This feature originally ran July 2015. We’re returning to it just in time for Mission: Impossible – Fallout hitting theaters this weekend.
Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
When you look at Tom Cruise clinging to life on the side of an A400 airbus on the posters for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, it’s not a publicity stunt. It’s a statement on behalf of the then-53-year-old actor’s persistence, his will to live and keep on entertaining. Just look at the last 10 years of Cruise’s career: box-office fizzles, a suspicious personal life made public, awkward televised appearances, and a leaked Scientology video that would kill any other actor (it’s still baffling to listen to Cruise discuss “SPs” with the Mission: Impossible theme strumming in the background … but that’s a whole other article).
No, Cruise is a survivor.
For over 30 years, he’s remained in the Hollywood spotlight, accruing a body of work that many top actors would die for (and Cruise, himself, has certainly come close). He’s worked with modern greats like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the best versions of Brian De Palma, Cameron Crowe, and Oliver Stone. And now, the Mission: Impossible series has merited Cruise a reputation as a modern-day Buster Keaton for daredevil stunts with an insistence on performing them all by himself.
Say what you will about his dramatic range, or his philosophies, but Cruise has curated a mostly excellent career. In honor of his body of work, we’re Cruising past the personal (i.e. no Matt Lauer jokes, no awkward laughs) and taking a choice moment to appreciate strictly Thomas Cruise Mapother IV’s finer film feats. Ahead, you’ll find not only the man’s most memorable roles but his best performances to date, from Aames to Anderton and Mackey to Maguire. Whoa … this mission just got a hell of a lot more “impossibler.” Go for it!
Senior Staff Writer
10. Dr. William Harford
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Classic Cruise Quote: “No dream is ever just a dream.”
Crème de la Cruise: There was perhaps no better actor to appear in a Stanley Kubrick production than Tom Cruise. Hear me out: It’s all about the stare. Much to his crew’s chagrin, Kubrick arduously labored at crafting the perfect shot; some were sharp and quick, but most of them were drawn out and intensely focused. One astute observer calculated that his average shot length over eight films clocks in at 11.3 seconds. For his final swan song, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, the average rounds out to about 16 seconds, and of those shots with Cruise, the count inches up to 17.2 seconds.
It’s not that Cruise is just pretty to look at — he most certainly is — but he really knows how to absorb the scenery, the emotions, and the energy. Whether he’s prowling the staged, candy-colored streets of New York City in a sexually frustrated daze, or floating though lavish, Dionysian orgies with glowing, lamplight eyes, or crumbling emotionally at the sight of his ghastly cherubic mask, Cruise says everything without ever actually muttering a damn word. So much so that it’s very likely Kubrick spent months working with him simply because he could articulate any thematic portrait he pleased to craft.
“Underrated” is the password to this performance.
09. Captain John Anderton
Minority Report (2002)
Classic Cruise Quote: “Everybody runs.”
Crème de la Cruise: In his first rendezvous with Spielberg, Cruise leads a superb ensemble cast in a magnificent neo-noir, sci-fi mystery-thriller about free will. Minority Report, loosely based on the 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, follows Cruise’s John Anderton, a police captain in the year 2054 who nabs criminals before they commit crimes with the help of three psychics called Precogs. But when the Precogs predict that Anderton will murder a man named Leo Crow in 36 hours — despite Anderton having no idea who Leo Crow is — he goes on the run from his own PreCrime unit to try to unearth a flaw in the system, a rare case of the Precogs disagreeing, which is known as a “Minority Report.”
Anderton’s motivating tragedy is the unsolved disappearance of his son, Sean, whom he believes was kidnapped from a public pool nearly a decade prior. Divorced from his wife and addicted to drugs in the aftermath, Anderton is a grief-hardened shell, ignited only in his hunt for truth and justice. Cruise plays the emotion of these father-son scenes brilliantly, whether he is talking to a hologram home video of five-year-old Sean or staring down his gun barrel at a serial child killer who might hold the answers he’s been looking for. Often vacillating between the extremes of rage, horror, and love in one transcendent beat, Cruise’s performance in Minority Report is, like the film itself, criminally underrated.
08. Joel Goodsen
Risky Business (1983)
Classic Cruise Quote: “You know, Bill, there’s one thing I learned in all my years. Sometimes you just gotta say, ‘What the fuck, make your move.'”
