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Posted on Sun, Aug. 15, 2004

Cruise, other stars head new directions, but results are mixed

He, Jeff Bridges and Catherine Zeta-Jones have assumed unfamiliar movie personas.

Dallas Morning News

Maybe next summer we'll be treated to Ben Affleck as Jack the Ripper.

At this point, that's pure fantasy, but it does reflect a semblance of showbiz savvy. When stuck in a rut, either imagewise or at the box office, celebs search for new directions. And this summer may be best remembered for a slew of career makeovers.

So far, moviegoers witnessed Tom Cruise as a take-no-prisoners hired assassin; Jeff Bridges as a manipulative, conceited cad; and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a warm and cuddly flight attendant.

Each sought a change of direction. In Cruise's last three films --"Vanilla Sky," "Minority Report" and "The Last Samurai" -- he played variations of his typical movie character, a conflicted yuppie who ultimately does the right thing. All three grossed in the $100 million to $130 million range, solid figures but short of the mega-hit plateau associated with the Cruise name.

Although the box-office verdict is still out, "Collateral" brings Cruise some of the best reviews of his 23-year career. Many of his successful roles, including "Jerry Maguire," "Rain Man" and the "Mission: Impossible" duo, contain elements of frosty isolation. "Collateral" brings that cold-hearted loner quality up front. After all, hit men work best alone, but even they may need drivers.

Bridges has shown ample range in his own three-decades-long career, even going homicidal in 1985's "Jagged Edge." But his all-American face and buoyant smile lend themselves to steadfast characters. So it's refreshing to see him play someone governed by self-absorption in "The Door in the Floor." As with Cruise, his daring has yielded the best reviews of his underrated career.

Zeta-Jones is a different case. Her dreamy appearance and confident manner are suited for ice-goddess roles. She wears that persona so convincingly that cool kids on the Internet sometimes call her Cathy Jones, not always with reverence.

Her Oscar-winning "Chicago" role was the earthiest of ice-goddesses, and her Coen Brothers comedy "Intolerable Cruelty" added new layers to the frosty image. When Steven Spielberg asked her to co-star with Tom Hanks in "The Terminal," the raven-haired ice-goddess reportedly felt the lovesick flight attendant was the closest she came to playing herself.

Spielberg remembers her saying, "Michael knows the real me. Kirk knows the real me. And now moviegoers will know the real me."

Michael and Kirk, of course, refer to husband and father-in-law, current and prior monarchs of the Douglas dynasty. As for moviegoers knowing the real you -- sorry, Cathy, neither the movie nor your performance made strong enough impressions to change your tune to a more vulnerable refrain.

Hanks himself sought an image change with 2002's "Road to Perdition," playing a relatively benign gangland hit man who slowly earns the love of his young son. Compared with Cruise's "Collateral" assassin, Hanks' hit man seems like Santa Claus.

"Road to Perdition" joined Hanks' near-continuous string of $100 million grossers, but its impact, both with critics and the public, stopped short of the anticipated killing.

Robin Williams also turned lethal with mixed results. Such fuzzy comedies as "Patch Adams" earned strong returns but little critical acclaim. The new century brought a new approach. He played a near-psychotic in "One-Hour Photo," a corrupt television clown in "Death to Smoochy" and a clever, manipulative killer in "Insomnia." "One-Hour Photo" was an indie success, while the others fluttered in box-office limbo.

Some role-playing overhauls have ended at the Oscar night podium, the most recent example being Denzel Washington's 2001 "Training Day" victory. Though not as persistently as Sidney Poitier four decades earlier, the actor had largely played good guys, even essaying a mischievous angel in "The Preacher's Wife." In "Training Day," he was riveting as the baddest dude on the streets of L.A., a character and movie that's now being compared with the Cruise "Collateral."

Michael Douglas had carved a successful career out of playing flawed nice guys -- in some cases, as in "Fatal Attraction," seriously flawed nice guys. But in 1987's "Wall Street," he was dynamic as the King Kong of all raging capitalists, a ferocious beast that even the most single-minded bottom-line reader could not cheer. He won the Oscar that had eluded poppa Kirk.

Long before Bill Murray won plaudits for such "serious" comedies as "Lost in Translation" and "Rushmore," he attempted to go dramatic. The huge success of 1984's "Ghost Busters" gave him clout to film a long cherished project, a remake of W. Somerset Maugham's philosophical novel of self-discovery, "The Razor's Edge." The pompous movie made critics sneer and audiences look the other way, and it was four years before Murray again carried a leading movie role.

Like all aspects of moviemaking, playing against type is a crapshoot. Happy endings are never assured. But at least be reassured of one thing: There are no plans to cast Ben Affleck as Jack the Ripper. And then again...

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