Back to IndieWire

Tom Cruise’s 15 Best Performances, from Maverick to Frank T.J. Mackey

Tom Cruise may be the Last Great Movie Star. These films tell you why.

Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise

Everett Collection

Continue reading below for more of Tom Cruise’s best performances.

“A Few Good Men” (1992)

A FEW GOOD MEN, Tom Cruise, 1992, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

“A Few Good Men”

©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Firm” meets “Top Gun” is probably the simplest way to explain Aaron Sorkin’s complicated legal drama starring Tom Cruise and directed for the screen by Rob Reiner.

Cruise plays Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, a military attorney who is assigned a murder case involving three Marines. Demi Moore is Kaffee’s fellow lawyer Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway who questions Kaffee’s motives and approach to the case.

The duo question officers at Guantanamo Bay as they uncover a conspiracy involving corrupt witness accounts and bogus testimony.

Jack Nicholson stars as Colonel Nathan Jessup, who defends the practices of his Marine unit, and Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Noah Wyle, and Cuba Gooding Jr. round out the ensemble cast.

The film was applauded by critics upon release in 1992, with its acclaim marking the Cruise star vehicle as the “anti-‘Top Gun.’” “A Few Good Men” was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. —SB

“The Firm” (1993)

THE FIRM, Tom Cruise, 1993. © Paramount Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

“The Firm”

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

John Grisham, Tom Cruise, and an erotic thriller by the (legal) book? The 154-minute running time for “The Firm” is worth every heart-pounding second as Cruise becomes entangled in a conspiracy of wealth, greed, and negligence in the ‘90s classic. In peak Cruise hit-making era, the 1993 film stars the blockbuster actor as Mitch McDeere, a recent Harvard Law School graduate who accepts a lucrative offer from a prestigious Tennessee law firm. Yet as Mitch’s thirst for money and power proves insatiable, his relationship with his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) falls apart thanks to the secretive nature of the titular Firm.

Gene Hackman plays Mitch’s boss Avery, while Ed Harris is an FBI agent using Cruise to expose the Firm’s corrupt offshore dealings and Chicago mob ties. Mitch’s legal prowess leads him to a private investigator (Gary Busey) and an ingenious secretary (Holly Hunter, who landed an Oscar nomination for the role) but leaves countless bodies in his wake. The cat and mouse thriller is anchored by Cruise’s signature smile and innate ability to build tension through his typically fierce determination to prove the truth. Call it Cruise’s good guy version of “American Psycho,” if you will, because you’ll never look at a lawyer the same way again. —SB

“Mission: Impossible” (1996 and onward)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, Tom Cruise, 1996. © Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Mission: Impossible”

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Tom Cruise seamlessly shifted into the action star status era of his career with 1996’s “Mission: Impossible.” Based on the action spy series of the same name, the film franchise has endured over 25 years of billion-dollar profits to date. Cruise transformed into charismatic CIA agent Ethan Hunt who leads the Impossible Missions Force. Brian De Palma directed the first film, originally with Cruise set to reteam with “The Firm” filmmaker Sydney Pollack before De Palma took over.

While the first film was undoubtedly an updated ode to the television series, the subsequent films helmed by John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and now helmed by Christopher McQuarrie since 2015, became synonymous with boundary-pushing stunts that redefined the genre. And, of course, Cruise was the one really climbing record-high skyscrapers and jumping out of airplanes as Hunt. Cruise has been a producer on the franchise since its inception and flexes his vision for the ultimate action sequences possible. Nothing is too “Impossible” for Cruise, and as the franchise eyes its conclusion with the two-parter “Dead Reckoning” films, slated for 2023 and 2024 releases, Cruise will no doubt conclude his career-making turn as Hunt spectacularly. —SB

“Jerry Maguire” (1996)

JERRY MAGUIRE, Tom Cruise, 1996

“Jerry Maguire”

©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

For years, conceiving a great Tom Cruise role was as simple as coming up with a cool job that lots of men wanted. Fighter pilot? Check. Pool hustler? Cruise played one. Hot bartender? Ditto. So it was almost inevitable that he would play a sports agent at some point, and Cameron Crowe gave him a beautiful vehicle to do just that in “Jerry Maguire.” While the idea of a rom-com set in the world of sports may be the greatest marketing ploy of all time, the endlessly quotable film is elevated by a thoughtful script and great performances from Cuba Gooding Jr. and Renee Zellweger. But it’s Cruise’s singular charm that ties the movie together, seamlessly alternating between alpha-male swagger and sentimental romance without ever missing a beat. It’s the kind of performance that reminds cinephiles what a real movie star is. —CZ

“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)

EYES WIDE SHUT, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, 1999

“Eyes Wide Shut”

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Tom Cruise’s last film with Nicole Kidman before the dissolution of their marriage is his most naked, literally, and for a movie that took over a year to shoot, the breakdown of Bill (Cruise) and Alice (Hartford) probably mirrored the one taking place offscreen. (The actors divorced in 2001.) But like “Magnolia,” “Eyes Wide Shut” also reveals the vulnerable streak clearly existent in Cruise from the beginning, but which a director like Stanley Kubrick had to break open. Bill wanders the streets of “New York,” the fakest-looking Pinewood Studios recreation of the city ever that only lends to the movie’s somnambulant quality. He’s frittering over his wife’s almost-assignation from years earlier, and his jealousy sends him into a long dark night of the soul and, eventually, the pit of a sexual ritual for the One Percent, where he’s outed as a nobody and asked to remove his mask and clothes.

Kubrick stops short of stripping him down to that degree, but the filmmaker disarms Cruise into giving one of his most exposed turns. (Recall an earlier scene in the film, when a marauding pack of frat boys flings gay slurs at Dr. Bill, a moment that calls the character’s, and by extension the actor’s, masculinity into question.) When the masquerade is over, and he finally heads back to a sleeping Alice, only to see the Venetian mask he wore to the orgy displayed on the pillow next to her, he breaks down. “I’ll tell you everything,” he weeps. Kubrick doesn’t show what happens then, instead cutting to an emptied-out Alice smoking blankly, having now absorbed his confession. No matter, as Cruise’s sometimes arch but inevitably denuded performance up to here tells us what we need to know about this offscreen moment. And then, of course, there’s that one thing Bill and Alice need to do as soon as possible. —RL

Keep reading for more of Tom Cruise’s best work, from an Oscar-nominated breakdown in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie to a steely-eyed turn in a Michael Mann noir.

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: Film and tagged ,

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