The 20 Best Tom Cruise Movie Performances

10. “Mission Impossible” franchise (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011, 2015, 2018)

Now, whenever a news article is posted on any social network, somebody comes up and says they don’t watch those movies and think they’re making a great joke by saying “it always turns out that missions were possible”. Now, if you hate action movies, sure, just skip it but if you think it’s yet another sort of “Fast and the Furious” type of thing, you’re wrong. Cruise has dedicated himself to the character of Ethan Hunt with all of his body, literally. The character of Ethan Hunt has always been Tom’s as he embodies the physicality and intelligence to make the IMF agent believable. It’s true that in the first three films, they didn’t know what kind of direction they want to go with and all of them were different than each other to a degree. Doesn’t mean they were bad, the first one especially, one can argue that it was the best with playful mystery, twists, and turns.

After Brad Bird’s involvement, Christopher McQuarrie and Tom have started to build on that style in their following sequels, and in each one of them, the franchise got better and better. Sure, it doesn’t have some great character development or something, and including the whole franchise is not here to imply that they’re somewhat similar films. Absolutely not, but Cruise IS Ethan Hunt in all of them and he gives himself to the part, to these crazy stunts. He does most of those insane stunts himself, without CGI, on a real location, without any stunt double. That’s why these films stand out from the rest and Cruise’s dedication to the projects, and the way that he keeps surprising audiences with each new installment is nothing short of astonishing.

The franchise is arguably one of the best action series in film history. Some criticize Cruise for the fact that he spent his 2010s mostly playing action heroes but it’s worth it because since he’s not old yet, he wants to challenge himself physically in these parts. Sure, he can play “The Revenant” too but he wants to do it in these types of films. And he’s great at it, definitely proving himself one of the greatest action stars of all time. It’s not like there’s not much acting required in these films also, just check his interrogation scene in the third film.


9. The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai (2003)

There are several things wrong with this picture, you might take an issue with the “white savior” narrative or story romanticizing samurais, who are regarded as having been more corrupt. These are all very fair criticisms but if you leave all these historical accuracies or political correctness behind, just treat it as a fictional fantasy tale, as an epic entertainment, it works tremendously. Cruise plays a bitter alcoholic traumatized by the atrocities he committed during the American Indian Wars, Nathan Algren whose personal and emotional conflicts bring him into contact with samurai warriors in the wake of the Meiji Restoration in 19th century Japan. On paper, his arc is about a callous soldier who experiences an epiphany and bonds with Samurai warriors but there’s more than that.

Cruise’s performance brings such raw quality to the performance, you feel his regrets, his rage, and his empathy. He finds himself on a traditional Hollywood epic character’s journey but he takes you with himself as well. Cruise also manages to sell potentially sentimental moments as well because he brings authenticity and honesty to the part. He brings “I’m doing my own stunts” of his action personality here as well, which makes the performance more effective. You know that he’s there, physically, emotionally and dramatically. The film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Ken Watanabe. Cruise couldn’t make the cut despite a Golden Globe nomination.


8. Tropic Thunder (2008)

For a major movie star like him, who everyone claims to be too obsessed with his image in media, taking a role like this was an extremely risky business (pun intended). For most of his career, Cruise had been a lead actor who rarely took on supporting parts but whenever he did, he always stole the show. This one is a great example of that.

Apart from that, Tom certainly loves to surprise his audiences. When he all of suddenly appeared in “Austin Powers Goldmember”, the audiences went wild back in time. He decided to do it again in Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder”. It’s not their first collaboration, Ben previously played a fictional stunt double of him for the MTV Movie Awards in 2000. Obviously, they get their sense of humor. Les Grossman, the character Cruise plays here is something the audience have never seen before. Outrageous, foul-mouthed, very funny, fat, hairy, bald, with “fat hands” who can also dance, but totally different dance than he does in “Risky Business”. “Tropic Thunder” is a testament that Cruise can poke fun at himself or at his industry, have a sense of humor, and is not afraid of playing someone who looks totally different than him.


7. A Few Good Men (1992)

A Few Good Men (1992)

Tom’s films often give a very memorable quote or catchphrase to the popular culture. He’s not the one who says “You can’t handle the truth!” in the movie but he’s the one who demands the truth and his performance is equally important to the scene. Full of passion and excellent line deliveries. Based on the play by Aaron Sorkin, and directed by Rob Reiner, “A Few Good Men” finds Cruise as a callow lawyer with a penchant for plea bargains. These were the times when “Top Gun” popularity was still huge and on the paper, it sounded like another similar role. It’s, in fact, the total opposite. His character Kaffee is not trying to outperform his late father in the way Maverick wanted. Maverick needed discipline, but Kaffee needs to get rid of the principles a bit. Throughout the whole film, you get more of his wit and charm. In a brief moment, you might even get a fine Jack Nicholson impression. Even the scenes that would come off more boring in the wrong hands, become more energic and compelling thanks to his full commitment to the part.

