Best To Worst: Tom Cruise’s Action Movies Ranked

Best To Worst: Tom Cruise's Action Movies Ranked
Best Worst: Tom Cruise's Action Movies Ranked

Every year, pretty much since the early ’80s, we’ve been granted a cinematic occurrence so regular you can set your watch by it, and so reliable that it’s oddly comforting — a new Tom Cruise movie. And 2014 is no different, with the Biggest Movie Star In The World’s latest, “Edge of Tomorrow” hitting theaters this weekend. Our first-look reviewers were so split on it that we ran a point/counterpoint review of the Doug Liman movie, but since then a few more of us have seen it, and we’re overall pretty high on it. 

Of course, not all the titles over Cruise’s long career are summer blockbusters, and not all of them feature him in a starring role. But if there’s one type of film that he is most associated with, and that is most responsible for his world-conquering stardom, it’s the action film with Cruise at its center, jumping out of buildings and repeatedly saving the world/the girl/democracy/freedom from the clutches of sinister men. “Mission: Impossible 5” is slated to be next year’s entry into the canon, with “Jack Reacher 2,” the more comedic “El Presidente,” and Joseph Kosinski‘s “Go Like Hell” among many other mooted projects, all pencilled in further out. 

Cruise, however, is over 50 and we have to wonder if he’s going to be able to keep this up forever. So far so good; “Edge of Tomorrow” sees him punched and kicked and shot and zapped and fried — hell, he dies like 400 times over — at an age when most men are starting to think seriously about taking up golf, but how much longer can the era of Cruise the badass action star last? We kind of take him for granted, but damned if we wouldn’t miss him if he were gone. In this elegiac frame of mind, we take a look back over the action films that have brought the actor to this point, rating them from worst to best, from most disposable to most indispensable, because sometimes it feels like Cruise is such an omnipresent brand name that we forget that there’s good reason why. Here, in ascending order, are twelve such reasons.

12.Mission: Impossible II
It was a pretty close contest between these final two films as to which would take the actual wooden spoon for last place, but, much as we loathe “Days of Thunder,” John Woo’s horrible second installment in the otherwise solid-to-inspired “Mission: Impossible” franchise just manages to pip it at the post in terms of pointlessly overblown vacuity. In fact the film is maybe most memorable now for the series of Ben Stiller riffs it inspired at the MTV movie awards where in various sketches he played Tom Crooze, Cruise’s fictional stand-in/stunt double, who keeps on offering not particularly useful advice to the real Cruise. (It’s saying something when an idea that Crooze suggests, whereby Ethan Hunt should pause mid-motorbike stunt, look to camera and say “This mission just got a whole lot more impossibler” seems like it might actually have been a perfectly natural inclusion in retrospect). The plot is silly, of course, something to do with a deadly virus and its antidote falling into the hands of Dougray Scott’s ex-IMF agent gone rogue, but that’s par for the course for the franchise. More detrimental to enjoyment is the terribly self-serious tone and the lack of anything remotely resembling emotional stakes throughout. Thandie Newton gets one good sequence early on as a sexy cat burglar type, but is quickly thereafter reduced to damsel in distress, and even the face-swapping hi-jinks so enjoyable in the first film are used here at puzzling junctures like it’s a narrative device the writers have to include for contractual purposes but can’t think of anything very clever to do with. All could maybe be forgiven if Woo’s direction was a little more measured, a little wittier, a little more ironic, but no, this is 100% Bon Jovi video bombast all the way, with kinetic editing, helicopter shots and swelling music all being used, often simultaneously, to plug the gaps in storytelling or to provide noisy cover for the fact that we’re watching something as inherently boring as, for instance, Newton standing, looking sad and wan, and waiting.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? If the film has one redeeming sequence, it’s the pre-credits scene where Hunt, doing a little free solo climbing while on holiday in Utah, is contacted by IMF with news of the mission he may choose to accept. Here Woo’s OTT style is reeled in and anchored by some truly impressive physical work from Cruise (who tore a shoulder ligament performing the famous leap from one rock face to another). There’s a simplicity to the sequence, as well as the basic thrill of seeing Cruise do a lot of the work himself, that almost saves the movie from the bottom spot, except that it then highlights just how gimmicky and absurd the whole rest of the film is.

