Before Lift Off: Tom Cruise in Legend

| John Blair |

A young man with shaggy brown hair and wearing a brown tattered shirt stands in the center of a forest. Behind him is a small pond and lush greenery.

Legend plays at the Trylon Cinema (in stunning 35mm) from Friday, April 26 through Sunday, April 28. Visit for tickets and more information.

It has been over 30 years since I first saw Legend as a child. I retained strong memories of certain images: the magical light of the opening scenes, the oversized horns of the Lord of Darkness, the fact that there was definitely a unicorn in the movie. I knew it starred Tom Cruise, but I had a very vague sense of what his character was like or how his performance compared to his later work. By the time I started understanding what actors did and had developed an interest in movies, Cruise was well-established as one of the leading American actors. To me, his persona was solidified in Top Gun, which perhaps is still his most iconic performance.

The opportunity to revisit Legend was intriguing, both as an early work by Ridley Scott, one of my favorite filmmakers, and to see how Tom Cruise’s performance as Jack would compare to his later work. Made and released before Top Gun would make him a superstar, Legend was a critical and commercial disappointment, made by Scott as a tribute to fairy tales and brimming with fantastical creatures, striking set pieces, and a very 1980s score by Tangerine Dream.

Tom Cruise had charmed audiences as the quintessential young man—energetic and full of youthful exuberance. He broke out as a fresh-faced teenager in films like Endless Love, Taps, and The Outsiders. Now as a lead, Cruise was cast as Jack in Legend. Jack is completely foreign to the screen persona that would solidify around Cruise in Top Gun, Cocktail, and The Color of Money. A pure-hearted forest dweller, Jack becomes embroiled in an epic struggle when the malevolent Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry, glorious) attempts to plunge the lands into eternal night by seducing and imprisoning the unicorns that protect the realm. Jack is in love with Princess Lili (Mia Sara) and joins forces with a group of forest creatures to embark on a perilous quest to rescue the unicorns and defeat the Lord of Darkness. 

What was surprising on this rewatch was how secondary Cruise’s character is compared to really everything else going on in the film. One of the central issues is that Cruise’s relatively straightforward portrayal of the plucky young hero didn’t always align with the heightened, operatic tone of the film. Legend fully committed to creating an immersive fairy tale realm, with director Scott crafting a lush, dreamy aesthetic filled with exquisitely designed forests, grotesque demon lairs, and distractingly intricate creature designs. The make-up, costumes, and worldbuilding were so extraordinarily detailed that they threatened to overshadow the comparatively grounded humanity of Cruise’s performance.

A young princess in a white and gold dress sits in the woods, with a young man seated to her right. His face is obscured by leaves. White lilies frame the pair from the bottom corners of the image.

As dazzling as Legend’s visuals were, their sheer density could be overwhelming, with the viewer’s eye constantly being pulled away from Cruise to marvel at the latest fantastic backdrop or creature prop. In the forest scenes, Jack faded into the lush greenery, surrounded by a legion of remarkably designed fauna and diminutive fairy folk. Even in more intimate moments, like Jack’s burgeoning romance with Princess Lili, the overpowering gothic production design of her chamber competed for focus. 

This wasn’t necessarily a flaw in Cruise’s acting, which was full of youthful energy and earnestness. But his relatively naturalistic approach was often dwarfed by the eye-catching phantasmagoria unfolding all around him. Curry stole every scene he was in with his grotesquely campy swagger and larger-than-life presence. When sharing the screen with Curry’s outrageously over-the-top villain, Cruise’s heroic determination could seem almost quaint by comparison. As Jack engaged in battles against goblin foot-soldiers or the Lord’s demon familiars, the hyper-stylized, almost ballet-like choreography and busy creature design made it difficult for the viewer to maintain focus on Cruise amidst the sensory overload..
While the visual achievement of Legend is undeniable, at times it came at the expense of truly spotlighting the promising young talent at the center of the story. Tom Cruise brought his usual dynamism and commitment to the role of Jack, but the role often felt like a bit player in service of Ridley Scott’s grand dream of melding the mythical with the macabre. It wouldn’t be until the more streamlined spectacle of Top Gun that Cruise’s star power would be allowed to simply shine on its own, unobscured. Legend stands as a final glimpse of Cruise as a young actor and it also represents a pivotal turning point where the very next role would introduce him to the world as the magnetic A-lister he remains to this day.

Image 1: Tom Cruise as Jack in Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend
Image 2: Tom Cruise as Jack and Mia Sara as Lili in an early scene in Legend

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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