Crème de la Cruise: With a couple of Bob Seger piano notes, and a disdain for pants, Tom Cruise slid into the living rooms and hearts of audiences with his boyish scoundrel Joel Goodsen. Risky Business was Cruise’s star-making role, and it featured Cruise in perhaps one of his most endearing onscreen moments, dancing around his house while his parents are out of town. It was a moment that was apparently scripted as just “dance to rock music” and improvised on set.
Risky Business showcases Cruise at his most, well, adorable. As Goodsen, he shows up in a simpler, sweeter role where he just got to act like a kind, dweeby, naïve kid. Well, an intrepid, hornball teen, rather, that makes a mint turning his parents’ Highland Park house into a brothel for a night … but it’s all in good fun! He scores on the CTA, squares off with Joey Pants, and gets to have car chases in a Porsche. And the worst thing to happen? Joel’s psycho mother gets all bent out of shape over a crack in an antique piece of glass. So, hey, chalk that up to good luck, Joel.
In the end, Joel gets away with truly risky business, and he actually benefits and grows from it. While Cruise left behind a cinematic teen legacy for all time.
07. Charlie Babbitt
Rain Man (1988)
Classic Cruise Quote: “I’m gonna let ya in on a little secret, Ray. K-Mart sucks.”
Crème de la Cruise: Without getting too hyperbolic, Cruise can do a lot of things well — he can cry, he can smile, he can run, he can hold his breath for six minutes. However, one of his oft-forgotten calling cards is his ability to make the act of frustration most entertaining. When he’s working shit out in his head, those eyes of his do all the heavy lifting, scanning infinity and beyond for answers that aren’t quite clear yet. And once those eyes close, he does the whole forehead rubdown thing, where he digs his hand into his head before slicing the air with one sizzler of a line.
He does this best in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man. Now, it’s hard to go toe to toe with Dustin Hoffman, let alone against a role that nabbed his veteran co-star the highly coveted Oscar, but Cruise stands tall alongside the autistic Ray as his estranged brother, Charlie Babbitt. What starts out as a series of irritatingly funny vignettes, all of which capitalizes on Cruise’s aforementioned strengths, turns into a tearful bond between two brothers torn apart and curiously glued back together on the road. The film’s finale, when Charlie watches Ray board the train as Hans Zimmer shines, resonates in ways that are all too human for celluloid.
Definitely natural. Definitely.
06. David Aames
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Classic Cruise Quote: “I’ll see you in another life … when we are both cats.”
Crème de la Cruise: Tom Cruise wants to be taken seriously. This is a fact we forget every time he manages to embarrass himself publicly, but it’s what led him to Kubrick, and it’s certainly what led him to this remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes). Cruise had become enamored with the Spanish film, and he did what every narcissist does when they love something: he found himself in it.
The thing is, only a narcissist could so completely nail the role of cocky publishing magnate David Aames. Vanilla Sky may be a vanity project, but that’s kind of the point; in any case, it’s fascinating to think of Cruise coming to terms with — and even embracing — his ego through the role. Actors sometimes get knocked for simply “playing themselves,” but Cruise did exactly what he had to here.
Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)
Classic Cruise Quote: “Don’t be afraid. I’m going to give you the choice I never had.”
Crème de la Cruise: When fans of Anne Rice’s 1976 cult-hit novel Interview with the Vampire found out that Tom Cruise was to play Lestat in the film version, the uproar — in the infancy of the online forum, mind you — made headlines. Rice also criticized the casting choice at the time, saying that the idea of Cruise as her lascivious big bad was “so bizarre; it’s almost impossible to imagine how it’s going to work.” After seeing the completed film, however, Rice ate her words, writing a letter of apology that praised Cruise’s performance. “From the moment he appeared,” she wrote, “Tom was Lestat for me.”
Cruise had not played a villain onscreen before Vampire, which is why, in large part, his portrayal of the flaxen-haired, shrewd, and rapacious bloodsucker Lestat was such a satisfying shock. According to film lore, Cruise prepped for the role by watching videos of lions attacking zebras in the wild. And watching him play it, the fever in his eyes glinting hard as he lunges for a taste of blood, the animalism is uncanny. More method Cruise, please.
04. Jerry Maguire
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Classic Cruise Quote: “You … you complete me.”
Crème de la Cruise: Even by Cameron Crowe’s notoriously earnest standards, Jerry Maguire is a film to which only the most sincere among us need apply. The above quote comes at the end of a scene that arguably couldn’t fly today, but the same could be said of most of Maguire, one of the first and still the most successful iterations of Crowe’s later-career mode: films about men who experience emotional and spiritual growth only after cataclysmic professional failures destroy the false, materialistic lives they once coveted.
