Every now and again you come across a film from the past and find the familiar faces of actors who have now become superstars.
It’s an interesting peek into their progress as a performer, and it reveals the traits that have stuck with them despite their years of experience.
You discover what makes them human when the camera stops rolling. It’s an intriguing study to observe what an actor has learned and what has always been natural to them.
Taps (1981) is a brilliant example of this rare phenomenon, as not many in Hollywood have had the fortune of such long and fruitful careers.
The film stars a young Sean Penn, an even younger Tom Cruise, and Timothy Hutton. The trio belongs to a group of military cadets who take extreme measures to protect the future of their academy after the property has been sold to local condominium developers.
Their early decisions are based on their loyalty to the academy, its leader (played by Patton and Dr. Strangelove’s George C. Scott), and their appreciation for what they’ve learned as young men. But with time, and as they fortify themselves in the academy despite pleas from their parents and local authorities, the situation teeters on the brink of disaster. To make matters worse, each of the students differ in age, opinions, and experience, but are far too young to understand the consequences of their decisions and the dangers of the weapons they wield.
Taps is a film that champions the slow build, and takes its time to showcase all the possible elements – be it external or internal – that threaten to throw the students’ plan off kilter. As with any movie from this time period, there are a few moments that border on the laughable, but that’s the charm of some 1980s films and it rarely interferes with the mood that Taps works to achieve.
Watching Tom Cruise is perhaps this film’s most amusing addition, given that his character is so different from what we’ve come to expect from today’s leading man.
Taps features Cruise at full throttle as he plays an aggressive young man whose anger tends to cloud his judgment, and later sends him into a psychotic and downward spiral. It’s refreshing to see. Penn and Hutton are both strong in their performances as well, but it feels familiar in comparison to what we’ve seen from them thus far.
Taps blurs the line between morals and stubbornness. The kids have something to prove and the film showcases how far they’ll go to do so. In many ways, it is a coming-age-film, making audiences question whether the young soldiers are doing what they feel is right or if they are just trying to show their parents that they’ve grown up and are ready to take on the world. At the end of the day, it’s the final result that matters, the culmination of a sinking ship that’s still firing its cannons in all directions. Though Taps may not be timeless throughout, it is definitely a film worth watching solely for its performances by young actors who went through the Hollywood ringer and survived to tell the tale.
What to watch next: Mission: Impossible 3 (to see Cruise as he is today), The Breakfast Club, The Imitation Game.