Tom Cruise needs no introduction. Seriously, one of the most popular and greatest movie stars of all time. The man had been in countless box-office hits with critical acclaim, directed by auteurs or well-recognized directors for nearly five decades now. Kubrick, Spielberg, Tony & Ridley Scott, Coppola, De Palma, Mann, PTA – you name it, he has worked with them all.
Early on, some doubted his talent because the media attention around him were little too much through the late 80s and 90s but Cruise kept proving them wrong all the time. He got criticisms for some of his public interviews (especially in 2005) and his association with the Church of Scientology but when you ask any co-star of his, most of them have only nice things to say about his dedicated professionalism and work ethic as well as his kindness. Some found his friendly and kind attitude rather phony in real life but that might just be because he’s a born-entertainer. His whole career is about pleasing others and bringing high-quality entertainment to audiences. You can just google nice stories about him, they’re pretty much endless.
Since “Top Gun Maverick” came out, there had been a lot of articles calling him the “last movie star”. The man who still brings audiences to theatre for his name recognition alone everywhere in the world, a star whose films still feel like an “event”, someone who creates his own franchises based on his name, an actor who refuses to do anything for streaming or television, someone who still has the mystique of movie stars of the previous times. There’s so much to talk about Cruise, but instead of talking about it here, it’s better to explore his incredible filmography which will help to understand what made him special as a movie star as well as his versatility as an actor.
20. Rock of Ages (2012)
Cruise is a serious man, he’s serious about his craft but he’s not afraid of poking fun at himself from time to time, or his industry (in a film that we’ll discuss later on). His comedic chops were well-known at the very beginning where he handled the satiric tone of “Risky Business” perfectly and his singing in things like “Top Gun” is serviceable for a non-singer.
In “Rock of Ages”, Cruise is here once again to steal the show with his singing and comedic chops. Admittedly, this is not a good film. It feels like a cheap Broadway show and it’d be a hit there with all the 80s songs and tributes but its silliness is not enough there to cover the bland tone and overlong runtime, as many critics complained.
The movie would also heavily benefit if it was R-rated, here it feels like they played it rather safe. Thankfully, Cruise is as committed as ever as fictional hair metal rocker Stacee Jax. He’s bit channeling Axl Rose while singing a Bon Jovi song. His singing is good, and his charisma is off the charts but also not afraid of going silly or showing some vulnerability. His scenes with Malin Akerman are particularly a highlight. As a film, it’s not one of Cruise’s best films but if we’re talking about performance, he’s got another chance to prove his versatility and he once again did it.
19. Minority Report (2002)
One of Spielberg’s best films, Minority Report expertly combines the elements of tech noir, whodunit, thriller, and science fiction elements and delivers high-quality entertainment. It’s also aging incredibly well. Looking into the future and its effects, the interplay of cause and effect between the time levels and the idea of the time paradox have always been among the most fascinating subjects of the science fiction genre. It probably has to do with the narrative possibilities that the question of “what if” is so often asked in the cinema. In Spielberg’s film, it’s not people that travel but rather the information.
The film sets in the future where there’s “precrime” police program. Would-be killers are imprisoned in a benevolent virtual reality state. However, an officer from that unit is himself accused of a future murder. That officer is Tom Cruise. Most of it plays like a chase movie and Cruise’s screen charisma keeps you engaged all the time, not only that, he brings a lot of nuance to his character as well, largely via his character’s struggle to deal with the years-earlier kidnapping and death of his son. It’s a perfect kind of “star” performance.
18. War of the Worlds (2005)
As extraterrestrials invade the Earth and destroy cities with giant war machines, Cruise’s dockworker character tries to protect his children. Tom didn’t stop with “Minority Report”, and he made another film with Spielberg. This time based on a sci-fi novel by H. G. Wells. It was an interesting year for Cruise, he was on the news all the time. It was like he was having a mid-life crisis; his couch-jumping on Oprah Winfrey show was everywhere even if Oprah later defended his behavior as him expressing his love for his then love Katie Holmes. The infamous Matt Lauer interview and his feud with Brooke Shields (for which he later apologized) were other controversial moments in a career that usually avoided any of it. His off-screen persona was getting so much attention that it created an idea that his career is over and he was trying to get attention to stay “relevant”.