11. “Days of Thunder
In the pantheon of “Top Gun” rip-offs, there’s none so base and cynical as “Days of Thunder” which had the gall to reunite director Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise with 100% of the plot from the original, merely transposing it to the more earth-bound world of Nascar racing in the hopes that we wouldn’t recognize we were being sold exactly the same package all over again. Only this time involved with a sport that no one gives a hoot about anyway. Featuring the number one stupidest character name ever, Cruise’s Cole Trickle is a bad-boy racecar driver who we’re supposed to get invested in despite being given no reason to (his introduction, riding to the track on a motorbike while screechy rock plays is supposedly all the back story we need). Cruise also fails to spark off Nicole Kidman (who gets exactly one good speech) in a romance subplot which is surprisingly chemistry-free, given that they’d, you know, get married thereafter. In fact the film is such a dull rehash of beats and notes hit so much better in “Top Gun” that it’s kind of impossible not to wish you were watching “Top Gun” instead. Brief flares of interest are occasionally thrown up by the reliable Robert Duvall as Trickle’s crusty but thawing head engineer/crew chief Harry, but even he can’t overcome the plodding dullness of the script, while seeing John C. Reilly play one of the pit crew is kinda fun when you consider how, many years later, he’d be sending up this very film in the also-not-very-good “Talladega Nights.” Some of the driving and crash footage is well done, though again, it can’t help but feel less exhilarating than “Top Gun” being as it’s, you know, road-based and therefore missing a whole extra axis of action that we get with planes, and story elements, like the enemy-who-turns-into-a-friend, or the doing-it-for-my-sick/dead buddy, or the gotta-conquer-my-self-doubt arc all feel tired to the point of exhaustion already, just four years after “Top Gun.”
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? Nothing, sadly, though he does briefly leave the ground while flipping over during a crash. You could also say he launched himself right off the career credibility high point of his Oscar nomination for “Born on the Fourth of July” and plummeted parachute-less to the ground with this leaden retread, but only if you were stretching a point.

10. “Knight & Day” (2010)
The action comedy is a genre that’s always tough to get right: perhaps shown by the way that Cruise has tended to be reluctant to get involved with the sub-genre — even on this action-heavy list, there’s not a lot of (intentional) laughs to be had. His aversion is probably backed up by James Mangold‘s “Knight & Day,” a bullet-riddled rom-com co-starring Cameron Diaz that, a decade earlier, probably would have been a smash, but circa 2010 massively underperformed after debuting to pretty poor reviews. Diaz plays June, an ordinary woman who encounters a charming stranger (Cruise) on a plane, only for him to be attacked by everyone else on board. It turns out he’s a secret agent, on the run from the CIA after allegedly having a break with reality, but who is actually trying to save an inventor (Paul Dano) who’s invented a perpetual battery. At least we think that’s what’s going on. The script famously amassed well over a dozen writers over years in development (and almost as many titles, “Knight & Day” arguably being the worst of them), and it shows, as the plot would be easily dismissed as utter nonsense, except you sense that no one involved actually cares that much about it. It’s meant to be the frame for a genre-blending romance, but this sort of thing needs to feel effortless to work, and for the most part, you can sense the flop sweat coming off everyone, from the uninspired, CGI-crippled action sequences to the vacuum of chemistry between the leads. Mangold does do some interesting structural stuff in terms of leaping from location to location, and there’s some intrigue on a meta level, given the possibly unhinged nature of Cruise’s character, which seems to be a conscious reference to his couch-jumping public persona at the time. He’s certainly game (when is he not?), but there’s little to recommend of the film beyond his sheer commitment to the role.
What Does Tom Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? For the most part, Cruise’s movement is horizontal rather than vertical here, with action sequences on planes, a freeway, a train and a motorbike. There’s some light building-jumping, though, and he leaps onto a couple of moving cars during the freeway chase. Oh, and off a boat, at one point, which might be a first in the Cruise canon.

