Risky Business: Every Tom Cruise Film, Ranked – Updated
Tom Cruise has been a movie star for almost 40 years now. Let that sink in for a bit. In his annus mirabilis of 1983, he seemed to appear fully-formed from the collective id of Reagan’s America — the then–21-year-old actor appeared in no less than four movies, and starred in three of them. Whether he was a working class football star (All the Right Moves) or an entitled dork (Risky Business), he was always “Tom Cruise” — driven, laser-focused and upright, even when running a fly-by-night brothel out of his parents’ house. That image helped fuel such later successes as Top Gun and Cocktail, but Cruise also smartly complicated it, first in films like Born on the Fourth of July and Rain Man, and later in films like Magnolia and Minority Report. The star may have had us at “Hello,” but he still figured out a way to continue to be Tom Cruise™ even while expanding his range and appearing in more ambitious films.
So in light of Top Gun: Maverick – his belated sequel to the flyboy blockbuster that made him truly, global-celebrity famous – finally hitting theaters (and with a new two-part Mission: Impossible movie set to come out next year), we’re updating our list of good, great and grating Cruise-controlled movies. Which ones have held up, which ones have aged badly and which ones gained new relevance? We have both a need for speed and the answers. Here are Tom Cruise’s movies, ranked from worst to best. (All entries written by Bilge Ebiri unless otherwise noted.)
‘Endless Love’ (1981)
This notorious melodrama starring Brooke Shields and where-is-he-now? casualty Martin Hewitt as star-crossed teenaged lovers torn from each other by a series of hilariously unlikely events is one of the seminal bombs of the 1980s. Tom Cruise has a teeny-tiny part in it, but he compounds the awfulness thanks to the fact that he gives Hewitt's romantic hero the ludicrous idea of setting his girlfriend's house on fire in an attempt to get back in her family's good graces. On the plus side, he is shirtless.
‘The Mummy’ (2017)
Could this be the most pointless movie of Cruise’s career so
far? Though he’s the lead here – playing a treasure-hunting U.S. soldier in
Iraq who comes across the tomb of an ancient, demonic Egyptian princess, and begins
to fall under her spell – Tom is largely anonymous. Seriously, this could be anybody going through the motions as
the film jumps awkwardly between thriller, slapstick, action and cumbersome,
studio-mandated world-building. Universal’s attempt to kick-start
their “Dark Universe” series of updated old-school–monster movies was a complete bust, and we’ll see if that franchise ever
actually happens. But Cruise’s star power and talents are so wasted here that
you actually feel embarrassed for the guy.
‘Rock of Ages’ (2012)
This dreadfully shrill, tiresome Eighties-set rock musical (based on the Broadway hit) flopped mightily, and with good reason: Director Adam Shankman substitutes hyper editing for rhythm, cameos for actual performances, and loudness for passion. But as Stacee Jaxx, the Axl Rose-like rock-god superstar whose drugged-out, sexed-out fog briefly lifts under the questioning of an intrepid, smokin' hot Rolling Stone reporter (!) played by Malin Akerman, Cruise almost saves it, with his uncontainable charisma and his never-less-than-fully-committed vocal stylings. Almost.
‘Vanilla Sky’ (2001)
It seemed as if Cameron Crowe had cracked the code on reinventing Cruise with his 1996 romcom hit Jerry Maguire (see No. 8). But then this remake of the 1997 Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes happened. Cruise plays an obnoxious, rich publisher whose romantic callowness leads one of his lovers (Cameron Diaz) to drive the car they're in off a bridge. Post-accident, our disfigured hero begins to see and experience things that blur the lines between fantasy and reality. Cruise himself seems oddly detached and unconvincing – you'd think he'd nail the entitled jerk part, at the very least, but nope. This film has attracted a cult following since its initial release, but it's far from the star's finest hour.
