How a Throwaway 80s Teen Comedy Launched Tom Cruise’s Career [Rewind]
Would you believe that there’s a Tom Cruise film in existence that only made $1.2 million. Doesn’t it seem like this guy has always been a movie star? Given that Mission: Impossible – Fallout brought in nearly $800 million, it would be easy to write off Cruise’s fourth film (his first would be in Endless Love, followed by an intense turn in Taps, and his third would be a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders) as just a cheap, teen comedy.
With a lifetime gross of nearly $4 billion dollars at the box office, the average Tom Cruise film brings in $100 million dollars. If you really think about what Tom Cruise brings to a film, the numbers he puts up are truly astounding. So people are to be forgiven if they hear about a movie he co-starred in (yup, Cruise wasn’t even the main character), and just can’t imagine it being another 80s sex-romp. In many ways Losin’ It is just that. In other ways this $7 million film is just about as perfect as an 80s film gets, and, when it really wants to be is a deep film on par with Endless Love and The Breakfast Club.
Losin’ It tells the story of Woody (Cruise), Dave (Jackie Earle Haley), Spider (John Stockwell), Wendell (John P. Navin, Jr.) and Kathy (Shelley Long). Woody, Dave, and Spider are headed to Tijuana with another buddy in the hopes of getting laid, and getting new upholstery in Dave’s car. The 4th friend can’t go so Dave’s brother Wendell comes along in the hope of procuring fireworks for his middle school sales business. Problems arise when they get to the brothel. Woody is literally scared of the woman he chooses to lose his virginity to. Then he and Spider get into a fist fight over Kathy. She jumped into the guys car in California. Upon hearing that her husband had been unfaithful, she quickly skipped town and headed to Tijuana for a divorce. Then Dave and Spider get into it and the group is even more fractured. Meanwhile, Woody and Kathy spend some time together and decide to bed down. All the while, a Tijuana police officer follows them around looking for any reason to put them in jail. The stakes continue to rise until the guys literally have to escape from Mexico.
Losin’ It may not sound like much but really is a very layered film. When you examine its varied layers you come to realize that even with the star power that would bloom later, Losin’ It had a lot more going for it than anybody involved probably realized.
Losin’ It introduced the world to Tom Cruise.
There are going to be those who say that The Outsiders was the film showed us how solid of an actor Cruise is. In some ways they are right. As the oil stained character of Steve Randle in The Outsiders he seamlessly blends in with the other characters. There is nothing pretty about him and (if you’ve seen the supplemental features), you know that there is REALLY nothing pretty about this character. As the character of David in Taps, Cruise’s buffed out green beret is the epitome of a war machine. However, it would be in Losin’ It that the character would show great depth and range. One minute he’s all smiles and nervous teen angst. In the next he’s spurning the advances of prostitute in a very awkward scene that Cruise the actor seems to be reveling in. In other moments he is enraged and then, just like that, Cruise is all laughs once again. After this he would go on to do Risky Business which really changed everything for him. That film, about a seemingly All-American high school kid, would feature such a layered performance that it literally shot Cruise into another stratosphere. It would lead to Top Gun, The Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July, and just about everything else that makes Tom Cruise… Tom Cruise. However, Losin’ It showed all that and, upon even further examination, you can see shades of Ethan Hunt in the character of Woody.
Losin’ It shows Tom Cruise actually “losin” a fight.
While Tom Cruise certainly doesn’t get his head handed to him, he would engage (and lose) one of cinema’s quickest, fistic contests with none other than co-star John Stockwell. The characters are having a drink with Kathy (Shelley Long). Spider (Stockwell) is upset with Woody for not “sealing the deal” with a prostitute. Why Spider cares so much is anybody’s guess. Kathy tries to lighten the mood, Spider insults her and Woody tries to defend her. He grabs Spider, Spider slugs him, and Woody proceeds to leave the bar with Kathy in tow. As I said, the scene isn’t much. Considering how quick Spider is to throw the first punch, it’s unclear what might happen if Woody were to stand his ground and crack him back. Bullies (which is what Spider is acting like) often don’t fare well when their cloak of invincibility is removed. So, technically Tom Cruise loses this fight which is pretty darn amazing. When you consider the amount of people that have tried to take down Ethan Hunt, the rockets that attempted to blow Maverick out of the sky, and the psychological war waged on him by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, what John Stockwell pulled off so quickly was a major accomplishment.