9.Jack Reacher
Tom Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie have been best buds for a few years now. It started circa 2008 when Cruise was considering several projects, but all the scripts had to be tweaked and tailor made for the star (natch). One of the scripts was “The Tourist,” which Johnny Depp would eventually star in and McQuarrie redrafted for the chosen one. One that actually got made with Cruise in the lead was “Valkyrie” directed by Bryan Singer and McQuarrie is even credited as a writer of Cruise’s latest “Edge of Tomorrow.” But their 2012 collaboration “Jack Reacher,” an adaptation of Lee Child’s “One Shot,” feels as if the star and filmmaker got together and said, “what if we made a ‘70s-style action film with an anti-hero protagonist that plays by his own rules and is above the law?” Thus “Jack Reacher” is about an ex-military policeman turned temporary homicide investigator only because an accused, seemingly guilty sniper has asked for him by name cuing up the conspiracy that unravels when the relentless Reacher turns up. Plotting in the movie is grossly convoluted, it’s full of expository montages designed to hide the fact that it’s really just an excuse for Reacher to kick ass. Cruise’s tough guy character essentially amounts to: when a situation is unfair, when someone is being mean, Jack Reacher will show up out of nowhere to even the score (like beating up dudes who slap around their girls, because That’s Not Cool). That said, the action is pretty good, the film’s car chase is taut and well-orchestrated (though a bit overlong) and its sniper/shootout sequence in the end is also very commanding and well assembled. The bright spot of the movie showing up at the 2/3rds mark is the inclusion of Robert Duvall as an old sniper/war veteran who helps out Reacher, while the should-be-a-bright-spot-of-the-movie-but-isn’t is a ridiculous Werner Herzog as a Teutonic villain. All in all, it’s a bit ironic that the screenwriter-turned-director puts an emphasis on action and set-pieces and a pretty low premium on character and story. Look out, McQuarrie is next set to potentially damage the “Mission: Impossible” series, as he’s on board to direct episode 5.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? There are many levels on which “Jack Reacher” can be counted as a disappointment, and the almost total absence of Cruise jumping off stuff has to be one of them. Head stompings, fistfights and even eye-gougings abound, but Cruise remains resolutely earthbound. His Reacher, a little like the movie, has feet of clay. 

8. Oblivion
Let it stand for the record that several contributors have made a case for “Oblivion” deserving better than the ignominy of seventh place on the basis of its aesthetics alone. But the glossiness of the visuals, all sleek hyperdesigned whites contrasted against the ruined planet below and the mix-and-match tech of the rebels only serves to highlight the derivative emptiness of the story it’s all in service of: almost every single element of “Oblivion” has been done more convincingly and with more soul, in another film before. A narrative mash-up of “Wall-E,” “Dune,” “Moon” and “Total Recall,” among many others, Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to “Tron: Legacy” is an improvement on that first bite at the bright, white sci-fi cherry, but despite a more involving story and a central character who should actually have some purchase on our sympathy, it’s just as instantly forgettable (honestly we did a double take just recalling that Olga Kurylenko is even in this). Andrea Riseborough can come out of it with her head held high; other worthy actors like Morgan Freeman, a screen-bound Melissa Leo and a surplus to requirements Nikolaj Coster-Waldau don’t fare so well, and Cruise himself is unusually bland, mostly because it feels like the director is barely interested in his human actors, more concerned with how the funky motorbike thingies look and how live-action “Jetsons” he can make the apartment seem. There’s potential for a more engaging film in the particular combination of familiar elements–post-apocalypse, humans vs machines, conspiracy, rebellion, self-sacrifice etc–but Tom Cruise Star vehicle no XX-903 just feels, if you’ll forgive, like a clone of other, much more worthwhile films.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? There’s a lot of falling and jumping throughout “Oblivion” most notably off the amazingly sleek “Sky Tower,” a glass home in the clouds that sits on a spindly platform 3,000ft above the earth’s surface, to which Cruise descends in a similarly lovingly designed “bubble ship.” But he also jumps down off dunes, and motorbikes and falls through holes in the earth which open into massive underground lairs which give the opportunity for, and perhaps only exist because of, some nice lighting effects.

