LOS ANGELES -- Just turned 50, Tom Cruise is eligible for membership in the American Association of Retired Persons. Just split from third wife Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise is the object of told-you-so cynics who simply knew that romance wouldn't last. Just finished with his stab at something really different as a heavy-metal rock god in "Rock of Ages," Tom Cruise is coming off one of the lowest-grossing movies in his career.
Yet just out with his latest action flick, "Jack Reacher," Tom Cruise remains one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
He's weathered ridicule, intense speculation about his family life, bumpy stretches at the box office brought on by audience disdain over his personal antics and some ill-considered movie projects.
And Cruise is right where he was when 1986's "Top Gun" vaulted him to superstardom: On top. Maybe not the same level of on top as the 15-year stretch that began in the early 1990s, when practically every Cruise film was bound to be a $100 million hit.
But for a guy his age, with his baggage, in a business that deifies youth and excommunicates talent when it goes off the deep end, Cruise still prospers.
"None of us can stay in the spotlight that long without some issues and some controversy. Tom has stayed committed all along to finding great projects," said Rob Moore, vice chairman at Paramount Pictures, which released "Jack Reacher" on Friday. "What you see over time is that Tom has been in such a great list of movies that are of such high quality, that ultimately, people come back to the work and the talent."
Fans seem to agree. In a poll of nearly 1,000 people buying movie tickets at Fandango.com, 82 percent said Cruise's personal life does not influence whether or not they will see his movies.
"The target audience for `Jack Reacher' probably doesn't care whether he's married, separated or divorced," said Fandango.com chief correspondent Dave Karger. "As long as teenage guys tell their friends that they liked it, that's all that matters. These aren't people that are reading Us Weekly. They just want to know how the action is."
Arriving amid a pre-Christmas rush of films, expectations are modest for "Jack Reacher," with the opening weekend projected at $15 million or less. The film was made on a moderate $60 million budget, about $100 million less than Cruise's last "Mission: Impossible" installment, and Paramount executives hope holiday crowds will give "Jack Reacher" an extended shelf life after opening weekend.
Adapted from "One Shot," part of Lee Child's series of best-selling books about a mysterious ex-military investigator, "Jack Reacher" features colder, crueler violence than the typical Cruise action film, which could hurt its prospects after the school shootings in Connecticut.
Cruise's Reacher is a fairly merciless lone wolf, while the movie opens with gruesome slayings as a sniper randomly scopes out victims to shoot.
"No question, for any of these types of movies, it's a raw nerve," said Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst for box-office tracker Hollywood.com. "Violent imagery of any kind may be a bit of a tougher sell right now."
Yet for the long haul, Cruise's prospects look steady. Despite derision his private life has brought him, Cruise has suffered only bumps and bruises professionally. At the height of his bizarre romance with Holmes, when Cruise was jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey's couch to proclaim his love, he bewildered, annoyed and even infuriated fans.
Yet they have kept coming. A month after the 2005 couch trip, Cruise scored one of his biggest hits ever with "War of the Worlds." The following year, after alienating many people with his suddenly public sermonizing about his Scientology beliefs, damage was evident as "Mission: Impossible III" seriously underperformed the franchise's earlier installments.
He went five years without a huge solo smash, though he did delight fans with a twisted supporting role in the comedy hit "Tropic Thunder" and defied expectations by earning respectable box office and reviews as an eye-patch-wearing German officer in the Hitler assassination thriller "Valkyrie."
Paramount, Cruise's long-time studio home, dumped him in 2006 over his odd behavior, and the actor went on to a failed attempt to revive the United Artists banner that resulted in the 2007 war-on-terror dud "Lions for Lambs."
Then Cruise and Paramount realized what a good thing they'd had together. He rejoined the studio for "Tropic Thunder" and last year's "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," which restored Cruise to the blockbuster ranks and generally is regarded as the franchise's best installment.
No matter what anyone thinks of his personal life, Cruise has a reputation as one of the hardest working men in show business, with an unparalleled work ethic.
"He's very focused," said Emily Blunt, his co-star in the upcoming sci-fi thriller "All You Need Is Kill" that is now shooting.
"Tom has always been nothing but professional and sweet and open and a lot of fun for me to be around," Blunt said at last July's Comic-Con fan convention, where she was preparing for the start of production on the film after months of preparation with Cruise. "I've really enjoyed working with him."
Paramount is squarely back in the Tom Cruise business with "Jack Reacher," a solid action tale with decent reviews. If fans turn up, it could be another franchise for him and Paramount, where a fifth "Mission: Impossible" film also is under consideration.
For the near future, there are no deviations from the sort of movies that have worked for Cruise in the past, no "Lions for Lambs" or "Rock of Ages." Next year, Cruise stars in the sci-fi yarn "Oblivion," playing a repairman fighting aliens on a decimated Earth. "All You Need Is Kill" is another Cruise-against-creatures tale, about a soldier caught in a time loop in which he relives his death over and over in a battle with aliens.
"Tom Cruise can viably continue to do these action films if only because he looks better than any 50 year old I've ever seen," said Karger of Fandango.com. "The one thing you hear the most about Tom Cruise as an actor is that this is the guy who commits. From `Rock of Ages' to `Tropic Thunder' to an action-heavy movie like `Jack Reacher,' this is the guy. It's superhuman, the energy he puts into a performance. As long as that remains his work ethic, he can do things like this for a long time."