It’s funny think about it now but maybe it was funny then too because “War of the Worlds” was a major box office success, and critically acclaimed. Cruise’s performance was also praised. At the beginning of the film, he comes off like an unsympathetic jerk more interested in rebuilding car engines than spending quality time with his offspring. That alone shows even in the same genre, Cruise avoids getting typecast. His character also has an arc; he transforms into a reluctant hero and there are moments where he struggles to hold his emotion for the sake of his kids, and these are all amazing to watch. He’s convincing in every minute of it.
17. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
As we’re talking about his sci-fi/action films, it fits to continue with “Edge of Tomorrow”. Unlike the previous two, “Edge of Tomorrow” finds him as a less macho and more flawed type of action hero. He plays a captain who sells the war to the public but is privately a coward. He has no combat experience, it’s not an Ethan Hunt type of character. He finds himself in combat, he gets killed and then he realizes he’s brought back to life in an endless vicious cycle. “Groundhog Day” might be a rare Hollywood film that established its own genre. One might find a similar concept prior to that but this one made it popular. Luckily filmmakers managed to find to make this concept always feel fresh.
“Edge of Tomorrow” is doing that with impressive sets, amazing combat scenes, lots of black humor, and amazing chemistry between Cruise and Emily Blunt. All these, in fact, show what a great leading man Cruise actually is. Also shows that in the genre, Cruise is not afraid of taking roles that challenge his image. Edge of Tomorrow was listed on 23 critics’ top ten lists of movies of 2014 (out of 201 evaluated), another proof that Cruise might go after the blockbusters but he often chooses great ones.
16. “Top Gun” franchise (1986, 2022)
Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” was where everyone fell in love with Cruise. Always smiling, bike riding hotshot young pilot who pushes the limits with his cool glasses and jacket, singing “You Lost That Loving Feeling” – everything about it made Cruise iconic. Now that the film is often criticized for its jingoistic tone but if you take it less seriously, it has a lot to appreciate, especially how Tony Scott builds the atmosphere. Those uses of sun give a dream-like quality to the whole film and most of the film doesn’t have a linear plot, it feels more like a 70s hangout movie. Sure, with thin characters but since they’re all played by talented actors, you don’t mind it all. With great action sequences, a fine romance subplot, and an unforgettable soundtrack, “Top Gun” became an iconic film.
Cruise came back to the characters years later in “Top Gun Maverick”. Now Maverick is an old teacher. While you don’t have to watch the original to appreciate the sequel, it somehow makes it surprisingly richer because Cruise’s character reflects on another time, another era of life. It’s a bit of a moment where Cruise himself faces his age. Almost a moment for Maverick’s character arc to complete. Both films are good or great for several other reasons but one thing is for sure, they won’t be the same without Cruise and he took people’s breath away in both films.
15. The Color of Money (1986)
“Top Gun Maverick” gets a lot of praise and many people have commented that this is how legacy sequels should’ve been made. It’s indeed a brilliant piece of work but Cruise is also no stranger to great legacy sequels. Some critics were ready to dismiss it as if it was a work-for-hire film for Martin Scorsese, one of the many auteurs he has worked with. Instead, it’s a beautiful film and if you had seen “The Hustler”, it’s a great reflection on aging and many other things. Full of gorgeous, clever shots as you might expect from Michael Ballhaus.
One of the many impressive things about Cruise is that at a young age, he was not afraid of co-starring with some of the giants of their generation; Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson, and in this case, Paul Newman. They make a great duo together, delivering subtle and nuanced performances with great arcs. Since they both can play the game, Scorsese uses this to get great frames from them both.
Unlike the original, this one is not full of tension but these two men are so great together, them playing, them talking, them doing everything – so it becomes a joy to watch. It’s not a film about sports clichés, it’s about characters. Cruise has some of the cockiness he displays in Top Gun but this time he’s not that bright and somewhat insecure. He loved working with Newman who raised his interest in racecars. Soon later, Cruise ended up even doing a race car movie in “Days of Thunder”. Cruise also did his own trick shots for the film, the man was all ready to perform his own stunts.
14. The Firm (1993)
While working for a law firm, a young Harvard graduate encounters inconsistencies and suspicions that catapult him into a career- and the life-threatening situation between the FBI and the mafia. There’s a better lawyer character in his filmography in a better film for sure but “The Firm” is somewhat underrated right now. Would be good to start with the fact that this film made $270.2 million against a budget of $42 million, making it the highest-grossing film adapted from a John Grisham novel (“A Time To Kill”, “The Client”) and the highest-grossing R-rated film of 1993.