7. War of the Worlds
Less a pure action movie than many films on this list — it’s a tripod of sci-fi, action and disaster — 2005’s “War of the Worlds” was Cruise’s second collaboration with Steven Spielberg, adapting the classic HG Wells novel for the umpteenth time and shifting the action forward a century and across the Atlantic to where Cruise plays an implausible blue-collar everyman. Much less fun than actioners like the “Mission: Impossible” series – but then, that’s the breakdown of human civilization in the face of a merciless alien threat for you – it doesn’t really manage to achieve the dramatic strength it was aiming for either. Cruise’s character has little dimension to him (beyond the compulsory Spielbergian failed marriage) and Dakota Fanning‘s spectacularly thankless role as his daughter who has more screams than dialogue. As an alien film from the man who made “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” it’s also a disappointment, with the invaders having no personality or presence (and in the end their defeat is anti-climactic, though that’s on Wells). In fact, the most compelling parts don’t feature the invaders at all: they’re the scenes of mass panic and social breakdown early on, which feature jumpy, eye-level photography from Spielberg’s regular DP Janusz Kaminski. These sequences were supposedly inspired by the amateur footage of 9/11, and like so many of the other “post-9/11” disaster movies the resonance isn’t really there, especially as the film also goes out of its way to avoid any over-familiar shots of major landmarks blowing up. Still, those scenes are effective on their own terms, and Industrial Light and Magic do their usual impressive work on the alien tripods when they do show up. In the end though, it’s a forgettable part of Cruise’s back catalogue, a competent but undistinguished and unfocused film that does nothing new with a story which, as Orson Welles taught us back in 1938, works best on radio. 
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? You can tell this is a more serious entry by how few things Cruise gets to jump off/fall from; we don’t even see him hit the water after the ferry overturns. Though at the film’s climax, he does get taken up into a cage-thingy with a group of other humans, including his daughter, which is suspended from one of the massive “tripods” and which, when Cruise’s grenade delivery brings down the beast, does then fall to the ground. Still, not a high point in the history of Cruise descending from high points.

6. The Last Samurai
Handsomely shot, well researched and deeply respectful (to a fault) of the waning samurai culture it details, Ed Zwick’s “The Last Samurai” would have a shot at actual greatness if the overt liberal Western guilt of its premise wasn’t so consistently undercut by the centrality of the West’s biggest movie star, Tom Cruise. As it is, it’s kind of a guilty pleasure, we have to say, and from its epic battle scenes to the loving recreation of (a particularly rose-tinted view of) Samurai village culture, the whiff of romanticized Orientalism is unavoidable, but seductive in its own right. And Cruise does play a less overtly heroic hero, starting off as an alcoholic soldier broken by his participation in the annihilation of one indigenous population (the American Indian tribe he and his regiment slaughtered during the Indian Wars) only to find himself in the crosshairs of a new conflict between traditionalism and modernity in Japan as the ancient Samurai culture comes under threat from Western sympathizers within Japan’s ruling elite. Zwick has made this kind of politically unsubtle but broadly effective work his stock in trade (see also “Glory” and “Blood Diamond”) but here the trappings are rich and evocative and the supporting performances, especially from Ken Watanabe as the impossibly noble Samurai leader, are really quite moving in their evocation of the end of an era. Surprisingly perhaps, the film actually did better in Japan than in the U.S. despite, or maybe because of, its not-exactly nuanced portrayal of the samurai as wholly honorable, peace-loving types (homegrown greats like Akira Kurosawa never presented them as so wholly pure and decent) and Western influence as pernicious and corrupting. And the paint-by numbers approach, with Cruise’s officer finding peace and community within this rigid but beautiful culture really does work … right up until the film’s closing moments, when we start to suspect that we’re supposed to infer that in fact it’s Cruise and not Watanabe who is the titular Last Samurai, and we become horrified at how much we’ve been taken in all over again. Still, there’s a pretty spectacular ninjas vs samurai battle, and Cruise acquits himself very well in the fight scenes.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? Nothing. In fact nothing can indicate better how much this is an inversion of the Cruise formula (he’s on the losing side, after all) than by pointing out that not only does he not jump from anything this time out, he and the villagers in fact get jumped on by that horde of stealthy ninjas descending from rooftops as is their sneaky wont.