‘Days of Thunder’ (1990)
Attempting to recapture that Top Gun magic (a questionable proposition to begin with; see No. 27), Cruise re-teamed with director Tony Scott and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer for this rushed-into-production knockoff about a racecar driver who has to set aside his rebellious ways, learn to love, and achieve glory. Cruise does very little with his blandly-written role — the only bright spots are Robert Duvall as Cruise's mentor, and Nicole Kidman (the future Mrs. Cruise) as his love interest.
‘Jack Reacher 2: Never Go Back’ (2016)
Cruise was so determined to make the whole Jack Reacher
thing work that he went ahead and made a sequel, despite the fact that the first one wasn’t
a huge hit. And, to be fair, the star has started to grow into the part: His performance
is not the problem here, and his interactions with co-star Cobie Smulders, playing an Army major whom Reacher is trying to clear of espionage, are often touching. But the first film’s dry humor is gone, and the action scenes and
suspense set pieces, as directed by veteran journeyman Ed Zwick (Glory), are thoroughly
uninspiring. That first Reacher was far from perfect, but if
Cruise and co. want to attempt another one, they should look to the terse,
atmospheric original as the template – and not this blah, by-the-numbers follow-up.
‘Far and Away’ (1992)
It sounded good on paper: Tom Cruise and his real-life lady love Nicole Kidman as Irish immigrants (she's rich, he's poor) who come to America from the old country in a big screen romantic epic from director Ron Howard. Alas, aside from some lovely photography and a moderately exciting finale set during the Oklahoma Land Rush, it's a hollow mess; there's surprisingly little chemistry between the two leads, despite their much-discussed offscreen romance at the time. It appears to have given James Cameron some ideas for the central romance in Titanic, however.
“Mission: Impossible II” (2000)
For one of the biggest and most resilient movie stars on the planet, Tom Cruise has very few franchise movies — the Mission: Impossible films are it. (Though there are also efforts underway to make more Jack Reacher films; see No. 22.) And Cruise, as producer on the M:I films, has maintained an impressive level of quality control over the series: hiring top-notch action directors and co-stars, and making sure each script is choc-a-block with inventive, wildly unreal set pieces. Except for this one, which, despite having the talents of John Woo behind the camera and co-stars such as Thandie Newton and Brendan Glesson, just gets lost amid a mess of goofy disguises and inane action scenes. Luckily, the series rallied strongly from this low-point (which, to be fair, scored $540 million at the worldwide box office – one of Cruise's biggest hits).
‘American Made’ (2017)
Barry Seal was a restless airline pilot who, back in the 1970s, was recruited by the C.I.A. to spy on Central American no-goodniks. Soon, he’s moonlighting for the Medellin Cartel as a narco-transporter, running guns to the Contras on the sly, and getting filthy rich in the process. You can see why director Doug Liman wanted to make this “based on a true lie” movie about a opportunist becoming a key player in both Pablo Escobar’s coke-fueled empire and the U.S. war on drugs — the chance to send up the American dream of prosperity by any means necessary while taking potshots at political hypocrisy is too good to pass up. What’s confusing is why Cruise was tempted to play this anti-hero; maybe, like Seal himself, he was so bored by his day job (in this case, being the last real movie star left standing) that he was ready to shake things up for the hell of it. The role isn’t quite a good fit for him, despite Cruise’s best efforts to dig into this complicated man and find something to play to besides stock ugly-American smarm. Still, you have to credit the way his Edge of Tomorrow director weaponizes that megawatt smile and golden-boy charm in the name of meta-critique. Really, who better to take down the Reagan era’s dirty tricks than one of the biggest stars of that decade? —D.F.
Long considered a film maudit and originally released in a butchered theatrical release version, Ridley Scott's supernatural fairy tale was eventually given the director's-cut treatment, with its original Jerry Goldsmith score. No matter which version of this medieval fantasy — in which a miscast Cruise plays a young man who goes on a quest to save a damsel from the clutches of Darkness (Tim Curry, doing what he can) — you prefer, you still end up with a rather inert, indulgent, and, occasionally, laughably silly movie.