The film’s success is largely indebted to Cruise, as well. There’s a reason that Maguire was a smash hit in its year en route to becoming Crowe’s most Oscar-lauded feature, and it’s only partially indebted to Cruise’s massive popularity at the time. He’s utterly credible as a heart-on-the-sleeve sensitive type, using the aggressively intent stare that became one of his trademarks to cut to the heart of a perfectly decent guy led astray by a morally corrupt lifestyle, one who just needs the love of a good woman and a relentlessly precocious wunderkind to truly find himself. It’s a sharp deconstruction of Cruise’s star persona to that point, the high-flying young man, and it’s a measure of how well the film holds up today that not even modern knowledge of his supposed indiscretions diminishes the film.
Classic Cruise Quote: “No, I shot him. Bullets and the fall killed him.”
Crème de la Cruise: Terrorizing Jamie Foxx has never seemed so fun. And scary.
We rarely see Cruise take the role of the villain. For 30 years, he mostly represents the All-American hero in jet planes, law offices, and a variety of action set pieces. Collateral is Cruise playing against type. His Vincent is so underground that we never learn his last name. A head full of gray hair and a weathered face are worlds away from the actor’s boyish, ageless features.
We don’t know anything about Vincent, really. All we know is that he is a hitman who will stop at nothing while tracking down his prey, and that’s what these people are to him in the end. He’s a sociopath and a psychopath, but always in control (there’s a “Cruise Control” joke to be made here, but I refuse to take the bait). In Collateral, Cruise is as focused here as he’s ever been before or since. He’s in total Cruise Control.
02. Ron Kovic
Born on the Fourth of July
Classic Cruise Quote: “I fought for my country! I am a Vietnam veteran! I fought for my country!”
Crème de la Cruise: Cruise’s character goes through more change in this film than any character of his ever has before or since. He plays Ron Kovic in three stages: high school Ronnie is wide-eyed and naïve, disabled Vietnam vet Ron is an emotional mess, and activist Ron finds purpose in his complicated life. Cruise had successfully pulled off the pretty-boy role in movies like Risky Business, The Color of Money, and Top Gun, but this was his chance to show audiences his true potential as an actor.
Born was well-received as the second part of Oliver Stone’s unofficial Vietnam trilogy (the others being Platoon and Heaven and Earth), and #Oscar saw fit to give Cruise his first nomination for Best Actor. He lost to Daniel Day-Lewis, because everyone does in the end.
01. Frank T.J. Mackey
Classic Cruise Quote: “Respect the cock. You are embedding this thought. I am the one who’s in charge. I am the one who says yes! No! Now! Here! Because it’s universal, man. It is evolutional. It is anthropological. It is biological. It is animal. We … are … men.”
Crème de la Cruise: Whenever P.T. Anderson’s ensemble drama Magnolia comes up in conversation (which is, even 16 years later, quite a lot), the first thing that comes to my mind is Frank T.J. Mackey’s encyclopedia of chauvinist quotes: “Tame the cunt!” “…a master of the muffin.” “Suck my big fat fucking saw-SEEGE!” Each line is more despicable than the next, and yet, as played by Cruise, Mackey has a sick kind of charisma to him, dealing in misogynistic venom “the way other artists might work in oils or clay,” to borrow a quote from A Christmas Story.
But while Mackey’s clownish, hateful extroversion sticks to the lobes of our collective reptile brain, Cruise’s two crown-jewel moments have nothing to do with his libido and everything to do with his vulnerability. First, we see his grotesque Mackey mask melt away when a female journalist (April Grace) grills him on lying about his upbringing. When he goes silent and she asks what he’s doing, he responds with “I’m quietly judging you.” But he says it with such fear — stoic fear, but fear nonetheless — in his eyes that we know he’s actually searching for the nearest exit.
And finally, when he’s reunited with his estranged, dying father (Jason Robards), his anger toward the man who left him with a sick mother gives way to uncontrollable sobbing. “Don’t go away, you fucking asshole, don’t go away,” he repeats over and over, bringing so many dimensions to what, in another actor’s hands, could have just been a standard ugly cry. Cruise reportedly drew from his abandonment by (and eventual reunion with) his own father for the role, an emotional risk that ripped open the chest of his established action-hero masculinity to reveal the quivering little boy underneath.