Leave it to Tom Cruise to jump start the first real summer movie season since before the pandemic. His return to the pilot’s seat as Maverick in the latest “Top Gun” film is already soaring toward $600 million worldwide — proof positive of Cruise’s enduring appeal as both a marquee movie star and skilled actor, two bona fides not always in sync.
Cruise has been leveraging looks and charm and flexing his blockbuster muscles for decades, going all the way back to the early 1980s, and his appeal never seems to age, even at 59 years old. He’s skillfully shepherded original movies as a star and producer, never falling into the trap of IP except, of course, with the franchises that are entirely his: “Top Gun,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Jack Reacher.”
While some may say that Cruise’s sculpted movie-star image lacks a certain vulnerability, many of the films below showcase his gifts for dramatic acting, proving him more than just a deft maneuverer of box office and death-defying stunts — though he is, of course, all those things.
Cruise may in fact be the Last Movie Star in a time where such a nomenclature doesn’t really mean much anymore. He’s worked with smart directors — from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick — often chasing them down himself with a wicked idea or hopes for a collaboration. He’s thrived and held his own alongside iconic movie stars in classics, from Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” to Paul Newman in “The Color of Money,” and even in duds alongside the likes of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford (“Lions for Lambs,” anyone?).
As we saw from the way he stood up against COVID rule-breakers on the set of “Mission: Impossible 7,” he cares about his collaborators and the work. And if any movie star’s going to pull Hollywood out of the pandemic, it’s Cruise, with “Top Gun: Maverick” breaking records and the next “Mission: Impossible” film headed for the same next year. (And then, of course, the eighth one after that.)
While it’s hard to pick favorites across a career so stacked with iconic titles, we went back through Cruise’s filmography to pick his 15 best performances, starting with “Risky Business” in 1983 all the way to now with “Top Gun: Maverick.”
Christian Blauvelt and Kate Erbland also contributed to this story.
“Risky Business” (1983)
©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection
Few actors embodied the ‘80s as a time of simultaneous repression and entitlement like Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.” Paul Brickman’s capitalist satire, with its silky Tangerine Dream score and night cinematography by Bruce Surtees and Reynaldo Villalobos worthy of a Wong Kar-Wai movie, finds Cruise’s high school senior Joel having sex with a call girl (Rebecca De Mornay) on a dare and getting entangled in her orbit until he’s running a brothel from his house. He certainly expresses both an attraction and terror about losing his virginity, but morality or prudishness about profiting from sex workers? Hardly, despite the white-collar suburban setting. That is, after all, a world of materialism, of transactions, and running a brothel out of one’s home isn’t transgressive — it’s entrepreneurship. Or “human fulfillment,” the corporate buzzword label Joel gives it.
Cruise, just 20 at the time, effortlessly rocked those Ray-Bans and button-down shirts, and had as iconic a “star-making” moment as any ever, when he lipsyncs Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” in his underwear. But the central tension of his career was there from the start: in this story about sex and rebellion being appropriated by capitalism, as they always are, Cruise established his appeal not as an outsider, but as the ultimate insider. Nevertheless, no one has ever made hegemony look cooler than Cruise. —CB
“Top Gun” and “Top Gun: Maverick” (1986, 2022)
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
Tom Cruise is both a great actor and a great movie star, two jobs that often overlap but don’t necessarily have to. The first “Top Gun” is a quintessential movie star performance from Cruise, relying more on excellent vibes than challenging character work. Pete Mitchell, aka Maverick, is a brilliant but cocky pilot, and we’re occasionally reminded that he’s tortured by the death of his father. But really, the movie is an excuse for Tom Cruise to wear cool sunglasses and leather jackets while he operates cool planes and motorcycles. No shame in that game, and Cruise can do it as well as anyone. But “Top Gun: Maverick” takes those good vibes and builds on them, and an aging Cruise turns the character into something much more three-dimensional as Maverick confronts the possibility of losing the life he has grown to love. Each movie is great in its own way, but the combination of the two serves as a perfect illustration of Tom Cruise’s unique set of skills. —CZ
“The Color of Money” (1986)
©Buena Vista Pictures/courtesy Everet / Everett Collection
While 1986 might be best remembered in the annals of Tom Cruise lore as the year that gave us “Top Gun,” serious fans will be quick to remember that it was also the year that gave us the first — and so far, only — Martin Scorsese and Cruise joint. Scorsese hired Cruise for a demanding role: the hotshot (OK, maybe that part was easy) pool player protégé of Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman, returning to his “Hustler” role more than two decades after it notched him an Oscar nom).