‘The Firm’ (1993)
Tom Cruise in a John Grisham adaptation should be the working definition of “slam dunk.” And, to be fair, this film of the legal thriller author's first big bestseller was a hit, opening the floodgates to more Grisham movies. But it's also mind-numbingly plodding: It has the pacing of a serious movie, but it doesn't have an absorbing story to match. Meanwhile, Cruise is uncharacteristically lifeless as a hot young law grad who gets recruited by a prestigious legal firm that turns out to be run by the mob.
It's Top Gun set it in the world of bartending; that's not a compliment, by the way. Cruise is Brian Flanagan, an ambitious young man who wants to make a lot of money but doesn't have the experience for a Wall Street job — so naturally, he winds up behind a bar instead. There, he finds himself taken under the wing of older, wiser aphorism-generator Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown), with whom he creates a nightly spectacle of juggling bottles, synchronized pouring, and other displays of bartending prowess. It's meant to be fun, but it's a surprisingly dark portrait of late-Eighties capitalism, a world where everyone is desperate to gain an edge and get ahead. But any social critique the movie offers is undone by the sub-soap opera plot. You will feel shaken, not stirred.
‘Top Gun’ (1986)
The movie that exemplified the macho militarism of the Reagan era, Tony Scott's music video of an action flick about young, hot-dogging flying aces in an elite military training program solidified Cruise's stardom — and has dated in all sorts of troubling ways. What once felt like a fun chance to watch a bunch of young, good-looking guys tooling around in
giant penisesfast airplanes now feels jingoistic and clunky (except for the volleyball scene, which simply feels like pandering). Still, Cruise remains intensely likable as Maverick, his quintessential stuck-up rebel hero who has to learn to endure love and loss and finally become part of the team. It's just the movie around him that's so toxic.
‘Lions for Lambs’ (2007)
Director Robert Redford's political drama-cum-lecture was roundly dismissed by audiences and critics alike — but Cruise is quite good in it, playing a Republican Senator and military hawk who tries to sell veteran journalist Meryl Streep on a new strategy in the Afghan war. The film cuts between their exchange and two other events – a conversation between Redford's lefty professor and promising absentee student Andrew Garfield, and a failed mission involving stranded soldiers Michael Peña and Derek Luke. All three story strands are connected in interesting ways, though the film's attempt to draw some kind of broader insights about America at war are muddled. Still, Cruise isn't flying jets and recruiting for the U.S. Navy's aviation program, so it's got that going for it.
‘The Last Samurai’ (2003)
The posters for this bloated epic featured Tom Cruise in Samurai garb, charging at the camera — but [spoiler alert] he is not the last Samurai in this movie. That honor belongs to Ken Watanabe, playing the leader of a rebellion against the Japanese government's attempts to Westernize society and do away with the bushido tradition. Watanabe steals the movie right out from under a somewhat listless Cruise, who plays the alcoholic American Civil War veteran and soldier-of-fortune who first tries to fight the resistance, then joins it. If you've ever wanted to see the star in kendo training gear, however, here's your chance.
‘Knight and Day’ (2010)
Cruise is the larger-than-life CIA agent, and his Vanilla Sky co-star Cameron Diaz is the civilian lady who winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets swept up in an absurd romance/action adventure. The concept is great – and it dares to utilize Cruise's physical comedy chops, which are surprisingly substantial – but despite the stars' rapport, the film seems more interested in overbaked action setpieces. That's part of the joke, of course: Cruise is sending up his Mission: Impossible antics here. But a little of that goes a long way, and too much of it goes nowhere at all. We will give the star bonus points, however, for gamely poking fun at his screen persona.
‘Jack Reacher’ (2012)
Let's get something out of the way first: Yes, Tom Cruise is totally wrong to play author Lee Child's beloved tough guy detective/wanderer. But he's not a bad choice to play Tom Cruise's version of the character, which is less a physically imposing, macho guardian angel and more of a diligent, stern-faced enigma. This initially absorbing (if semi-ludicrous) mystery is distinguished by a lot of witty dialogue and some effective suspense, despite the fact it goes off the rails near the end. It wasn't much of a hit, but there are reportedly efforts to make another one. Could an older Cruise yet grow into the part?
