Former Rutgers anthropology grad student, Kathryn Kluegel, didn't care much for Tom Cruise -- but she did like the movies where he got beat down, such as Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut.
This struck me as a sharp insight. I caught the intense Mission: Impossible III tonight (had to pry my claw-like hands off the arm-rests afterward -- who'da thought you could have a 2 hour movie with only 3 five-minute slow periods; I wanted a cigarette afterwards).
Tom Cruise plays his fairly usual role: a cocky, over-confident sort who smiles a lot, then a sequence of increasingly awful catastrophes destroy that confidence and reduce him to his rawest self. He plays both ends of this range perfectly -- especially for a spy character like this who is initially putting on a show about being normal and in control of things. Cruise's exagerrated smile, his almost urgent need to appear happy, looks just right for a character who's pretending at a normal life and pretending to be happy in his new, mundane digs.
In the second half of the film that's all gone, and Cruise has a few techniques of showing emotion that I find extremely effective. There's one scene where he's walking into an unsafe area; however, he's not afraid for himself, he's afraid of failing because of the consequences it will have for someone he cares about. This is a very different kind of fear (a really good one for larger than life action movie heroes), almost like nervousness pushed to the extreme. When playing this, Cruise's hands jitter and he looks around with sharp little jerky head motions.
There's also this one way he has of looking out from under his eyes and appearing entirely lost, like he's just discovered that nothing he believed is true. This works particularly well because, with a slight change (the final reversal before the good guy wins) that look in his eyes switches from devastated to true-confidence -- not the fake stuff from the beginning of the film but the honest stuff that we like to think comes out of surviving one's darkest moments.
And I think this plays off his entire public persona. We see him so much in the media and tabloids appearing just like the early version of the characters in his films. Then, the character travels into the underworld and the audience sees what I suspect many of us think might be the real Tom Cruise -- and that vulnerability keeps him human.