Back to IndieWire

The Essentials: The 5 Best Tom Cruise Performances

The Essentials: The 5 Best Tom Cruise Performances

Tom Cruise turns 50 today, and he’s probably had better birthdays. His latest film, “Rock of Ages,” was a box office disappointment, and on Friday, it emerged that Katie Holmes, his third wife and mother of his daughter Suri, was filing for divorce. Just as things were seemingly starting to get back on track after a difficult half decade — last year’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” was his biggest hit ever — it looks like the actor is hitting another rough patch.

And while we’ve had our fun with him, it’s frustrating, because behind all the craziness and rumors, Cruise is a solid gold movie star, and a good (to sometimes great) actor who all too often lets the bullshit overshadow his talents. To mark Cruise turning half-a-century old, we’ve picked out our five favorite performances from across his thirty-year career. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that there’s more of these to come, and fewer questionable public outbursts and scurillous personal rumors. And you can fight for your favorite personal Cruise turn in the comments section below.

The Color of Money” (1986)
While works like “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” receive more shine, one of the most undersung films in the Martin Scorsese oeuvre is his 1986 picture, “The Color of Money.” And while the true star of the picture is Paul Newman, reprising the role of Fast Eddie Felson in the sequel to “The Hustler,” also vastly underrated in the movie is Tom Cruise as the pompadoured, cocky upstart pool player Vincent Lauria who Felson takes under his wing, only to ultimately be betrayed by him. Arguably Newman elevates their tête-à-têtes, but Cruise answers the challenge in a big way. In his first serious dramatic role since becoming a star (released less than six months after “Top Gun” became a smash), he fares much better than Leonardo DiCaprio did in his first collaborations with Marty. As became his wont, he performed much of the pool sequences himself, giving it an a easy authenticity, and is every part the strutting, glorious embodiment of youth that Felson left behind long ago; the scene of Vincent doing his thing to the tune of Warren Zevon‘s “Werewolves of London” is still one of Cruise’s most iconic movie star moments. It’s intriguing to think of an alternate world where Cruise became a regular Scorsese collaborator in the way that DiCaprio has become; it’s clear from “The Color of Money” that he would have been right at home.

Jerry Maguire” (1996)
Cruise may have given better acting performances, but he’s never shone as much as a movie star as he did in his first collaboration with Cameron Crowe, “Jerry Maguire.” It doesn’t get the best rep now, thanks to the cultural penetration of its catchphrases (“Show me the money,” “You complete me,” etc.) and its omnipresence on TV, but rewatching it, it’s still a great film, and Cruise is as terrific as he’s ever been (and deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination for his trouble). The part was allegedly written for Tom Hanks, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone except Cruise; his yuppie charisma is perfect for the role from the start, keeping Maguire from feeling like too much of a dick, and you buy every second of his moral awakening. But there’s also a big hint of crazy in the character (something we’ve seen far too much of from the star in recent years); when Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Rod Tidwell tells him “You are hanging on by a very thin thread,” you wouldn’t disagree. Aside from Cruise, the movie still vies with “Almost Famous” for Crowe’s best, Gooding Jr. and Renee Zellwegger have never been better, and the soundtrack’s pretty great too (forget the CD release, the choice cuts, from the likes of The Replacements and Gram Parsons, weren’t on it).

Magnolia” (1999)
The end of the last century saw Cruise really chase after acting glory with two potentially controversial, sexually-charged roles. One was with one of cinema’s most-acclaimed auteurs, Stanley Kubrick, in what sadly turned out to be the director’s final film. The other was with a new kid on the block: Paul Thomas Anderson, who’d broken out two years earlier with the outstanding “Boogie Nights.” Among Anderson’s Altman-esque tapestry of LA lives drawn together by happenstance, Cruise was the biggest star by far, but it’s a testament to his skills (and the director’s canny use of his star power in the casting) that Cruise more than holds his own in an ensemble that includes Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly and many more. The star plays Frank T.J. Mackey, a Neil Strauss-like self-help speaker coaching men on how to (in his words) “tame the cunt,” who’s also the estranged son of dying T.V. producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards). His monologue to an adoring crowd is a show-stopper (it’s hard not to see the DNA of the performance in the recent “Rock of Ages“), but we also see the wounded boy ditched by an unloving father years ago, in an emotional final scene that still marks Cruise’s finest piece of screen acting. It’s a testament to the collaboration that, despite Anderson’s latest film riffing on Scientology, the director and star seemingly remain friends.