The movie was ranked number five in AFI’s top 10 courtroom dramas and Cruise’s performance is crucial to it. Cruise has got yet another Golden Globe nomination for his performance but as was of the case with him, ignored by the Oscars. Director Rob Reiner says, due to his performances in “Taps” and “Risky Business”, he had no worry about Cruise going off Nicholson and in rehearsals and table reads, Tom never seemed intimidated at all. “At that time, I’d never met a young actor with as much dedication as he had to the process. He worked his ass off in rehearsals. He was not only on time, but early every day, and always had his lines nailed.”


6. Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man (1988)

Dustin Hoffman is obviously a legendary actor and it’s hard to say any award he has won is not deserved but when you look at it, the “Rain Man” part is still somewhat of one-note compared to his other great performances. In the same film, Cruise does exceptionally more.

No wonder Paul Thomas Anderson said it’s one of his favorite Tom Cruise performances, or perhaps his favorite because it’s even harder to play a character like that, to not know what you’re going to do with this situation you found yourself in, developing care and displaying that on screen. Burt Reynolds once said on Charlie Rose show that Cruise was “extraordinary” in the part and didn’t get the recognition because he plays the “straight” part. It’s easy to see his point. You live the movie through his eyes, he carries the whole thing, and he has the actual character development. It’s his character who gets the redemption arc. In fact, he’s probably more of a leading role than Dusty was, even though the film was named after his character.

The main conflict in the film is Tom’s internal conflict regarding his relationship with his brother. It’s more of his story than his brother’s and without a performance like Cruise’s, it won’t work at all. At least Kansas City Film Critics Circle recognized Cruise’s excellent dramatic performance with a Best Supporting Actor award.


5. Collateral (2004)


Cruise is rarely a villain, but he brings so much humanity and charisma to these parts that sometimes you forget you’re watching a villain performance. Politically, “Lions for Lambs” performance might be something that turns some people off but he creates a real person. Just like his Lestat of “Vampire” never turns into some one-dimensional caricature. You forget that you’re watching a “villain”. Instead, you just get a totally fascinating character with an interesting personality. Not to take away from the brilliant script and direction but you also need a great actor to bring that personality to such characters.

In this amazingly stylish and engaging Michael Mann thriller, Cruise plays a natty, gray-haired assassin who flies into L.A. with a checklist of five witnesses he must dispose of in one night. His unlucky accomplice is the cab driver, played by Jamie Foxx- The character doesn’t play for the sympathy, he’s totally alone and incapable of being anything else. While you’re intimidated and somewhat scared by his presence, you want to see more of him also. As usual with Cruise, when you get him something physical to do, the performance gets even richer. Just the way he handles the guns makes you want to see him in a western film. Amazing that he hasn’t done any yet (no, “Young Guns” cameo doesn’t count). As usual, to prepare for his role, Cruise went through training and the amount of time/effort he spent was phenomenal. Truly chilling performance, with some fun wickedness in it.


4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The project was on great Stanley Kubrick’s mind since the late 60s. For a while, he wanted to make this a sex comedy starring Steve Martin or Woody Allen. He revived the project in the 1990s and it’s possible that he wanted a real-life couple to deliver a certain intimacy on the screen, which is why he considered Alec Baldwin-Kim Basinger duo for the leading roles. Then he met with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, the meeting went fine and he awarded them the roles. Kubrick also managed to make them both not commit to other projects until the film was completed. Kubrick takes on marriage, jealousy, wealth, sex, and society’s dehumanization of sex among many others. As usual with Kubrick, it’s a deeply layered film, and again as usual with him, it took a long time to shoot which was not a problem with Cruise. He jokingly compared it to a school where you occasionally get breaks for Christmas and other holidays.

The thing with Cruise is he’s an absolute perfectionist and a great team player as well, he becomes part of the crew almost. That’s how it’s not a problem for him if Stanley wants to take 30 shots of the second longer, seemingly unimportant moment. Cruise showed in the late 90s that he’s not just the blockbuster guy, he can also do great in more arty films that will be beloved by cinephiles. Many of Cruise’s characters get fall down but then rise again. Not this time. It doesn’t quite let him off the hook.

Total opposite, this time by the end of the film, his character has become a defeated, pathetic man even whose over-sexed imagination and jealousy have ruined him. Cruise career was almost always him getting criticized for something, someone trying to find to bring him down but he always prove them wrong. They said he can’t ever play a character like this, he has to be a “winner” all the time. By doing the film, he proved them wrong once again. Heartfelt, fervent, complex, and multi-layered performance.


