that magic Cruise cultivated as a leading man over the previous two decades. It isn’t that he doesn’t play David right, it’s that not even Cruise can to find the light in such a complicated character. David is privileged, self-absorbed and self-adoring. He’s careless with the people who are there for him, the women who are enamored with him and he treats his business obligations as a mere annoyance. But underneath all of that, is a damaged human being whose madness finally begins to emerge once this life-altering event takes place. When it does, we see a man forced to face his past and the demons which reside there waiting for him. It’s one of Cruise’s greatest acting challenges, which he boldly takes on and pulls off not through any camera-ready smiles, but by taking on the monster inside the man he’s playing.

Reviews to both movies were greatly varied when they each came out. Critics embraced Breakdown as a tight, well-paced thriller, while the majority of them couldn’t get on board with the trip Vanilla Sky was asking them to embark on. Watching the two films now, it’s easy to admire the somewhat lofty goals each one set for themselves. While I believe those goals were mostly achieved, each film’s most long-lasting accomplishment is in the way they took two established leading men and allowed them the opportunity to play decidedly against the images they’d spent years building. Both Russell and Cruise would eventually go back to projects which were squarely in their wheelhouse. Russell found some great leading turns with Dark Blue and Miracle as Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series took him to even greater heights (no pun intended). But both Breakdown and Vanilla Sky continue to spotlight each actor as a risk taker and showed that the classic leading man needn’t always be John Wayne.

Breakdown and Vanilla Sky are both available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of the Paramount Presents collection.

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