Revisiting Tom Cruise as the world’s greatest bartender
Cocktail stars Tom Cruise as perhaps the coolest bartender of all time, but does it hold up decades later?
In 1988 Tom Cruise was arguably the biggest star in the world. Top Gun came out in 1986 and was the year’s top-grossing movie. It wasn’t only a hit – it was a cultural phenomenon, and Cruise became a rare kind of movie star. He was a sex symbol for the ladies, but the guys liked him too. Speaking personally, having been born in 1981, I vividly remember owning the VHS tape of Top Gun and playing it on a loop. Cruise was my first concept of a movie star; to kids like me, he was like a cool Big Brother-type figure. He was the guy we all wanted to be with him riding motorcycles, rocking fantastic hair and an attitude which was never too threatening while blasting awesome 80s rock music and having the girls go crazy for him. He was the man, and if any movie ever cemented his big-screen stardom, it was 1988’s Cocktail which starred Cruise as the world’s second coolest bartender (after Sam Malone on Cheers, of course).
Cocktail is the very definition of a movie star vehicle. Thinly plotted, it only exists as a showcase of Cruise’s charisma. Were anyone else playing the lead, it would only be a wisp of a movie. It’s trying to be the Shampoo of the 1980s but boy, it is far from as layered as that movie. It came from Touchstone Pictures, the adult division of Walt Disney in the 80s. They had made Cruise’s The Color of Money, and they mastered the star-driven vehicle, producing a slew of comedies starring former B-listers they made into A-listers. Their hits included movies like Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Stakeout, Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune, and in 1987 their biggest hit ever, Three Men and a Baby. If any studio was primed to craft a music and sex-driven drama around Hollywood’s newest heartthrob, it was them. However, Cocktail was initially supposed to be a bit grittier.
It came from the pen of Heywood Gould, who had done a page-one rewrite of one of the best movies of the 70s, Rolling Thunder. He specialized in darker fare like the Paul Newman action flick Fort Apache: The Bronx and the “they cloned Hitler” thriller The Boys from Brazil, amongst others. The film began life as a book written by Gould about a bartender in his 30s who struggled with the fact that his life couldn’t live up to his ambitions. When Touchstone bought the material, Gould was tasked with turning his downbeat story into an upbeat one, starting by making his bartender character young and idealistic with his whole life ahead of him. Cruise would play Brian Flanagan, but the character is Maverick behind a bar. He’s even playing a veteran, albeit of the army rather than the Navy.
Brian is just out of the service and dreams of making it in business. He heads to New York but finds his lack of a college degree means he can’t get any entry-level job on Wall Street. So, he works part-time as a bartender under an older bartender named Doug Coughlin, played by Bryan Brown, who was just coming off the hit movie FX. Doug teaches Brian how to become a flair bartender, and soon the two of the hottest ticket in town with them bartending at all the sexiest clubs. The two dream of opening their own place, but Brian falls for a woman played by Gina Gershon, who Doug sleeps with in order to teach his protege not to fall in love. Brian hightails it to Jamaica to lick his wounds, and becomes a beach bartender, only for his mentor to track him down. Now Doug is married to an heiress, played by Kelly Lynch, and he encourages Brian to sink his claws into a rich woman to get his dreams financed. However, Brian has just fallen for an American girl, played by Elisabeth Shue, and he can’t decide between love and money. Being the 80s, money wins out (at first), only for Brian to eventually be taught a harsh lesson about how money can’t buy happiness.
While admittedly thin in terms of substance, co-star Kelly Lynch says the film’s original cut told a topical story about love and money, but the studio opted to reshoot a big chunk of the movie. Indeed, the reshoots are painfully apparent as Cruise’s hair changes from scene to scene. He’d grown his hair longer for his follow-up Rain Man and couldn’t cut it for the reshoots. As a result, the film’s continuity is a mess, and the ending is ridiculous in how it contradicts the movie’s message. We’ve spent 90 minutes with Cruise’s Brian Flanagan, coming to terms with the fact that money can’t buy happiness, but it turns out that his poor pregnant lover is actually wealthy after all. What’s worse is that Brian finds out way too early she’s an heiress making his pursuit of her in the last act feel more like a cold calculation. We always suspect that he only loves her because she has money. They try to make us like Brian more by having Shue’s father cut her off financially if she runs off with Brian. But, given that the movie ends with him opening the sprawling bar of his dreams, did he really learn anything?
Many criticized the film as emblematic of everything wrong morally with the “me generation” of the 80s. Here’s the thing, though – the movie still kicks a lot of ass. Why? Two words: Tom Cruise. Any other actor would have made Brian repulsive, but Cruise is so damn likable that we always trust his intentions and root for him to get everything he wants. Cruise’s megawatt charisma is turned up to 11 here, and the impression this made on me as a seven-year-old watching it on VHS was profound. I would blast the cassette soundtrack while flair bartending juice boxes for my friends. The fact that Brian was a vacuous yuppie meant nothing to me. He was Tom Cruise! Looking at the film now, it’s easy to point out its faults, but the glaring continuity issues aside, it’s a slick movie. Roger Donaldson directs this like a feature-length MTV video. Critics may not have liked it back then, but, as a piece of nostalgia, it’s top-notch. Bryan Brown is cool in his own right as Cruise’s older mentor, and even now, it’s tough not to drool over Elizabeth Shue and Kelly Lynch, both of whom I should mention have aged as well as Cruise himself (Gina Gershon too actually). Was there a fountain of youth on set?
Of course, the movie’s second biggest star after Tom Cruise is the soundtrack, engineered to be as big of a hit as the film itself after the Top Gun soundtrack sold 9 million copies. The soundtrack for Cocktail will go quadruple Platinum largely thanks to the biggest hit song off the soundtrack – The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” – a song some people hate, but I love. Plus, there was Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” The Georgia Satellites’ cover of the Hippy Hippy Shake and a bunch of others. The movie ended up being a giant hit, grossing $78 Million domestically, making it the eighth biggest hit of the year. But what was number one, you may ask? It just so happens the number one film also starred Tom Cruise and is the subject of our very next episode of Tom Cruise Revisited – Rain Man! In the end, Cocktail is silly and, compared to how amazing most of Tom Cruise’s movies are something of a footnote. He’d never act in a film that is so thinly conceived or plotted again. But, to those of us who grew up on Tom Cruise movies as kids, it’s cemented the concept of Cruise as the coolest guy of the 80s. I can’t help but find it to be an infectious blast.