It shows that the times have changed a bit, nowadays a legal drama/thriller over two hours would hardly made that much money but one of the factors that contributed to its success was Tom Cruise’s star power. People wanted to watch what Cruise does and what he does is extraordinary; playing a young, naive man full of fear and confusion who finds himself in extremely dangerous situations. Cruise carefully builds his character and rooting for him becomes very easy. “The Firm” is an intelligent thriller of its time and Cruise’s performance being at the center of it elevates it even further. The thing about Cruise is that he doesn’t play anyone extraordinary, he has a lot of puzzled moments but he finds in an himself in an extraordinary situation and tries to find a way out in rather realistic scenario.
13. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Inferior to its Spanish original “Close Your Eyes” for sure and even Penelope Cruz performance is not on the same level but it’s understandable that Cruise liked the concept and wanted to bring something fresh to Hollywood mainstream cinema. Maybe Cameron Crowe was not the right choice for the project but still, he pulls it off to a degree. Some critics dismissed Cruise’s performance as yet another star vehicle without depth but they’d be wrong, mostly because there was some judgment against this being a remake of a European film.
Cruise’s performance is pretty fascinating and he surprisingly takes on a very unlikable character in the leading role. He accomplishes to make us care about him or at least intrigued by him because we never get too sure about everything his character faces – the accident, the disfigurement, and his conviction and therapy – are all real or not. From handsome and arrogant to disfigured and self-loathing, Cruise is mesmerizing. The problem with the film was that it came out at the wrong time, it felt like, probably because of the character he plays as an attempt to gain sympathy for his own public persona but when you get rid of that on your mind, you’ll end up watching a complex, unusual work from a talented actor.
12. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
The author of the book Anne Rice wrote the script for the film version herself but totally opposed Tom Cruise’s casting in the leading role. She had more of a young Rutger Hauer type of someone to play Lestat. She didn’t see that in Tom Cruise. She offered Jeremy Irons or John Malkovich instead and even asked Brad Pitt and Tom to replace their roles but nobody listened. She was ready to disown the film because Cruise was not her Lestat.
When the film came out, Anne Rice saw it and her quote describes it the best: “From the moment he appeared Tom was Lestat for me. He has an immense physical and moral presence; he was defiant and yet never without conscience; he was beautiful beyond description yet compelled to do cruel things. The sheer beauty of Tom was dazzling, but the polish of his acting, his flawless plunge into the Lestat persona, his ability to speak rather boldly poetic lines, and speak them with seeming ease and conviction were exhilarating and uplifting. The guy is great. I’m no good at modesty. I like to believe Tom’s Lestat will be remembered the way Olivier’s Hamlet is remembered. Others may play the role some day but no one will ever forget Tom’s version of it.”
She also praised him for pulling off subtly humorous moments and also giving depth in all the subtle ways, creating a fully dimensional, interesting, and haunting character. And she was right. While the film could’ve benefited if he had better chemistry with Brad Pitt, still the performance works on the individual level. Critic Roger Ebert also agreed with the author, saying Tom is “never less than convincing, and his slight British accent, combined with makeup that is dramatic without being obtrusive, disguises the clean-cut star – makes him seem unwholesome in an odd, insinuating way.
11. Risky Business (1983)
Tom Cruise the movie star was in the making. He already got some attention to himself in “Taps”, he didn’t get the best role in Curtis Hanson’s “Lovin It” which he somewhat hated, but Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” and underseen sports drama, Michael Chapman’s “All the Right Moves” showed that the guy has something special going on. In “The Outsiders”, you could see that he was willing to give himself to the part, both mentally and physically. Finally, it was time for a true breakout, in arguably the most stylishly directed (though some may call it “MTV aesthetics”) teen sex comedy “Risky Business”. Now the film is good, could’ve been even better with the alternative ending and better control of the satire. What is truly fantastic is Cruise’s performance. He’s young but very confident in himself.
The 80s were probably the golden decade of teen films but rarely any of them try to tackle the serious subjects of capitalism, materialism, and prostitution this well. This is also the closest Cruise came to playing a “loser”. He’s obviously too charming and charismatic to play one but he was 21 here, and while he has a lot of self-confidence and some amazing experiences, he’s still the same guy throughout the whole film. There’s no “Tom Cruise star film formula” for him yet. Even when he’s at his supposedly most powerful, he’s desperately trying to get money because he ruined his dad’s Porsche. It’s also the movie where he danced to “Old Time Rock and Roll” in his underwear when his parents leave him home alone. So iconic that even Sam Rockwell thanked him for influencing him in his SAG award speech.