3. Jerry Maguire (1996)

Jerry Maguire

Top 3 is very interchangeable as these performances – which coincidentally are the performances that brought him Oscar nominations and Golden Globe wins – are just top-tier Tom Cruise. “Jerry Maguire” is one of those films that combines everything special about him. He’s playing an everyman this time, a sports agent, and there’s a lot of character work here but at the same time, it’s also a star turn. Cruise can do it; his compelling screen charm is always there but he’s also building a totally different character than the ones he played before.

Jerry Maguire could’ve easily been an irritating character at the hands of the wrong actor. But Tom embodies all of his flaws in such a humanly way, you still end up rooting for him despite all the flaws he has. That’s his magic, people think he’s obsessed with being a star and thus, wants to play characters that we’ll love him. No, we love him in “Rain Man” too because he plays them like real human beings, he doesn’t overplay anything, never over-the-top for the sake of it. His desperation is inherently relatable. Sometimes he’s heartbreaking, sometimes funny and even he proves that he’s a great romantic leading man also. Zellweger’s “You had me at hello” didn’t become an iconic line out of nowhere. Or Cruise’s own “Show me the money”, or “help me, help you”. Well, he is also great at his line deliveries, what can you say?


2. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Born on the Fourth Of July (1989)

Cruise wanted to work with Oliver Stone, who was at his absolute peak at the time. Stone liked him immediately but since he had a good working relationship with Charlie Sheen on “Platoon”, he cast him in “Wall Street” but soon the opportunity came up to work with Cruise on “Born on the Fourth of July”. He ditched Sheen this time for Cruise. You can say Sheen got his revenge with Top Gun parody “Hot Shots!”. This film is anything but “Top Gun”, almost a redemption from the accusations that claimed ‘Top Gun” was a jingoistic movie. Cruise said “Top Gun” was a fairy tale, something just for fun but this movie is about “real people, real-life events”. He’s right.

Cruise played Ron Kovic, a real-life Vietnam veteran who was a God-fearing patriot who later comes back home paralyzed and disillusioned. Cruise’s performance is monumental here, absolutely destroys everyone who tried to promote him as some pretty boy who got lucky with blockbusters. His character is going through such a journey in the film, and finds himself in various situations, and his character’s personality changes in each scene but Cruise plays them all in such an affecting and thoughtful manner. Many of his scenes are incredible, like the one where he faces off with the family of the soldier whose death he thinks he’s the responsible of. Or even that wheelchair fight scene with Willem Dafoe. The nation’s most popular critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert campaigned hard for his win at the Oscars, and many other critics did.

Cruise got Best Actor nominations from National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics circle and was probably very close to winning until at some point into awards season, Daniel Day-Lewis got steam and won for his performance in “My Left Foot”, which is a great work as well. If Cruise would have won, it’d be a well-deserving victory also. It’s also a rare kind of moment where he played someone political. He avoided it till “Lions for Lambs”.


1. Magnolia (1999)


Again, it could’ve been “Jerry Maguire” or “Born on the Fourth of July” but it doesn’t matter. He’s terrific in all of them. Paul Thomas Anderson and Tom Cruise were fans of each other’s work, and he was drawn to the character Paul offered him. He was just playing a repressed character in “Eyes Wide Shut”, so it was a good opportunity to play someone larger-than-life. Cruise plays a motivational speaker peddling a pickup artist course to men. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off this part. His energy is incredible, there’s a bit of self-parody element in his approach to the role as well but the insanity he displays here is only to hide his fragile insecurity.

Despite it’s an ensemble cast and everybody is more than up to their tasks, Cruise’s performance stays with you more. He’s not afraid of going to dark and dangerous places here. Once again, it’s a star turn in a way that his charisma is there. He steals the show overall and once again, it’s also a type of character he never played before but he’s doing an amazing job at it. The scene with Jason Robards is one of the highlights of his career. After spending the film with remaining a bit of mystery, his character felt like he has no redeeming qualities. But then his bedside reunion with his father comes up, full of rage and sorrow.

“Magnolia” brought him his last Oscar nomination and he seemed like a favorite to win at some point. In the end, he lost to Michael Caine for “Cider House Rules” which is still a bit of a surprising win given the rest of the nominees. That said, Cruise’s performance is still more popular, more discussed, and more beloved. Just a brilliant performance.

Honorable mentions: His early work in “Taps”, “The Outsiders” and “All the Right Moves” show his range already, as well as his physical commitment to the roles. “Lions for Lambs” might not be a great film but his performance elevates it considerably and it’s a joy to watch him acting opposite Meryl Streep. Films like Ridley Scott’s “Legend”, Tony Scott’s “Days of Thunder” and Doug Liman’s “American Made” are not necessarily some deep character works but are good testaments of his remarkable screen magnetism and charisma. His recent films might be more action-heavy but “Jack Reacher”, “Knight & Day”, “Valkyrie” and “Oblivion” won’t work the same without his compelling leading turns.