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Staff Pick

Taps Is an Acting Showcase for Tom Cruise and Other Future Stars

by Nick Nadel

Who knew the 1981 military school drama would be a launchpad for so much talent?

It’s difficult to remember a time when Tom Cruise wasn’t a household name and one of the biggest box office draws in Hollywood. But when the military drama Taps hit theaters in December of 1981, the future stunt-loving action hero’s only other credit was a small role in the forgettable Brooke Shields vehicle Endless Love; his career-making dance to “Old Time Rock and Roll” in Risky Business was still two years away. Cruise’s role as an impetuous military cadet in Taps showcased a different side of the burgeoning star, one he would put to good use in future parts.

Released at the dawn of the Reagan era, the film tapped into feelings of patriotism swirling around the country just as the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam hangover of the 1970s was beginning to recede. Led by Timothy Hutton’s Brian Moreland, the cadets who have just finished another year at Bunker Hill Military Academy are a fresh-faced squadron of budding young stars beaming with pride for their school: Sean Penn makes his film debut as level-headed cadet Alex Dwyer; Giancarlo Esposito turns up as a cadet who meets a fiery fate; Sex and the City fans will be surprised to see Evan Handler, aka Charlotte’s hubby Harry, sporting a baby face and a full head of hair; and Tom Cruise is all high-wire intensity as the trigger-happy cadet David Shawn.

Soon after Moreland gets promoted to major, General Bache, played by George C. Scott with his signature gravity, announces Bunker Hill will be closing after the coming year. Bache bemoans the school being turned into “condominiums,” and in trying to preserve the institution’s traditions, suffers a heart attack, leading the school administration to immediately shutter the school. This doesn’t sit well with Moreland and the other cadets, who decide to take control. What follows is a thrilling mix of Lord of Flies and Red Dawn, as Moreland tries to maintain morale while butting heads with the unhinged Shawn.

As his acclaimed work in Magnolia and Jerry Maguire would later prove, Tom Cruise delivers his most layered performances when he seems on the verge of losing his trademark cool. There’s an intensity behind Cruise’s best work, and Cadet Shawn is all raw nerves and macho bravado. With his star persona not yet intact, Cruise brings a manic edge to every scene he’s in, whether he’s asking Moreland if he wants to play Dungeons & Dragons (it was 1981, after all) or firing machine gun rounds to scare off some townies.

The effects of military school life on Moreland, Shawn and the other cadets at Bunker Hill is well observed by director Harold Becker and screenwriters Darryl Ponicsan, Robert Mark Kamen and James Lineberger, but it’s the performances from the ensemble of future stars (Cruise in particular) that makes Taps worth revisiting. Watching the budding superstar channel his natural charisma into the role of a wannabe junior G.I. Joe who is more than happy to pick up a weapon in the name of honor and patriotic duty is chilling stuff. For fans of Tom Cruise’s unpredictable side, Taps is an early example of the megastar’s acting chops.

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