5.Mission: Impossible III
The workhorse of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, ‘III’ basically did what it needed to in terms of erasing the bad memories left by the bloated, overblown and damn silly second installment, and reestablishing the series on a firmer footing, but even at the time it felt oddly minor. Despite the quality presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain Owen Davian whom he plays as a reptilian creature of pure malevolence, and a terrific cameo from Keri Russell whose early death gives the film easily its most memorable moment, a lot of ‘III’ feels mechanical—efficient rather than particularly inspired. Part of the problem was a lack of chemistry between the central team this time out (to be fair, Jonathan Rhys Myers and Maggie Q are given absolutely zero personality to work with above ”dude who drives things” and “hot woman who occasionally kicks ass” respectively), but perhaps the place the stretchmarks show most is in the narrow scope of the storytelling. Partly because of the undefined nature of the big threat, and partly down to the focus instead on the personal stakes for Ethan, the film feels relentlessly small-screen. And with good reason. This was JJ Abrams‘ first feature film outing, and a lot of the plot turns and even the shooting style seem directly lifted from his successful TV spy series “Alias,” right down to the daft maguffin at the heart of it all (the “Rabbit’s Foot” whose actual function is never revealed) and the introduction of two characters (played by Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup) whose potential double-crosses don’t hold much interest for us as we’ve never seen them before and have no investment in their backstories. Add to that Davian’s immensely anticlimactic death (hit by a car? really?) a whole Vatican heist bit that we’d completely forgotten about (seriously, how can a heist in the Vatican be so unmemorable?) and an ending so cheesily domestic (aww, he gets to introduce wifey to his work pals like a normal guy) it might as well freeze frame on them all mid-laugh, and you get a package that gets the job done but with nowhere near the style and wit of the first and fourth installments.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? Somewhat prefiguring the already classic Burj Khalifa moment in ‘Ghost Protocol’ ‘M:I3’ sees Cruise’s Ethan Hunt forced to attempt ingress into a Shanghai skyscraper via its glass-topped roof. Which he can only access by swinging onto from a taller building nearby. And later he has to base-jump out of it, natch. Like much of the film, it’s a solid sequence that simply is blasted into forgettability by the superiority of the next film in the series.

4.Mission: Impossible
For better or worse, Brian de Palma set up, with this first installment, the essential recipe for the “Mission: Impossible” franchise: take a generous helping of tortuous plotting, add a splash of inevitable high-level betrayal, a sprinkling of memorable action, throw in a couple of people-wearing-masks-of-other-people, a soupcon of romantic intrigue, a dollop of criminal mastermind hellbent on world domination and season liberally with Tom Cruise. But it has to be said that this first time out the souffle rose, and the film came out a stylish, glossy package that still contains, in the Langley sequence and the train-pursued-by-a-helicopter-through-the-channel-tunnel, two of the franchise’s, and possibly even the genre’s silliest yet best sequences. What de Palma did so gracefully here was control the tone of the endeavor so that no matter how breathlessly perilous a stunt sequence may be, there’s always time for the tiny detail, which can itself then become a thrill (like the bead of sweat falling oh so slowly toward a pressure-sensitive floor) or the cathartic laugh (the fainting driver of the high speed train) which keeps everything squarely in the fun zone, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Helped by strong support despite underwritten roles from Jon Voight, Vanessa Redgrave, Jean Reno, Emmannuelle Beart and Ving Rhames, and aided by Cruise really seeming in his natural element in the many action scenes, de Palma made it look as easy as falling off a log, but it wouldn’t be until the fourth installment that a director would again be able to satisfyingly capture the mixture of high-stakes action and sheer entertainment value. So safe to say, while the film tends to be regarded as a minor de Palma, and certainly the script does thud and clang along (its best sequences are dialogue-free) it deserves a little more respect than that, especially in the pantheon of Tom Cruise action movies.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? Well, it’s not particularly high, but the ceiling of the white room in CIA headquarters from which Ethan Hunt has to descend noiselessly in order to steal a computer file is a metaphorical high watermark in Cruise’s action career so deserves special mention here. The terrifically well-shot, dialogue-free sequence certainly ranks among the most visually memorable and instantly iconic that the actor has ever been involved in.

