Even before Tom Cruise's "Oblivion" opened in North America on Thursday night, the 50-year-old must have been grinning his famous grin. Before the movie had sold a single ticket here, it was a surefire hit.

In his native land, Cruise takes a lot of ribbing, whether for his headline-generating personal life (especially since 2005, the year of the couch-jump) or for the seeming shrinkage of his star-power (again, especially since 2005). The estimated $38.2 million "Oblivion" earned this weekend marked his biggest domestic opening since "Mission: Impossible III" seven years ago. Some will call it a comeback, others will call it a fluke or last hurrah from a middle-aged action hero desperately trying to hold on to his relevance in an industry that relentlessly moves on to the next big (young) thing.

But the truth is, Cruise has been a remarkably consistent box office winner, even since he started raising eyebrows eight years ago with his ill-fated romance with Katie Holmes and his increasingly vocal pronouncements about Scientology. Even his weakest movies routinely earn upwards of $200 million worldwide. ("Oblivion" is well on its way, with $150.2 million earned worldwide already.) There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Cruise cultivates the overseas audience better than almost anyone else. The other is that he knows what works for his personal brand -- what audiences want to see him do.

While Americans may snicker or scratch their heads at the latest tabloid headlines about Cruise, audiences abroad don't seem to care. His star has not dimmed in overseas markets, where he was smart enough to open "Oblivion" a week before it opened here. The movie pulled in $60.4 million last weekend and about $77 million total before a single North American moviegoer had seen it.

If the U.S. looks like an afterthought in the typical Cruise movie-release plan, so be it. His movies routinely earn most of their grosses abroad, often as much as 60 or 70 percent. Foreign fans have an almost personal relationship with the star, who routinely travels to overseas premieres and spends hours outside at each one, shaking hands and signing autographs. Other stars attend foreign premieres, too, but Cruise, more than anyone, seems enthusiastic about hobnobbing with his fans.

Maybe that's why Cruise action pictures that did modest or lackluster business here -- "Valkyrie," "Jack Reacher," "Knight & Day" -- flourished in foreign markets, where each earned well over $100 million. He's made nine movies that have earned more than $350 million worldwide, including all four installments to date of his "Mission: Impossible" franchise, which by itself has earned more than $2 billion worldwide.

In fact, in the last 15 years, the only Cruise movies that haven't made more than $200 million around the world are the ones where he's stretched the most -- "Eyes Wide Shut," "Magnolia," "Lions for Lambs," "Tropic Thunder," and "Rock of Ages." And only those last two saw him earn more in America than overseas.

Even overseas, then, fans don't want to see him stray too far from the type of roles he's best known for -- men of action, men who sprint toward the camera, men whose every straining muscle is visible. (Cruise works very hard to make sure he's seen working very hard, including performing many of his own stunts, as if audiences will give him an A for effort -- which they often do.) Seeing him sing ("Rock of Ages"), rant about politics ("Lions for Lambs"), indulge his libido ("Eyes Wide Shut," "Magnolia"), or crack wise in a fat suit ("Tropic Thunder") -- not so much.

Cruise also tends to gravitate to roles about guys with daddy issues, men trying to please absent or disapproving fathers or father figures. (This has been true since "Risky Business" 30 years ago, but it also includes such films as "Top Gun," "The Color of Money," "Rain Man," "Days of Thunder," "A Few Good Men," "Mission: Impossible," "Magnolia," "Vanilla Sky," "Minority Report," and now, "Oblivion.") We'll leave it to the armchair psychologists to figure out why Cruise (who had a famously troubled relationship with his own father) is drawn to such roles, or why audiences like to see Cruise play such characters.

Cruise is savvy about protecting his brand in other ways, too. He tends to pick directors who have a strong vision, filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Neil Jordan, Brian De Palma, Paul Thomas Anderson, Cameron Crowe, Sydney Pollack, Michael Mann, Brad Bird, Bryan Singer, J.J. Abrams, and now, Joseph Kosinski. ("Oblivion" makes clear, as did "Tron: Legacy," that Kosinski has a visual flair for sci-fi and is not daunted by complicated plots.) Many A-list stars prefer to work with directors they can dominate, but Cruise seems confident that, in the hands of a capable storyteller, he'll make compelling movies that still highlight his essential Cruise-ness.

So go ahead, make all the Tom Cruise jokes you want, but he'll still remain an A-list star as long as he feels like running and jumping and piloting fast vehicles and dangling from wires. If he keeps giving the foreign audience what it wants, then when it comes to homegrown snark, Cruise can remain, well, oblivious.
CATEGORIES Movies