They don’t make ’em like Tom Cruise anymore. He is a movie star who can power any premise, any outlandish concept, on the strength of his megawatt charisma and the promise that he will entertain through sheer effort. Few A-listers work harder, and few are as fun to watch work hard, as evidenced by the public’s eagerness to see what death-defying stunt he’ll roll out in his next film(s).
Cruise may have honed in on the daredevil aspect of his persona, but with the release of “Top Gun: Maverick,” his first non- “Mission: Impossible” sequel, we thought it’d be the perfect time to look back at the man’s career as an Actor (capital “A” intended). The mission we’ve chosen to accept, in this case, is ranking Cruise’s ten best screen performances. It won’t self-destruct, though. We think. Eh, 80% sure.
10. “Edge Of Tomorrow” (2014)
“Edge of Tomorrow” is a film that shouldn’t work on paper. It’s a science fiction action film, which we’d seen the actor execute to varying degrees of success in the past (“Minority Report” = good, “Oblivion” = bad). It also ran the risk of being corny, given the film hinged on the “Groundhog Day” premise of having Cruise’s character respawn every time he died in battle.
Somehow, it worked. “Edge of Tomorrow” has ascended to cult-like status in the eight years since its release, and rightfully so. It’s a delightful blockbuster anchored by Cruise’s nimble and surprisingly hilarious performance. He managed to be revelatory as a leading man with three decades behind him, and his timing throughout this time travel farce proved that he hadn’t lost a step.
9. “The Color Of Money” (1986)
“Top Gun” turned Cruise into a star, but “The Color of Money,” released six months later, proved that he had the talent to stick around. The film was a generational two-hander between Vincent (Cruise), a cocky upstart, and Eddie (Paul Newman), a veteran pool player who decides to show him the ropes. It perverts the classic student-teacher dynamic, however, by showing that the former doesn’t plan to share the glory and the latter isn’t ready to relinquish the mantle.
The chemistry between stars is worth the price of admission alone. Cruise turns up the arrogance that defined his early career, but he leans into the character’s lack of smarts, making it unclear if he’s a great hustler or an easy mark. The film thrives on this playful ambiguity. There aren’t too many living actors who can say they went toe-to-toe with Newman and held their own, so the fact that one could make a case for Cruise as the winner says a lot about his performance.
8. “Interview With The Vampire” (1994)
“Interview with a Vampire” is a testament to Cruise’s power. The film was an adaptation of the Anne Rice novel of the same name, and Rice was vehemently against Cruise being cast as the titular vampire. She felt that the actor was entirely wrong for her undead manipulator and waited, presumably, to tear his performance to shreds once the film was released.
Then, the film came out, and Rice rescinded every negative word she had to say about Cruise. She was so impressed by the actor’s unsettling transformation that she took out a two-page ad in DailyVariety praising his performance and apologizing for her doubts. Truthfully, that can of acting prowess is harder to come by than an Oscar.
7. “Rain Man” (1988)
Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar, but Cruise is the real MVP in “Rain Man.” The actor is given the infinitely more challenging role of Charlie Babbitt, a hotshot car salesman who discovers he has an older, autistic brother (Hoffman). He considers exploiting his brother to gain access to his father’s will, but the more time they spend together, the more he becomes won over by his brother’s love.
The Charlie role would have been too despicable to work in the wrong hands. In Cruise’s hands, it becomes a touching case study of a man who reclaims his heart in spite of himself. “Rain Man” has reached such a point of cultural ubiquity that it’s hard to see it with fresh eyes, but a single viewing can confirm that Cruise is turning in some deceptively brilliant work here.
6. “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
“Eyes Wide Shut” is a polarizing swan song for director Stanley Kubrick. Some call it an interesting misfire; others consider it a masterpiece. Regardless of which side one comes down on, it’s hard to deny that Cruise kills it. The actor plays a yuppie doctor who discovers his wife’s dissatisfaction and falls into a cult-like underworld in an attempt to reclaim his manhood. There’s lots to unpack here, especially given the casting of Cruise’s then-wife, Nicole Kidman, as the bored spouse, but the thing that stands out most today is the subtlety of his acting.
Cruise is someone who errs on the side of extra and resorts to manic outbursts to communicate his feelings. “Eyes Wide Shut” strips these tools away, forcing him to internalize the character’s issues through little gestures and repressed glances. It stands out in Cruise’s filmography for all the right reasons. It’s a challenging film that he met with an equally tricky performance.
