Tom Cruise remains one of the last great superstars. He’s been in the game since the early 1980s, and his modern-day offerings like Top Gun: Maverick still rake in enviable numbers. Cruise‘s latest project, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, is now in theaters. That means it’s time to look back at the best Tom Cruise movies.
The hardest part? Only keeping it at five.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
I go back and forth with Jerry Maguire. On certain watches, I enjoy it as a clever examination of a cynical man’s struggles to deal with a newly sprouted conscious. Other times, I find Cameron Crowe’s blockbuster trite, hamstrung by a goofy love story that distracts from the fascinating sports angle.
At any rate, Cruise is terrific (if not overqualified) in the lead role. He believably conveys Jerry Maguire’s fluctuating persona — a shark relegated to a vegan lifestyle, desperate for new ways to season the vegetables. Aside from Knight and Day, Jerry Maguire marks the only time Cruise ventured into the rom-com arena, which doesn’t fit his distinguished brand.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Others may slide Cruise’s work in The Color of Money or Born on the Fourth of July into this slot.
I, for one, can’t overlook the man’s incredible, award-worthy turn in Ben Stiller’s raucous Tropic Thunder. Here, Cruise shows off his sharp comedic chops as Les Grossman, a foul-mouthed and eccentric Hollywood studio executive. Unrecognizable under layers of latex, Les remains Cruise’s most outlandish role — far removed from the noble yet emotionally fragile Ethan Hunt.
In a film full of dazzling comedic performances, Cruise rises to the top. He delivers memorable lines like “literally, fuck your own face!” and “I will rain down an ungodly fucking firestorm upon you! I’m talking scorched earth, motherfucker! I will massacre you! I will fuck you up!” with the precision of a top-tier comic artist.
Cruise was snubbed an Oscar for his standout performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, where he portrays Frank T.J. Mackey, a charismatic and controversial motivational speaker whose first lines are “Respect the cock! And tame the cunt!”
Mackey is as far removed from Pete “Maverick” Mitchell as most people are from wealth these days. The character only has roughly 15-20 minutes of screen time in the 3-hour and 10-minute picture, but leaves a lasting impact. That’s saying something, considering the talent involved in the epic drama.
Rain Man (1988)
Top Gun may have made Cruise a box office star, but Rain Man was the film that cemented his place among the A-listers. Cruise essentially plays a more layered Maverick, an undeniably cool but dysfunctional man-child who masks his emotions behind a bulky set of Ray Bands. His character undergoes a fascinating arc, resulting in an emotionally satisfying finale that caters to his best instincts as an actor.
Surprisingly, Cruise wasn’t even nominated for his performance, losing out to Alec Guinness (Little Dorrit), Martin Landau (Tucker: The Man and His Dream), River Phoenix (Running on Empty), Dean Stockwell (Married to the Mob) and eventual winner Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda). Hoffman took home the award for Best Actor, overshadowing one of the best Tom Cruise movies, which has aged like fine wine and deserves far more attention than it receives.
Cruise failed to garner acclaim for his mesmerizing work in Michael Mann’s underappreciated Collateral. Playing against type, Cruise stars as Vincent, an enigmatic hitman who forces Jamie Foxx’s lowly cab driver to escort him across Los Angeles for a night of assassinations. Intense, nuanced, and ultimately likable, Cruise portrays Vincent as a lost boy searching for purpose. He knows how to kill, but the more Foxx’s Max digs into his psyche, the more we learn Vincent struggles with existentialism. Cruise infuses the cold-hearted assassin with moments of vulnerability and glimpses into his troubled past, rendering the character equally compelling and unsettling.
Moreover, Cruise’s commitment to the gun training drenches his performance with an extra level of believability — you believe this man could wipe out a group of street thugs with a few shots of his pistol. It’s a shame the actor never returned to the villain role later in his career, as he has the chops, talent, and charisma to make for one cold-hearted yet likable bastard.
In terms of Oscars, Cruise somehow missed out on another nomination that year, while Foxx took home all the accolades. That’s a questionable call. Foxx is good as Max, but Cruise is the one who stands out, making this one of the best Tom Cruise movies. At the very least, he deserves more recognition than Clive Owen (Closer) and Alan Alda (The Aviator).