CATEGORIES Features
Taps
Lately Tom Cruise has been back on the media spotlight ... in a good way. His recent appearance on the MTV Movie Awards as his 'Tropic Thunder' alter-ego -- the balding, foul-mouthed, hip-hopping producer Les Grossman -- pretty much stole the show. It was a reminder of how very entertaining Cruise can be, and, by all reports, is again in the action-comedy 'Knight and Day.'

So maybe it's a good time to look back at a movie from very early in his career, 1981's 'Taps.' This well-received if relatively unsung drama featured Cruise in his first major movie role (he'd previously appeared briefly in 'Endless Love') as well as Sean Penn in his first-ever film appearance. Unlike many '80s teen-themed movies, 'Taps' today doesn't seem terribly dated, owing in large part to its unusual subject matter. Based on the Devery Freeman novel 'Father Sky,' it's a serious meditation on honor, loyalty and literally sticking to one's guns in the face of overwhelming odds. As such, it definitely merits a second look. Taps
Lately Tom Cruise has been back in the media spotlight ... in a good way. His recent appearance on the MTV Movie Awards as his 'Tropic Thunder' alter-ego -- the balding, foul-mouthed, hip-hopping producer Les Grossman -- pretty much stole the show. It was a reminder of how very entertaining Cruise can be, and, by all reports, is again in the action-comedy 'Knight and Day.'

So maybe it's a good time to look back at a movie from very early in his career, 1981's 'Taps.' This well-received if relatively unsung drama featured Cruise in his first major movie role (he'd previously appeared briefly in 'Endless Love') as well as Sean Penn in his first-ever film appearance. Unlike many '80s teen-themed movies, 'Taps' doesn't seem terribly dated today, owing in large part to its unusual subject matter. Based on the Devery Freeman novel 'Father Sky,' it's a serious meditation on honor, loyalty and literally sticking to one's guns in the face of overwhelming odds. As such, it definitely merits a second look.

Tim Hutton in 'Taps'The movie stars Timothy Hutton (just coming off an Oscar-winning performance in 'Ordinary People') as Cadet Major Brian Moreland, the top upperclassman at the fictional Bunker Hill Military Academy (shot on location at Valley Forge Military Academy). He's no less impressive here as a decent, conscientious student-officer who greatly admires the head of the school, General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott, calling up his career-defining 'Patton' character). During a highly regimented commencement ceremony that truly gives meaning to the phrase "pomp and circumstance," Bache announces that the academy has been sold to real estate developers who plan to build condos (some things never change). The cadets -- especially Moreland -- are stunned and angry; they're given a one-year grace period.

Things take a dramatic turn when a scuffle with jeering townies turns deadly and Bache is subsequently hospitalized. "The proprietors want the school closed" immediately, the cadets are told. "We are the proprietors" counters Moreland. Under his command, cadets -- some as young as 12 -- seize the academy and barricade themselves inside, armed with rifles and fired up with purpose. They issue a list of demands, including a meeting with the school's board of trustees.

Tom Cruise in 'Taps'The baby-faced Cruise (all of 19 here) is Cadet Captain David Shawn: hardcore, fiercely loyal and itching for action. His polar opposite is the more laid-back Cadet Captain Alex Dwyer (Penn), who's clear-eyed about the unlikely feasibility of Moreland's plan, but remains loyal to his friend. Antagonism among the officers escalates along with the action. (Another key upperclassman is played by Giancarlo Esposito, currently portraying a drug lord on 'Breaking Bad.')

The authorities try everything -- including a visit from Moreland's condescending father, himself a military man ("Is that what this is about? Somebody's lofty load of s*** about honor?"); and pleas from younger kids' parents played over loudspeakers -- to get the cadets to capitulate. Some eventually do bail on the scheme. After a couple of horrific tragedies, Moreland begins to question himself as well as the bigger picture: "Are they just words: honor, duty, country?" Eventually National Guard tanks roll in and things come to a jarring climax. Then the siege is finally over, and the film circles back to its opening scenes, now charged with meaning.

Sean Penn in 'Taps'Sure, there are a few plot issues, such as the odd fact that not one adult faculty member remains on campus over the summer; and perhaps some of the characters and dialogue are a bit predictable, but the movie's overall premise and execution rise above those weaknesses.

As for Cruise and Penn, they're excellent in their respective roles, providing ample evidence of true talent way before they attained star status. Hutton -- currently starring in TNT series 'Leverage' -- has had a comparatively low-key career. (His most recent film role was in 'The Ghost Writer.') 'Taps' remains one of his finest performances.