How today's leading men are ageing gracefully – or not

Manglehorn and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation show two approaches to ageing on screen.

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Manglehorn (12A)
dir: David Gordon Green

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (12A)
dir: Christopher McQuarrie

The leading men of two new movies offer contrasting lessons in the art of ageing on screen. Al Pacino is doing it gracefully, as he has been for at least 20 years now, since he accepted that lines are something that can be worn as well as learned. Tom Cruise, on the other smooth and unwrinkled hand, is refusing to do it at all. When he does act his age – as in Collateral, where he played a hitman whose hair appeared to have been sprinkled with silver shrapnel – it becomes a talking point or anomaly. With each leap on to the roof of a moving vehicle, he is trying to put distance between himself and mortality. That was what brought such piquancy to parts of the 2014 science-fiction adventure Edge of Tomorrow, in which he was a futuristic soldier reliving his own demise repeatedly in a kind of battlefield Groundhog Day. For the first time on screen, he stared into the grave and didn’t blink.

Cruise recently turned 53. He is now a decade senior to the Bogart of Casablanca. Yet he maintains the grinning insouciance of a cabana boy. When Pacino, who turned 75 in April this year, was Cruise’s age, he had just won an Oscar for playing a blind Vietnam veteran in Scent of a Woman. Though arguably his worst performance, it was the one that shifted him decisively into middle age in the eyes of the public.

Pacino had flirted with ugliness in a small part under heavy make-up in Dick Tracy (Cruise did likewise in his own comic cameo as a balding, obnoxious studio executive in Tropic Thunder), but now he was on his way to decrepitude. He still had fire in his belly – when impressionists take him on, it is inevitably his manic turns from the 1990s (as a tenacious cop in Michael Mann’s Heat and as Satan in The Devil’s Advocate) that they mimic, all bulging eyes and place-your-bets inflections. But the pathos he brought to a feeble hoodlum in Donnie Brasco was a good fit, and he also wears it well in Manglehorn, an inconsequential picture redeemed by one scene of piercing clarity.

That scene occurs two-thirds of the way through the film. Pacino has greased-back hair, dainty spectacles and steely bristles as the down-at-heel A J Manglehorn, a former Little League baseball coach now working as a locksmith. It’s bad enough that we have to see him prioritising animals over people, or hear minor characters filling in his backstory (“You were a star! What happened to you?”). But when he is shown standing in front of a wall of keys, the audience is likely to detect the wailing of the Symbolic Occupation klaxon. He has dedicated his life to unlocking other people’s doors. Who will have the key to his heart?

A local bank teller, Dawn (Holly Hunter, 57), is the likeliest candidate. But during their first date Manglehorn is so wrapped up in reminiscing about the great lost love of his life that he all but wrecks any chance of finding her successor. Pacino plays the scene in a stubborn reverie, oblivious to his co-star’s escalating indignation. It’s a plausibly prickly interlude, out of sync with the rest of this rather obvious and sentimental film, and all the better for its vision of the last-chance saloon as a self-service restaurant with unflattering lighting.

In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth instalment in a pleasingly ridiculous action series, Tom Cruise performs a run of remarkable feats. Before the opening credits, he has clung to the side of a plane during take-off. (Look, Ma, no stunt doubles!) Next he endures a vicious beating to his bare torso, which is as solid and shiny as meat on a butcher’s hook. After that, he shimmies up a pole using only his feet. In a scene that stretches credibility, he even finds a telephone box in London that is in full working order. The point is that Cruise can do anything. No wonder it’s so delightful when he comes a cropper after a simple Starsky and Hutch-style leap across a car bonnet: it allows us to relish the far-fetched spectacle of Tom Cruise failing at something. With this in mind, why should complete immunity to the ageing process be beyond him?

No one would expect anything more from a Mission: Impossible movie than thumping good action, and this delivers amply on that front. There is a ferociously exciting car chase – the scariest since Ronin – through the angled streets of Casablanca, which then spirals off into a motorcycle pursuit along a mountain road. The cast also has a pleasing British bias, including Simon Pegg in the role of damsel-in-distress (the actual female lead, Rebecca Ferguson, is far too tough to need rescuing) and Tom Hollander as an apparently sane and beneficent prime minister. Now that’s escapism. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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