‘Losin’ It’ (1983)
Does anybody remember this affable little movie, directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential)? Tom Cruise, Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen), and John Stockwell (who went on to direct films like Blue Crush and crazy/beautiful) head to Tijuana to score some chicks, and pick up on-the-run housewife Shelley Long in the process? Cruise is his usual intense self, and you can still see hints of the future star even in a Porky’s knock-off like this. The teen comedy would end up being overshadowed by the same year’s other Tom Cruise-tries-to-get-laid title, a little film called Risky Business. (See No. 3.)
‘Interview with the Vampire’ (1994)
No less a luminary than author Anne Rice publicly objected to the casting of Cruise as the dashing and mysterious Vampire Lestat in Neil Jordan's star-studded adaptation of her best-selling novel. Rice eventually came around, and time has been kinder to it: What seemed like an overtly preening performance by Cruise at the time now comes off as a cavalier callousness hardened by centuries. The film still drags in parts – today, the episodic story would be a natural for a TV or cable series – but it's an offbeat, engaging, and curiously somber little epic.
‘All the Right Moves’ (1983)
Cruise would have bigger — much bigger — hits in the 1980s, but this sports drama could easily be a template for many of his later movies. Here, he plays a small-town Pennsylvania high school football star who butts heads with his domineering coach (played by Craig T. Nelson, soon to corner the sports-coach niche). Cruise's character sees football as his ticket out of this dying town, and he thinks almost nothing of the fact that if and when he departs, he will leave his working-class family and his devoted girlfriend (Lea Thompson) behind. It's a sensitive, surprisingly dark tale of All-American ambition — an area that Cruise would occasionally go back to with gratifying results (see No. 1).
Cruise may not have been the ideal actor to play Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the German officer who tried to lead a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. But Bryan Singer's 2008 ensemble drama (which also features sterling performances from Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson) is still a largely effective, absorbing historical thriller that gradually builds in suspense. As the conspirators put together their plan, you find yourself becoming more and more invested in it – even though we know pretty much how it turned out (no spoilers here). The star is not the weakest link; he's just not its strongest selling point either.
‘The Outsiders’ (1983)
Francis Ford Coppola's solid adaptation of S.E. Hinton's novel about Sixties greasers is a landmark in the Chronicle of Eighties Hunkdom: Alongside stars C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, and Ralph Macchio, it also featured a supporting cast of newcomers such as Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, and, yes, our man Tom. Sporting some terrible teeth, Cruise actually looks downright homely against his fellow heartthrobs. Who'd have guessed that, among this Tiger Beat who's-who of a cast, he'd be the one to truly hit the stratosphere?
‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ (2015)
The most recent entry in Cruise’s reliable movie series,
directed by his Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie, actually benefits at
times from underplaying his part and letting the scene-stealing Rebecca
Ferguson kick ass in his place. But the film also delivers on the set pieces –
from the incredible opening airplane stunt to the opera house assassination
attempt (a nice callback to the Hitchcockian flair that Brian De Palma brought to the original Mission). It’s not as tight as that first entry, to be fair, or
as breathtaking as Ghost Protocol. But it’s relentlessly fun, and damned if Cruise doesn’t seem to be having the time of his life.
Part Wall-E, part The Matrix and part I Am Legend, this ethereal, spare sci-fi film was a deceptively weird little attempt at a blockbuster. Cruise plays the last human male left on an Earth that’s dying in the wake of an apocalyptic alien war. Comfortably ensconced (with beautiful fellow survivor Andrea Riseborough) in a Jetsons-like house in the sky, he’s watching over the planet while the rest of humanity migrates elsewhere in the galaxy – or so he thinks. It was marketed as a kick-ass action flick, but in reality, this is as much a melancholy, unsettling romance as it is an adventure. And, frankly, it’s better than its reputation as a mediocre star vehicle suggests.