Losin’ It (despite it’s 10 cent title) is actually a really good movie.
Okay, enough about Tom Cruise for a moment. Losin’ It as a title, even though it really sums up what this film is about, is a really poor choice. I am sure that somebody probably thought it was a great idea. The kind of title that would get the guys and gals into theaters in the hopes of seeing boobs and butts. Losin’ It delivers on that front. At the same time, this is a rich, buddy, road comedy that explores and demystifies certain thoughts and ideas about our friends who live south of the border. At the same time it also props up certain ones as well. Those being the corrupt police officers and the inscrutable handy people that you can’t trust with your property. Overshadowing much of that, I believe, are the performances. Even the corrupt police officer (Henry Darrow) gives a layered and nuanced performance. At first he seems content to chew the scenery. Then, based on the behavior of the three Americans, we come to understand why police officers in Tijuana might treat young, American tourists a certain way. This says nothing of the chemistry between Cruise, Stockwell and Haley. These three really seem like best pals, and they way they react to one another is totally natural. The love scene between Cruise and Shelley Long is tender but not without it’s moments of passion. Mixed in all around this is the comedic flair that all of the actors bring to this project. Losin’ It deftly weaves between comic moments, hijinks, drama, and action. It is a truly engaging, fun film that, while in the class of Hardbodies and Hot Moves, is many levels above most films of its ilk.
The Losin’ It director would go on to win an Academy Award.
The director of Losin’ It is none other than Curtis Hanson. Yes, the man who directed and co-wrote L.A. Confidential would win a best adapted screenplay Oscar for that 1990s noir classic. Hanson would also be nominated for best director for that film as well. These bonafides probably explain why Losin’ It neither looks nor feels like your average 80s, teen romp. Even though Losin’ It was clearly a low budget affair meant to capitalize on the Porky’s audience, like Porky’s, Losin’ It was both a period piece and more than the sum of its parts. As we’ve discussed the film had a more than solid cast. It was also aided and abetted by very much looking like the 1965 period in which in was set. Hanson was able to cram a lot onto the screen and that gives viewers a mise en scene that few films like Losin’ It have. It was Hanson’s surefire direction (and ability to appropriately spend its $7 million dollar budget) that keeps this film moving, and it’s why he probably got the production value and performances that he did. In addition to L.A. Confidential, Hanson would also make 8 Mile with Eminem, Wonder Boys and Bad Influence among other films.
Losin’ It cast would all have solid careers.
As further testament to the talent behind this film, the cast of Losin’ It would all have solid careers. John Stockwell would go on the star in such 80s hits as Christine, My Science Project and Dangerously Close, before going on to direct such early 2000 films as Crazy/Beautiful, Blue Crush and Into the Blue. Jackie Earle Haley would have success in The Bad News Bears and the coming of age opus Breaking Away before Losin’ It. Then he would kind of see his career dry up before hitting big as Rorschach in Watchmen, Freddy Krueger in an ill-fated A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot, and most recently Alita: Battle Angel among other major films. Lastly, Shelley Long would go on to great fame as Diane Chambers in the hit TV show Cheers which ran for 11 seasons. She would also star in such classic films as The Money Pit, Outrageous Fortune and Hello Again. Lastly, John P. Navin, Jr would do National Lampoon’s Vacation and lets be honest, after Losin’ It, does he really need to do more with his career than that film?
In closing, Losin’ It is the kind of movie that appears easy to write off. The title, one-sheet and subject matter make this movie seem very disposable. However, like a lot of art, once you start peeling back the layers you see that there is often more nuance than previously thought. Losin’ It is filled with great performances, a strong story, and a fair amount of action. To be able to pack all that into this 100 minute road-trip comedy is an achievement all its own. In addition to that, it essentially put Tom Cruise on the map which is literally worth its weight in gold.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Movieweb.
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