3. “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”
For a movie that features a fairly paper thin, outdated premise—even for a ‘Mission Impossible’ movie—‘Ghost Protocol’ is pretty damn entertaining, at least most of it. The premise essentially: a mad man wannabe Russian terrorist wants to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. so a global world war will start, and the reasons why are explained, but none of it really makes a lick of sense. But credit director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) for orchestrating a movie so taut and engaging, that moves with such shark-like momentum, that you don’t really care or question the maguffin-like nature of the villain. Yes, ‘Ghost Protocol’ does get a little rote in its third act, but the Burj Khalifa Tower sequence in Dubai is positively thrilling, near-breathtaking in its edge-of-your-seat craziness and the sandstorm scene that follows it is equally inventive, using blindness and lack of sight in an incredibly clever manner that you don’t see often in action movies, as well as using silence and pauses to ramp up the tempo and tension. ‘Ghost Protocol’ doesn’t have much in the way of character — at least not for Tom Cruise — most of the emotional beats in the movie surround Paula Patton’s character’s need for revenge and a guilt-complex for Jeremy Renner, but it’s not like “Mission Impossible” films ever had much in the way of personal development, and after the misstep of focusing too much on his home life in “Part III,” it’s kind of a relief that Cruise/Hunt gets to be the taciturn, enigmatic hero once more. And for all that, there are some great little character moments in amongst the action—not only does falling down actually seem to hurt this time, perhaps our favorite beat happens just after Cruise (of course) jumps from the hospital building early on. Hitting a van on the way down and tumbling to the ground, he exchanges a look with his pursuer which is as much “I can’t believe I made that!” as it is “So long, sucker!” which is exactly the kind of gentle, witty subversion that the film does so well throughout. Considering what a satisfying, engaging action film, ‘Ghost Protocol’ is, just imagine what would happen if Brad Bird and Cruise teamed-up for a movie with a real screenplay.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? Em, hello, the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, where have you been? Of course he “only” climbs out from about the 120th floor or so up to the server room, and it’s up to Lea Seydoux to actually fall out of it, but still we can’t help but think that “Mission: Impossible 5” may be delayed while they wait for a higher structure to be built to fling Cruise out of next time.

2.Minority Report
As fine an example as we can summon, of amazing skill and craft going into the telling of a story that possibly doesn’t really deserve such glossy treatment, Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” is easier to admire than to love. But there is plenty that is admirable, especially in filmmaking terms, with the production design and the staging of some of the set pieces particularly effective, as well as a vision of next-generation tech that is both plausible and impressively imagined (we really thought we’d not be as taken with it this time out, what with the prevalence of iPads and motion-sensitive programming and whatnot, but no, that big bank of clear screens that Cruise throws images around on is still the coolest). It’s just a shame it’s all hung on a convoluted and overly tricksy plot (and yes we know it’s Philip K Dick’s story) that requires just too many disbelief suspensions to really satisfy—from the “magic” of people seeing the future (but only murders) to the central murder itself, to the obviousness of who is the real culprit pretty much from moment one, there’s only so much running and jumping that Cruise can do to distract from the daftness. And an air of somber sobriety, complete with trademark Spielbergian broken family, sits rather at odds with the attempts at visual humor, as when Cruise, in one of his own signature moves, crashes in through a window and ends up in a contorted heap in the middle of a yoga class, or when the flames from a pursuing cop’s jet pack accidentally flame-grill a row of burgers. Side characters too are often bizarrely amped-up for quirk, with Peter Stormare’s back street eye surgeon unable to deliver a single line without an eye joke in it and Tim Blake Nelson’s prison guard inexplicably given a full-on organ to play to the cryo-suspended (or whatever) inmates. So it often doesn’t work, and is lumbered a credulity-straining plot and with Boring Sci-fi Title #435 (see also: “Source Code,” “Edge of Tomorrow” et al) but when it does work, as with the “spider” attack sequence, half of which Spielberg shoots in overhead shots through broken ceilings while a blindfolded Cruise hides out in an ice bath, it really works.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? On two occasions Cruise jumps from tall buildings, the first is when he’s escaping by jumping onto passing hovercars, and the second where his flings himself and his assailant off a rooftop, fights on the way down and saves himself by activating the man’s jet pack at the last moment. The latter is especially good and goes to prove that when it comes to Tom Cruise Jumping Off Stuff (or indeed to Tom Cruise in general), height isn’t everything.