‘Mission: Impossible III’ (2006)
The M:I series rallied under the guidance of director J.J. Abrams, who returned the films (somewhat) to the team-focused ethos of the original series with this third installment. Surprisingly funny, it gets by on character exchanges as much as it does on action scenes – which isn't to say that Cruise's Ethan Hunt doesn't kick major amounts of ass or remind us why we consistently pay money to see Tom run (and shoot, and hang from things, and fight, and…). Still, the real MVP here might be the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing a uniquely deranged, genuinely threatening villain, by far the best heavy in this series.
As a borderline-psychotic cadet who helps spur an armed revolt at an elite military academy, Cruise almost walks off with this tense, deceptively strange film. His Cadet Captain David Shawn is the demonic opposite of Sean Penn's more conflicted, peace-loving Cadet Captain Alex Dwyer; together, the two battle for supremacy over the conscience of the film's ostensible hero, the talented and intelligent young Cadet Major Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton). Full of adolescent aggression but thoroughly devoid of charm, David is a fascinating dry run for the gung-ho heroes of many of Cruise's later films. You could tell that there was more to this kid than a pretty face and money-minting smile.
‘Tropic Thunder’ (2008)
"Take a step back, and literally FUCK your own FACE!" Hiding under layers of make-up, Cruise did a hilarious supporting turn as craven, hair-trigger studio exec Les Grossman in Ben Stiller's action comedy – a movie powered primarily by the genius energy of its supporting performances. It seems like stunt casting – and it is — but of a particularly brilliant type: Watch the rage in Cruise's face as he screams at the leaders of the Flaming Dragon guerilla group. Watch his cold, dead eyes as he informs Matthew McConaughey's agent that he won't lift a finger to save his stars who have been kidnapped in Asia. This man is committed. It's funny, because it's so damned chilling.
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
The right to watch the biggest movie star in the world scale the tallest skyscraper in the world should be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The most recent Mission: Impossible movie is the most Mission: Impossible-iest of them all: Over the top beyond your wildest dreams, and yet somehow strangely nonchalant. Cruise reprises his role as super-agent Ethan Hunt, but there's a compelling jadedness to him this time, which sort of adds to the lunacy of this film. It's the closest any Tom Cruise film has come to being a cartoon – quite appropriate, as this was the first live-action film made by veteran animation director Brad Bird (The Incredibles).
‘The Color of Money’ (1986)
Cruise teamed up with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman in this sequel to The Hustler, and impressively held his own. It has all the usual Tom Cruise vehicle tropes — he's a young, impetuous, talented pool shark who is taken under the wing of a veteran player, while romancing a sassy, independent-minded woman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). But Scorsese's stylized, frenetic direction gives the movie its own special energy. It's loads of fun — check out Cruise's gleeful arrogance as he famously runs the table to the tune of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" — and watching the brash young movie star face off against the world-weary Newman, you start to wonder whether you might be watching a documentary.
‘War of the Worlds’ (2005)
Tom Cruise as an Everyman? In Steven Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells's classic alien invasion novel, Cruise plays a Jersey longshoreman and absentee father who has to flee the invaders from space. The early scenes are gritty and close to pathetic as we watch our hero try to be a dad. When the invasion happens, the film shifts into a series of spectacular Spielbergian set pieces, without ever losing sight of the film's central emotional dynamic: A father trying to keep his kids from going insane amid unspeakable horror. The film goes downhill once Tim Robbins shows up as a Masshole survivalist, but it's still one of Cruise's better films of the past decade.
‘A Few Good Men’ (1992)
Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Aaron Sorkin, this gloriously satisfying cheeseburger of a movie finds Cruise playing a Navy lawyer looking into the death of a young Marine at a Guantanamo Bay base run by snarling, contemptuous, powerful Colonel (Jack Nicholson). A bit shouty in parts, but the movie earns its bigness: The final stand-off between Cruise and Nicholson has rightly gone down in movie history for its insanely exciting back-and-forth ("I want the truth!" "You can't handle the truth!"). It's the kind of crackerjack legal thriller they don't make anymore, and Cruise's ramrod performance is one the reasons you wish they did.
‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996)
When this action hit first came out, fans of the original series were upset that the film underplayed the whole cooperation-between-teammates-with-different-skills thing, focusing instead on the heroics of the lone Cruise character. Fair enough. But what a movie! Director Brian De Palma delivers an atmospheric Cold War thriller that turns into a North by Northwest-style adventure before transforming into a go-for-broke action spectacle. Meanwhile, Cruise becomes a bona-fide action hero here. (Previously, most of his action movies had simply asked him to control large, powerful vehicles.) Watch the justly celebrated, wordless Pentagon break-in sequence: what makes it work so well is the subtle slapstick Cruise brings to being suspended in air.
‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014)
Our man is so well-cast in this incredibly fun science-fiction comedy-thriller-adventure, it’s downright scary. He’s a military officer who knows nothing about combat; he just helps recruit soldiers for a never-ending war against unstoppable space aliens. Then, suddenly, he’s thrust into battle and dies immediately … only to find himself reliving his final day, dying in every imaginable way before magically starting back at square one. Eventually, he becomes a better soldier and learns how to defeat the enemy. Here we have all the various Cruise personae in one movie: The gung-ho pretty boy who effectively sold 1980s militarism to a generation of teens; the go-getter who pursues a task until he’s achieved his goals; the cynical opportunist who needs to be taught a lesson. And, as in so many of his best films, he gets a smarter, stronger partner-mentor: Super-soldier Emily Blunt, who also has the power to come back from the dead once. It’s a movie in which Tom Cruise dies over and over again – which means even people who hate Tom Cruise can get a kick out of it.
‘Rain Man’ (1988)
The movie was a runaway hit, took home that year's Best Picture Oscar and helped Dustin Hoffman win the Best Actor award — oddly enough, Tom Cruise is the one underrated aspect of this touching hit drama about a craven young man's cross country trip with his autistic older brother. As a slick car salesman who learns about family, selflessness, and devotion from his mentally troubled sibling, Cruise is the one whose emotional arc has to carry the movie. Rising to the challenge, the actor gave one of his most touching performances to date – going from shameless yuppie to protective brother to emotional mess. It's a shame that he was overlooked when it came to awards season.
‘Jerry Maguire’ (1996)
"Show me the money!" Despite being a heartthrob and having an impeccable sense of comic timing, Cruise rarely did romantic comedies. (Does Risky Business count?) But he was the perfect choice for Cameron Crowe's comedy about a hot-shot sports agent who has a moment of conscience and gives up everything to start his own scrappy company — all the while falling for his assistant, a single mom played by a darling Renee Zelwegger. It's certainly one of the most quotable romcoms of all time, in part thanks to the power of the Cruise-Zelwegger chemistry and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.'s turn as a lovably boisterous young football star.
Playing the mysterious, white-haired assassin holding Los Angeles cabbie Jamie Foxx hostage as they go from hit to hit, Tom Cruise is at his sociopathic best in director Michael Mann's stylish thriller. He's cool, confident, efficient – a bold foil for Foxx's submerged, and very human laborer. In Mann's vision, this is the story of two very different men who connect in unlikely ways: The killer teaches the dreamer a thing or two before the inevitable, bloody cat-and-mouse finale. One of those occasional reminders that Tom Cruise, for all his stardom, should play villains more often.
‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’ (2018)
How many franchises can boast that they’re dropping their best installments six chapters in? How many movie stars can be asked why they insist on doing their own stunts and when they reply, “No one asked Gene Kelly, ‘why do you dance,” you go, “Well, he does make a good point”? If the latest Mission: Impossible was nothing more than Tom Cruise trying to one-up himself yet again — this time by actually performing the High Altitude Low Opening (or HALO) skydive you see near the beginning of the movie — it’d still be a rush. But Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie also deliver a crack espionage thriller, with Ethan Hunt and the IMF team trying to locate some rogue plutonium cores before a terrorist network does. Everything from the pacing to the standout set pieces (including a for-the-ages fistfight between the star, Henry Cavill and a bad guy in a nightclub bathroom) to the sexual tension between Hunt and Vanessa Kirby’s femme fatale put this a cut above your normal multiplex fare, but Cruise is the reason it all works, period. These movies are as much a tribute to his commitment — even if it means risking life and limb! — as they are to the notion of a globe-trotting superspy saving the world one unmasking at a time. Running, jumping, throwing himself off of buildings and out of planes just for your entertainment: this is what Cruise was born to do. —D.F.
‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999)
True, the film has dodgy spots: Stanley Kubrick died before he could finish editing the film, so we're effectively watching a rough cut. But as Cruise's disconsolate Dr. Bill Harford journeys into a dreamlike New York City night in a bizarre quest to explore his sexual dark side, what emerges is a sensitive, mesmerizing film about the masks that we must all occasionally wear to find some semblance of happiness. It seems like an odd part for Cruise — the role of a humiliated husband — but his awkwardness in the part feels intentional: This is a guy who isn't sure what's going on, and always feels uncomfortable. Nicole Kidman is terrific as Harford's mysterious wife; the two have very little chemistry together, but that too is part of the idea, it seems. (They divorced several years later.)
‘Minority Report’ (2002)
Why yes, Steven Spielberg's sci-fi potboiler about a world where you can be arrested for future crimes (instead of past ones) does feel amazingly prescient. But what makes it so special is its unique ability to juggle dark social themes, a tense mystery plot, and an insane, freewheeling sense of fun. And as the pre-crime cop-turned-fugitive at the heart of this tale, Cruise is one of the film's most formidable weapons. He merges the driven, upright character of his early years with the more physical action hero of his later years. But he's supremely vulnerable, too: a man who hides his doubt and suffering under a cloak of unquestioning determination.
‘Risky Business’ (1983)
The sight of young Tom Cruise, in tightie-whities, button down shirt, and tube socks dancing to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock 'n Roll" by himself became an iconic image for young males in the early Eighties. But watch it again in the context of the movie, and you realize how funny it is. Cruise has always had a gift for physical comedy, though he uses these talents rarely. In this classic, he's alternately ambitious and underachieving, horny yet sheltered, driven yet lost – the ultimate teenager. And when he gets the chance to run a brothel out of his parents' house while they're on vacation, it's both the ultimate in wish fulfillment and a nightmare waiting to happen. A hilarious sex comedy, a touching coming of age movie, and a chance to see a young actor turn into a generation-defining movie star before your very eyes.
‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989)
Tom Cruise was practically destined for Oliver Stone's epic film about Ron Kovic, a fresh-faced good soldier who became a paralyzed Vietnam protestor. It may be set in the Sixties and Seventies, but Kovic's story calls into question the alpha-male militarism and single-mindedness of the Eighties as well — in effect interrogating the Tom Cruise persona itself. The star is perfect for the film's early scenes showing Kovic as a can-do, unquestioning high school jock, for whom a defeat on the wrestling mat is downright apocalyptic. Kovic's journey through the battlefields of Vietnam, the horrors of the VA hospital, and the turmoil of a politically explosive homefront becomes a classic hero's journey, a modern American myth. And every step of the way, Cruise is genuinely riveting — from All-American star to wandering, wounded soul to, finally, determined activist. The movie is a masterpiece for Stone, and it may be Cruise's greatest lead performance.
"Respect…the cock!" Cruise is not the lead in Paul Thomas Anderson's ambitious 1999 multi-character drama (is anybody?), but he lurks, coiled like a venomous snake, at the film's heart. As self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey, Cruise preaches a loathsome brand of male empowerment, objectifying women and the very idea of femininity with proud abandon. The film interrogates Frank brilliantly, both through a literal interview he has to sit through, and through a non-reconciliation with his dying father later on. It could easily have been a one-note performance – watch the movie star play a vile, loud celebrity, hint hint – but Cruise turns it into a whirling dervish act of competing responses. You start off laughing at Frank, then you're terrified of him, and finally you realize just how irreparably broken he is. Along the way, you realize the depths of this amazing actor's talent. It's a performance that should never ever be forgotten.