The souped-up Chevy Lumina circles the track at North Carolina's Charlotte Motor Speedway. At the wheel is Tom Cruise, daredevil superstar. The hazel eyes that laser out of his handsome face focus on the thrill of speed and risk. Nor is this challenge confined to a roadway's hard curve; it applies as well to his career in the movies, even if it means taking dangerous curves toward roles that might confound his fans. This day, after a dozen laps, Cruise sees a dime, stops on it and emerges from the Lumina to say hello to a visitor. He extends a hand and flashes the million-dollar smile -- or, to judge from the worldwide take of his past four movies, the $1.035 billion smile. He points to the car and asks, "Want to go around?"
America wants to go around with Tom Terrific -- that's how he looks, that's how he makes moviegoers feel. They hitched a ride with him in Risky Business and made him a star at 21. They sat in the cockpit of his F-14 as he swaggered through the sky in Top Gun. They perched in a pool hall and watched him wield a cue like a master swordsman in The Color of Money. They flew to the Caribbean to join him in a frothy Cocktail. They traveled with him on a cross- country journey to fraternal reconciliation in Rain Man. And with each adventure, audiences adjusted their estimation of the young man -- from Most Likely to Succeed to All-American Dreamboat to Serious Actor worth taking seriously.
At the end of the '80s, Cruise, 27, is the movies' biggest star, with nothing but promise on the horizon. Just ask two masters he has apprenticed with: Dustin Hoffman, the decade's most lauded actor, and Paul Newman, the last golden exemplar of Hollywood star quality. "There's no sense of a crest in Tom," says Hoffman, who won an Oscar as Cruise's brother in Rain Man. "His talent is young, his body is young, his spirit is young. He's a Christmas tree -- he's lit from head to toe." Newman, who played Cruise's mentor in The Color of Money, considers the young actor's competitors and says, "Tom may be the only survivor."
What does he have that separates him from the Brat Pack? He's not as lovely as Rob Lowe. He doesn't explode, on- or off-camera, as ripely as Sean Penn. "Tom is at a disadvantage," says Barry Levinson, his Rain Man director. "He's got a pretty face, so his abilities are underestimated. And he's not working a rebel image, which is associated with being a good actor." But he does have the image, in the films that made him famous, of an intense young man with a mission: the total workhorse, the ultimate party animal. His job -- flying planes, shooting pool, mixing drinks -- is his life. And he is vulnerable as well as volatile. His thin, high voice helps him here: it locates a little boy lost in the clouds of bravado. Moviegoers may also like what they see in Cruise the man: a dedicated actor, utterly absorbed with his craft, who uses his celebrity to get better parts and get better at what he does. With each new film, he has proved he has more to offer than Ray-Ban Wayfarers and a charismatic grin.