Minority Report” (2002)
Now a decade old (and increasingly prescient, it would seem), this heady, ambitious sci-fi is notable not only for being the last truly entertaining, satisfying and even thought-provoking whizz-bang piece of filmmaking from Steven Spielberg (sorry, “War of the Worlds” was marred by gaudy sentimentalism) but also for being the final role of Phase 1/pre-Matt Lauer meltdown/pre-couch jumping Tom Cruise. And not surprisingly, the film is Cruise at his Cruiseiest. Set in an Orwellian future where “precogs” can see crimes before they happen, allowing police to arrest perpetrators before they commit the crime, Cruise plays a lawman who fully believes in the system until he’s accused of murdering a man he’s never met and doesn’t seemingly have any ties to. The set up is pretty much the ultimate everyman-in-crisis role that Cruise circled in lesser or more workmanlike films like “The Firm” or “A Few Good Men.” But here, aided by a great, smart and ambitious script, and, of course, guided by the sure lens of Spielberg at the top of his game, the performance is one of an A-list actor at the height of his powers. Cruise is magnetic here, and as a man still wounded by the death of his son, and winded by the revelation that the institution he loves has turned out to be a corrupt sham, the actor finds the perfect center of vulnerability and gritty determination to see justice done. Watching the film, there is simply no denying what makes Cruise both a bonafide star and an actor with chops — he gets us on his side and takes us on one helluva ride.

Collateral” (2004)
While Cruise’s career has always been marked mostly by smart and subtle shifts in his persona — playing a misogynistic womanizer in “Magnolia” or throwing his hand in the comedy game with his Les Grossman character — none have been as satisfying as his turn as the assassin for hire in Michael Mann‘s minimal, sleek thriller “Collateral.” Co-starring a subdued Jamie Foxx (one of his best turns so far), the film’s story is very simple: Cruise plays Vincent, a killer who hires a cab to drive him around Los Angeles for the night, dragging Foxx’s driver into his murderous schemes. Unlike other A-list actors who often overact and flail about in “bad guy” roles (ie. Denzel Washington in “Training Day“), Cruise goes in the opposite direction. Vincent is both compelling and creepy, a minimalist, almost animal-like turn; it’s hard not to see the coyote that he’s so mesmerized by as a twin of a kind. Cruise is particularly good when Vincent tries to rationalize his behavior, practically bringing the audience over to his point of view. Even if the film doesn’t stick the landing, turning into a disappointingly conventional shoot-em-up by the end, this is a side we don’t see often enough from Cruise; a role that finds hims out on the ledge without relying on the fallback of his Cruise persona to catch him, and it’s one we always hope to see more of.

Honorable Mentions: While the film is far from Cruise’s finest, one can absolutely see why his winning turn in “Risky Business” made the actor a star. He’s pretty solid in “Rain Man” too, playing nicely off co-star Dustin Hoffman, and picked up his first Oscar nomination for “Born on the Fourth of July,” although it felt a little too Oscar-grabby in retrospect to include in this list.

He also hit his movie-star stride in the early ’90s, and performances in “A Few Good Men,” “The Firm” and the first “Mission: Impossible” look effortless, and it’s hard to imagine many other stars taking them on. He’s also pretty good in “Eyes Wide Shut,” if overshadowed a little by then-wife Nicole Kidman, and contributed a memorable and unrecognizable cameo to Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder,” which in part helped to rehabilitate him in the public’s eyes.

— Oliver Lyttelton, RP, Kevin Jagernauth

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox