5. A Few Good Men (1992) / Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)
A tie in fifth place, as Cruise takes on two of his scariest challenges yet: first go toe to toe to a never more terrifying Jack Nicholson, and then escalate the side of the world’s tallest building. Which is more intimidating? You decide for yourself, but if you’re Tom Cruise, no challenge is big enough as long as it means great cinema.
Nicholson is again the one who got both the Oscar nomination and the quotable line (“You can’t handle the truth!”) but it’s because Cruise skillfully pushed him there, both as his character and as his costar. Cruise’s lieutenant Kaffee does not shy away from Nicholson’s colonel Jessup and even has the gall to demand the truth out of him, and that takes a commitment level that rival’s Jack-O’s.
And if that weren’t enough, he once again shows his funny bone by an unscripted Nicholson impersonation. Who else would have dared to do that? Cruise would show those brass cojones in a different way the fifth time he would play agent Ethan Hunt, which so far has been the best in the series simply because not only does the action does not stop and there is a cohesive story, but because like Hunt, Cruise goes all out in the stunts.
If Ethan Hunt must climb outside the Burj Kalifah, well darn it, so will Tom Cruise. And again, he shows a pretty good business sense as producer, bringing The Incredibles’ director Brad Bird to make his live-action debut. And with this, Cruise was back as full on megastar mode, couch-jumping in his rearview mirror (or so he hopes).
4. Collateral (2004)
So what do you do when you’re already one of the most famous faces in the world one of the most charming actors around? You challenge yourself, of course. Director Michael Mann did just that to the man in this taut LA thriller where Cruise, taking on a role originally intended for Russell Crowe, plays a hitman who takes a cabbie (Jamie Foxx) hostage while he goes around the city offing people.
Cruise, rocking the grey hairs, goes into ultra-scary mode precisely for what he’s most famous –an intense, unblinking stare that could pierce the side of a barn and only rarely going above a whisper when he speaks. Mann exploits this by making Vincent sit directly behind Max in the cab when they have their more intimate moments, so all Max can do is hear Vincent’s voice –REALLY unsettling.
You want commitment? Cruise worked as a FedEx delivery guy in a downtown market to practice disappearing in a crowd in preparation for his role as Vincent. The result is perhaps Mann’s best since Heat, and gave Jamie Foxx his first Oscar nomination (none for Cruise, of course).
3. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Except for the final ten minutes, this was one of 2014’s best movies, and it’s greatly thanks to Cruise and his chemistry with co-star Emily Blunt. His third time going scifi –besides the underrated Oblivion and Steven Spielberg’s excellent Minority Report— last year’s Edge of Tomorrow reminded the world why he is still such a box office draw.
The reason Doug Liman’s movie isn’t mentioned in the same conversation as Spielberg’s could very well be the studio’s fault, since you would be hard-pressed to find a more poorly-marketed movie. Based on the Japanese manga All You Need Is Kill, the title was changed to the much more generic one used, which in turn was almost obscured in the home video release with the tagline Live / Die / Repeat.
What’s up with that, Warner Brothers? It’s all a shame, because Cruise has rarely been so at the top of his game both as a comedic and as an action star. He again shows a commitment to do anything, including making a fool out of himself. He starts the movie as a cowardly official forced to take part in a military operation to stop an alien invasion, who suddenly discovers he is repeating the entire day over and over again. (Think Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day.)
By midway, he’s traded in his terrified look and blundering ways for a stone cold stare and badasserie that are equally believable. If you are one of those who skipped this one in theaters, please watch in on Blu-Ray NOW.
2. Born on the Fourth Of July (1989)
People who dismiss Tom Cruise as a “just a movie star” need to revisit Oliver Stone’s portrait of real-life anti-war activist Ron Kovic, which gave the man his very first Academy Award nomination. This was the first time Cruise truly disappeared into a role, only three years after eye candy that is Top Gun.
Cruise captures Kovic struggle as he goes from red-blooded patriot to vehemently against the war, especially through his time after Vietnam, which left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Yes, there is makeup involved, but Cruise is unrecognizable in many of the scenes just by the power of his anguish.
And once again, he commits: rock climbing, bungee jumping, alien fighting is just nothing compared to the pain he has to endure as he is confined to a wheelchair, seemingly abandoned by his country. But instead of wallowing in his pain decides to do something about it, paralysis be damned. The M:I series may have Cruise overcoming fears for those crazy stunts, but Born remains his bravest role to date.
1. Magnolia (1999)
As you may have seen in this list, there are many Tom Cruises on screen, depending on the movie you’re watching. There’s the intense, macho man of Top Gun, there’s the loveable jerk of Rain Man, there’s the unbeatable Superman of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and there’s the sensitive leading man that shows up in both Jerry Maguire and Born On The Fourth Of July.
In Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 magna opus, you get them all in one electrifying performance that is still talked about. Cruise plays Frank “TJ” Mackey, a misogynistic guru that assures that all women are a second away from literally being your bitch, who is (spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t seen a 15-year-old masterpiece) the estranged son of a dying TV producer (Jason Robards) and hears the news while having a very awkward TV interview.
Cruise starts out as Tom Cruise, movie star, including a part where he is cavorting in front of the female journalist about to talk to him sporting the tightie whities with his pants on his ankles (and can’t help but do a cartwheel).
But when he gets news that his father is dying –and this is thanks to another great performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman– the hard shell starts cracking, and Mackey starts to lose his cool, and it is a fascinating ride to see Cruise slowly lose his cool, to the point he turns into a sobbing child, the peak of his vulnerability. He may have come into his own as an action star, but this remains his most complex performance to date.
As far as honorable mentions might go, there’s the first time he collaborated with future ex-wife Nicole Kidman in Ron Howard’s Far And Away, where he does his best (but fails) to hold a Scottish accent, but still manages to make the most out of the role; there’s also the one that started it all, Risky Business, whose “Old Time Rock And Roll” scene has made the world forget that he was actually pretty good as the doey-eyed kid who’s way over his head.
His turn as the real-life German officer who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler in Valkyrie, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, also let him play as a limited yet ruthless idealist; and yes, his scene-stealing, way, WAY over the top supporting role in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder as Hollywood powerhouse Lev Grossman is worth a mention just because it is so hilariously obscene and actually plays on Cruise’s intensity, and goes to show he’s as unafraid to take career risks as he is of physical ones.
And yes, even Eyes Wide Shut, also with Kidman, let him do some interesting things, even though the movie is perhaps both his and Stanley Kubrick’s weakest, in some opinions.
Which ones did we let out? Sound off in the comments!
Author Bio: Juan works as a journalist and thanks that he lives only half a mile from a movie theater. An aspiring writer and animal lover, he is convinced Matthew McConaughey is his best friend, just waiting to buy him that beer and hang out.