1. “Top Gun
Feelings run so high over Tony Scott’s 1986 fighter pilot classic that a staffer who dared suggest the first two films on this list switch rankings has been thrown in the Playlist dungeons on bread and water for a week. No doubt part of that is nostalgia, but a great deal of that nostalgia is pretty well-founded: “Top Gun” may have been parodied and critiqued (especially on the basis of its homoeroticism, thanks Quentin Tarantino) into smithereens in the decades since, but that really just goes to show what a peerless example of its genre it really is. Not so much formulaic as the film that established the formula that others copied faithfully thereafter, it’s also marked by never-bettered aerial combat sequences that prove the late Tony Scott’s pretty much unrivalled way ability to craft pure adrenaline highs from footage of boys playing with their big, noisy toys. To recap the plot for anyone who’s forgotten one of the Seven Basic Stories: Maverick (Cruise) is a reckless fighter pilot with Daddy issues, who enrolls in an elite training academy along with his best friend (Anthony Edwards’ Goose), comes into conflict with a similar Alpha (Val Kilmer’s Iceman), romances a sexy instructor (Kelly McGillis), loses his mojo following the death of his friend for which he feels guilty, and finally regains it by finding out the truth of his father’s death and ultimately teaming up with his old nemesis to bring down some real bad guys. All accompanied by an insistent rawk score by Harold Faltermeyer, interspersed with HUGE tracks like Berlin’s “Take my Breath Away” and Kenny Loggins’Danger Zone,” on a soundtrack that also made unlikely action movie heroes of …The Righteous Brothers. But the biggest legacy of “Top Gun” was Cruise himself: if “Risky Business” had made him a star, it was “Top Gun” that made him a megastar and it’s impossible to think that he’d have attained the level of stratospheric fame he subsequently did, without this snarling, testosterone-fuelled power chord of a film as a launchpad.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? Answer: a F-14 fighter jet, and pretty damn high—Cruise’s Maverick goes into a flat spin after being buzzed into Iceman’s jetwash, forcing him to eject from his plane several thousand meters above the water, which goes ok for him, but not so well for Goose, and presumably trashes the plane entirely. In fact all of Cruise’s subsequent jumps/falls put together would scarcely make a dent in this spectacular, narratively convenient plummet.

Where is “Collateral” you say? Well, it’s not really an action movie per se, but in case you’re curious, the Michael Mann-directed drama would probably be on the top of the list (or neck and neck with “Top Gun”), if we did consider it. You’ll find love for it in the features we did on our favorite Tom Cruise performances (and the longer, Most Tolerable Cruise performances) as well as in our Michael Mann retrospective. Other outliers that we considered that didn’t quite make the “action” classification include the decent Brat Pack showcase “The Outsiders,” in which Cruise’s role is not so central and which we covered in this Before He Was Famous feature, and the dire paddywhackery of “Far and Away” which would certainly take the bottom spot here if we felt its land race scenes lifted it out of the category of turgid romance and into the category of turgid action film. But they don’t. Wanna scream about how wrong we’ve got our order? That’s what the comments section is for. –Jessica Kiang,  Rodrigo Perez, Ben Brock and Oli Lyttelton.

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