5. “A Few Good Men” (1992)
“A Few Good Men” is such a star-studded affair that it can be easy to forget that Cruise is the glue holding it together. Amidst scene-stealing turns from Kiefer (and Donald) Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, and Jack Nicholson, the actor stands out as the inexperienced lawyer tasked with pushing a naval conspiracy to the surface.
Cruise benefits significantly from the aforementioned sparring partners, as well as director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, but he more than pulls his weight as a man who feels increasingly overwhelmed by the corrupt apparatus in front of him. No one on the planet could’ve wrung more emotion from the line “I want the truth!”
4. “Collateral” (2004)
Cruise always brings his A-game when it’s time to work with A-list directors, so it should be no surprise that Michael Mann’s “Collateral” contains his best-ever villain role. He commands the screen as Vincent, a silver-haired hitman who forces a cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to be his Los Angeles escort. It’s another masterful exploitation of Cruise’s natural charisma, with the script giving him ample space to wax poetic about music and flash his million-dollar smile.
The catch, of course, is that these tidbits are interspersed with brutal murders. Cruise rarely feels dangerous onscreen, but “Collateral” suggests a hollowness from within that makes it seem as though we could never hope to understand what makes him tick. It’s neo-noir filmmaking at its finest and the kind of left turn we haven’t seen Cruise make in far too long (as with most things, “Tropic Thunder” is the exception).
3. “Born On The Fourth Of July” (1989)
Cruise had already achieved superstar status by the end of the 80s and was eager to take on more challenging material. “Born on the Fourth of July” came along at the perfect time for the actor, and he responded with one of his most committed performances to date. He masterfully portrays Ron Kovic, the real-life veteran who spoke against Vietnam during the Nixon administration.
“Born on the Fourth of July” has the typical bombast of an Oliver Stone production. Still, the director’s canniest decision here is to pervert Cruise’s “All-American” persona to illustrate Kovic’s disillusionment. It’s heartbreaking to watch a patriotic teen transform into a bitter thirtysomething, yet Cruise manages to reconcile these disparate viewpoints while still making it feel like the same person underneath. He earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor here and might’ve won if it were not for some guy named Day-Lewis.
2. “Jerry Maguire” (1996)
“Jerry Maguire” marked a pivotal turning point in Cruise’s career. He was no longer the youthful kid getting by on charm (see: “Top Gun”); he was a little older and a lot more complex. “Jerry Maguire” is the start of Cruise 2.0, a period that saw him dig deeper into himself and refine his tools to reflect characters who were smart enough to know they had major shortcomings behind the smile.
It helps that “Jerry Maguire” is a note-perfect crowd-pleaser, with dozens of iconic lines (“Show me the money!”) and a Cameron Crowe script that was written with the actor’s energy in mind. “Mission: Impossible” may go down as Cruise’s most famous title, but when it comes to showcasing his electricity as a showman and his ability to elevate the material, “Jerry Maguire” is second to none. Well, second to one…
1. “Magnolia” (1999)
Cruise is a perfectionist when it comes to filmmaking. He’s been a producer since 1996 and has exercised his authority in a myriad of ways, sometimes good (“Mission: Impossible“), sometimes bad (“The Mummy“). It’s rare to see him relinquish control and agree to be a color on someone else’s canvas. The few times he’s relinquished have been magical, and none bear this out more than his performance in “Magnolia” (1999).
Cruise lights the screen on fire as Frank T.J. Mackey, a pickup artist who makes his living peddling sex tips to hapless men. The actor dials up the chauvinism to parodic levels, and getting to see the biggest movie star on the planet take a blowtorch to his heartthrob/hero persona is liberating in the purest sense. It’s the acting equivalent of hanging off the side of an airplane.
In the book “Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor,” author Amy Nicholson draws parallels between Cruise, Mackey, and the men’s issues with their fathers. The belief is that Cruise drew more from his personal life here than with any other role, and one need only watch the reconciliation scene between Mackey and his dying dad to gauge the gut-wrenching authenticity. A well-earned Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor) if ever there was one.
Have you seen “Top Gun: Maverick” yet? If so, what did you think? What are your favorite Tom Cruise performances? Be sure to vote on our poll this week asking this question (the poll closes this Sunday). Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Danilo and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @DaniloSCastro