Well, this competition is a long time coming. Due to my constant search for employment, as well as some time spent pretending I didn’t graduate college, I had to put off the Final Four for a little while. I’ve been thinking about it, though, writing and rewriting since Ryan Lochte’s appearance on Dancing With The Stars was met with protestors. So here I am, writing the penultimate chapter of this month-long journey. After the Elite Eight, just four movie stars remain in our competition. Four Goliaths, four titans of industry. Buckle up, because we’ve got two intense match-ups in front of us.
(1) Tom Cruise vs. (3) Vince Vaughn
In almost every NCAA Basketball Tournament, there is a Cinderella story, an underdog that far exceeds expectations. Sometimes, these teams are legit, and the lower seeds put a real scare into the best teams in the country (see: Butler, 2010). Other times, like the 2016 Tournament, early round upsets lead to late-round blowouts. The Vince Vaughn-Tom Cruise matchup is, unfortunately, one of the latter occurrences. Vaughn fought valiantly in the first two rounds, but runs into a buzzsaw here in the Final Four.
In the Elite Eight, Tom Cruise overcame Jennifer Lawrence, who admittedly may have been the biggest lock for an Olympic gold medal out of all the stars in the tournament. She just didn’t have the high number of successful, athletic roles that Cruise had. Well, Vaughn has a similar deficiency, but without the high ceiling that Katniss Everdeen provided.
You know who else is scrappy, an effective leader, and has successfully played hardball with Ben Stiller? That’s right, Tom Cruise. I know I’ve mentioned it a lot, but I just want to go back to the Top Gun beach volleyball scene. I know, it’s not a serious competition, but a not-so-friendly game of pick-up beach volleyball. But I’ve watched that scene about 30 times since I started this tournament, and we can’t just dismiss it. In 1992, the Dream Team took the world by storm. The US Men’s Basketball Team, featuring legends like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, steamrolled competition on the way to a gold medal. It is said that the best, most competitive games that team played weren’t against other countries, but were against each other, in practice. I get a similar sense from this scene in Top Gun. Sure, there wasn’t a medal at stake on that beach. But you better believe both teams wanted to win badly. Based on the muscular features of Iceman and Slider, Maverick and Goose were definitive underdogs in the matchup. However, when Maverick has to leave to go on his date, the match is tied up, one game apiece. The fact that Maverick can overcome his (lack of) height and not-very-athletic partner to keep this even is remarkable. His vertical leap must be incredible. I can only imagine the damage that Mav could do with Olympic training. After the finale of the film, we know that he won’t crack under pressure, and has the resilience to win gold.
All this ignores Cruise’s very real skills as a very deadly, very formidable secret agent. Vince Vaughn’s appeal is clear. He’s an athlete of the people, for the people. He’s always the underdog, and he’s a proven winner. But he’s like a mid-major darling, and Tom Cruise is a Power Conference juggernaut. Vaughn just didn’t have much of a chance.
Winner: Tom “Take My Breath Away” Cruise
(1) Mark Wahlberg vs. (1) Sylvester Stallone
This one hurts. Mark Wahlberg is like a Bostonian phoenix, rising admirably from the ashes of an almost-destroyed life to become a bonafide movie star. He began his career as Donnie Wahlberg’s delinquent younger brother, spending three months in New Kids on the Block before falling into a life of drugs and crime. He spent a brief stint in prison on charges for attempted murder, and though I don’t mean to take his early-life malfeasance lightly, it seems as though he evolved for the better. His career arc is absolutely insane. He became big-boy famous fronting the band Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, which featured “artists” named Scottie Gee, Ashley Ace, DJ-T, and Hector the Booty Inspector. Now, he stars in movies with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Will Ferrell, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mila Kunis, and Denzel Washington, among others. That’s an incredible leap, and a truly gratifying recovery story.
However, I use this lead up because, despite my love for Mark Wahlberg’s career as both a rapper and movie star, he’s going up against an all-time great in Sylvester Stallone. If Wahlberg has mostly gotten through this competition on his merits as a fictional boxer, he hits a brick wall here against Stallone. Was Rocky Balboa’s career perfect? No. Are there Rocky films that shouldn’t have been made? Absolutely. But even in the worst Rocky film, Rocky V, Stallone again manages to score points over Wahlberg with an impressive street fight victory. Rocky is the GOAT of fictional boxers, and may be the greatest boxer in film history, period (the exception might be Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, but that’s a debate for a different time). So immediately, Wahlberg is in a hole in the competition.
Marky Mark was also propelled forward by his stints as sharpshooters Bob Lee Swagger (Shooter) and Marcus Luttrell (Lone Survivor). On the big screen, Wahlberg has more than proven his merit as a stud with a sniper rifle, and a remarkable survivalist. But again, Sylvester Stallone can counter with an iconic character. John Rambo, of First Blood fame, is a former Green Beret that proves to be a menace with a gun, bow and arrow, wooden stake, or literally any weapon he can get his hands on. Like Rocky, the series perhaps went on for one or two too many films. But by sheer volume and quality of experience, I’d put Stallone’s fictional characters up for an Olympic gold.
If you told me I had to sit down and watch 24 hours of either Mark Wahlberg or Sylvester Stallone films, I pick Marky Mark 9 times out of 10. If I had a choice to listen to music produced by Wahlberg or Stallone, Wahlberg is again the clear winner. But that isn’t the competition, and so despite my affinity for the Dorchester, Massachusetts native, I’ve gotta give it to Sly.
Winner: Sylvester “Don’t Forget About That Movie That I Play Soccer In” Stallone
With that, the finals is set. Cruise vs. Stallone. Two iconic names, two iconic filmographies, but only one can be victorious.