All you need to know about Cruise’s performance as Vincent — beyond the fact that he’s the kind of character who, totally unironically, wears a T-shirt printed up with just his name in massive letters across the chest — is contained in the iconic “Werewolves of London” sequence. Vince faces off against a fierce competitor just for kicks, displaying wild cockiness, total resilience, and a major panache for pool-playing that shouldn’t surprise anyone up to snuff on his dedication to practical stunts. The actor practiced for months on end and ultimately completed nearly every one of Vince’s trick shots on his own, but that’s not even the marquee attraction here: instead, it’s Cruise’s full-force charm. “Top Gun” made the initial case, but “The Color of Money” sealed it. —KE
“Born on the Fourth of July” (1989)
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
Based on Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic’s autobiography, “Born on the Fourth of July” starred Tom Cruise as an anti-war activist grappling with PTSD after being paralyzed in military service. Kovic’s life is depicted over the course of two decades onscreen; fellow Vietnam vet Oliver Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Kovic and directed the Oscar-winning film. Despite Al Pacino originally being attached to the lead role, Cruise carved out his iconic performance and received his first Academy Award nomination. Stone went on to win for Best Director, with the film also taking home Best Editing.
Ron (Cruise) was a Marine sergeant deployed to Vietnam who led his unit to mistakenly kill villagers instead of enemy combatants upon his second tour of duty in 1967. Ron also accidentally kills a young private in his platoon but is advised to cover up the murder. The following year, Ron is discharged after being paralyzed from the waist down in battle. Suffering from guilt, trauma, and depression, Ron finds himself on a road to redemption and sets out to end the war. Willem Dafoe, Kyra Sedgwick, and real-life veterans and anti-war protesters starred in the film, which culminates in Ron’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1976, on the 200th anniversary year of the country’s founding and one of Cruise’s most rousing moments. —SB
“Days of Thunder” (1990)
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
A sweat-soaked hotshot with a devil-may-care attitude and a taste for speed, danger, and zero gets handed a plum assignment that feeds all those desires and more. His love interest is smarter than him (and knows it). He rubs everyone the wrong way (including the similarly hotshot-y dudes also jockeying for a spot). He begrudgingly accepts a stately mentor. His unlikely best pal is grievously injured while on the clock. The soundtrack is a banger. Tony Scott directs.
No, this isn’t “Top Gun” — it’s the racecar drama “Days of Thunder,” which vroomed into theaters four years after the high-flying aviation hit, packed to the goddamn gills with the same elements that made the previous entry such a heart-pounder. As Cole Trickle, Cruise captures the same bravado and ballsy attitude as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, but in a decidedly earth-bound conveyance.
And though “Days of Thunder” is a totally expected follow-up to “Top Gun” — complete with an early go-for-broke performance from Cruise that accurately predicted his dedication to practical stunts whole decades ago — his work on the film boasts one key difference: to date, it’s the only film Cruise has a screenwriting credit on. It’s shared, but that only makes “Days of Thunder” feel like more of a must-see curiosity, because Cruise’s co-writer is so very unexpected: Robert Towne. Now that’s different. —KE
Continue reading on the next page for more of Tom Cruise’s best performances, from the launch of an action movie franchise to a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick that marked his most exposed turn ever.