Today, Tom Cruise is synonymous with gravity-defying stunts that adorn the biggest set pieces in the Mission: Impossible movies, wherein his passionate love for doing his own stuntwork has cemented his reputation as a larger-than-life movie star. Few actors possess the magnetism that Tom Cruise exudes, whether on set or on the big screen, in which he dazzles with his 1000-megawatt smile and carefully-crafted, manic intensity. However, Cruise is not just a decorated action star who merely entertains in the form of thrills — he shines best in complex dramas that demand characters to descend into the depths of what truly defines them. Be it a dollar bill brandishing Bill Harford or a chaotically tenacious Jerry Maguire, Cruise knows how to navigate nuanced character vignettes and imbue any film he’s in with a telltale intensity that cannot be replicated.
Having worked on 40+ films, alongside some episodes in television and documentaries, Tom Cruise has emerged as a bonafide — dare I say — icon in the past couple of years. Keeping this in mind, ranking every film he’s been in can be a tricky endeavor: after all, art is violently subjective and cannot truly be ranked to discern its innate value. Before we proceed, I would like to clarify the following: this ranking will be a combination of the quality of a film and the quality of Cruise’s performance in it, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. So, if you don’t see a, say, Top Gun: Maverick at numero uno, please don’t come rushing with your pitchforks!
Finally, this is as much a ranking as an appreciation for Tom Cruise’s staggering range and intensity as an actor, so please feel free to have a good time while you’re at it. With that out of the way, let’s dive in.
43. Endless Love (1981)
Tom Cruise’s debut performance as Billy in Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love is too blink-and-you-miss-it for it to warrant a substantial place in his filmography. Although Cruise’s character partially impacts the central romance between Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt with a tale of unintentional arson, there’s not enough to go on here. Moreover, Endless Love can be categorized as an adaptation that does not understand its source material or the turgid, obsessive love affair that lies at the heart of the story.
42. The Mummy (2017)
Remember the Dark Universe? Neither do I. As a part of a terribly under-planned and misguided attempt to create a cinematic universe with classic Universal monsters, The Mummy was the first and final nail in the coffin for this ambitious franchise. Helmed by Alex Kurtzman, the film had several writers on board, along with David Koepp and Christopher McQuarrie. However, the end result was a bafflingly lackluster script led by a character whose blandness overrides his consistently unbearable smugness.
Tom Cruise’s usual charm, which generally oscillates between endearing and effectively cocky throughout his filmography, comes off as obnoxious in The Mummy, mostly due to the way it is handled. Apart from being a failed Tom Cruise vehicle, The Mummy thoroughly lacks originality to the point that it comes off as a sad pastiche of the classics it desperately tries to imitate.
41. Cocktail (1988)
Here, Tom Cruise plays yet another cocky flirt, this time a bartender named Brian Flanagan. Cocktail is the quintessential hollow ‘80s movie, with its glamour and appeal resting heavily on Cruise’s good looks. Well, the story in itself revolves around Brian’s ability to seduce women (whilst bartending, for the most part) until he decides to romance Elisabeth Shue’s Jordan. Unfortunately, Cocktail fails to imbibe any of the standard thrills that are cognizant of good romantic dramas, as the script lacks the depth to keep the audience invested or hooked. However, if you are ever in the mood to watch an unbearably suave Cruise flaring at a bar while the rest of the plot (plot? what plot?) gradually fades into the periphery, Cocktail is the perfect Tom Cruise film for this sole purpose.
40. Losin’ It (1983)
A sex comedy about adolescents trying their damnest to get laid, Losin’ It follows a young Tom Cruise on a road trip to Tijuana with his gang, who, wait for it, want to get some. Although there is nothing inherently bad about Curtis Hanson’s film, it unfurls as a run-of-the-mill genre offering, rife with coming-of-age tropes and semi-hilarious shenanigans that end in some sort of pseudo-profound life lesson. Worth skipping entirely unless you’re a Cruise completionist.
39. Lions for Lambs (2007)
A war drama helmed by Robert Redford with a talent-packed cast including Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Redford himself, sounds like the perfect Oscar bait. However, Redford’s Lions for Lambs was far from what everyone envisioned the film to be. Instead, it turned out to be a preachy, hollow morality drama with long-winded monologues that seemed like pedantic lectures. A film about America’s war on terror, Lions for Lambs executes its subject material in a rather pompous manner, robbing the film of the nuance and substance it should have essentially embodied. Although Tom Cruise is fine as Senator Jasper Irving, his performance fails to eclipse the dull execution of what could have been an especially riveting narrative about the futility of war.
38. Rock of Ages (2012)
Broadway musicals can be electrifying, and when appropriately adapted to the big screen, the results can be brilliant (a recent example being Steven Spielberg’s abundantly layered West Side Story). Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages, based on Chris D’Arienzo’s jukebox Broadway musical of the same name, is almost too eccentric(ally bad) for its own good, crumbling into a brand of silliness I personally cannot get behind. Having said that, Tom Cruise is the only redeeming aspect of Shankman’s lifeless adaptation, who imbues metal rocker Stacee Jaxx with a bonkers, chameleon-like quality, managing to keep the movie afloat during the direst of times. If you can get past some of the intense croonings, that is.
37. Far and Away (1992)
In Far and Away, Tom Cruise and his then-wife Nicole Kidman play Irish immigrants coming to the US hoping to partake in the elusive American Dream. This premise can quickly become hackneyed if not treated with some modicum of ingenuity. And it does. In a case of pure miscasting, both Cruise and Kidman fail to reinvigorate this American epic with any sort of weight, despite their best efforts. Although visually stunning, Far and Away is the kind of film that suffers from shallowness that it seems to be unaware of, devoid of any meaningful stakes that can hurtle this drama towards a reasonable conclusion. Cruise’s Irish accent is…interesting, to put it mildly, which does not help the film’s case in any shape or form.
36. Taps (1981)
To be fair, Taps is a relatively good military drama, with a string of convincing performances backing it, especially by Timothy Hutton, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for the same. As we’re ranking films as per the quality of Tom Cruise’s performances, Taps ranks lower due to the limited screen time the actor has to work with here. Playing Cadet Captain David Shawn, Cruise plays a character who takes his responsibilities a tad too seriously, banking on the age-old notions of honor, which are often associated with a certain brand of masculinity and heroics. Despite the film’s self-endorsed seriousness, Taps, with or without Cruise, is a little lackluster on the stakes front and is pretty forgettable as a whole.
35. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
Jack Reacher (2016)
Banality is the name of the game in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, the sequel to the moderately enjoyable 2012 film, which still possesses numerous merits worth consideration. Tom Cruise reprises the franchise’s titular role, which often smacked as odd to me since Lee Child’s hulking protagonist is a far cry from Cruise’s rendition of the officer-turned-vigilante. However, the core issue with Edward Zwick’s sequel is not Cruise but a meandering, heavily by-the-numbers plot that seeps out any semblance of joy one can expect to derive from a standard action thriller.
The film’s reported budget of $96 million feels thoroughly unearned, as it is barely reflected in the shoddily-executed final product. Although Cruise is markedly different from the character’s novel counterpart, he brings a haunting intensity to the role that would have definitely fared better with a stronger, more cohesive script.
34. All The Right Moves (1983)
An early Tom Cruise entry, All The Right Moves, is pretty nondescript in terms of its filmmaking merits but emerges as pivotal in cementing Cruise’s credibility as a leading man. This Michael Chapman sports drama revolves around a Pennsylvania high-school footballer who is at loggerheads with his coach, desperate to escape his humble roots and make it big in the world of professional sports.
In terms of storyline, All The Right Moves is pretty middling, mimicking dozens of Hollywood entries that feature a gifted high schooler with ambitious aspirations persevering against all odds. However, Cruise manages to keep the storyline grounded, hence elevating an otherwise trite coming-of-age drama into a refreshingly honest character study worth checking out
33. Legend (1985)
Fresh off the success of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott ventured into the epic dark fantasy realm with Legend, which can only be described as a neverending fever dream. Now, don’t get me wrong: I think Legend is pure camp fun, and my love for the film knows no bounds. Be it a heavily costumed Tim Curry, who plays a 10-foot Lord of Darkness with menacing bravado, or an electrifying Mia Sara, whose Black Swan-like transformation may or may not have been my bisexual awakening, Legend is deliriously bonkers in the best of ways.
However, the film’s weakest link is Tom Cruise’s everyman-turned-hero Jack, who fights the devil with the power of light while donning armor made with a thousand shiny bottle caps. Cruise’s performance is not nearly as campy as the film demands. Hence, he painfully sticks out, like a being never truly belonging in the trippy wonderland it seems to inhabit.
32. Days of Thunder (1990)
A lot of hopes and dreams were pinned on Days of Thunder right around the time of its release, as it was the second collaboration between Tom Cruise and Tony Scott after the iconic Top Gun. Although it failed to meet these extremely high expectations, Days of Thunder whirls its way to the finish line in a way typical of a NASCAR flick: there are uber-fast cars, cocky drivers, and love interests cheering these hot-shot men on.
This is also the film in which Cruise met Kidman, who plays the love interest to his Cole Trickle. The film in itself? Underwhelming and pretty formulaic when it comes to its derivative plotting. Cruise, however, brings his telltale dynamism to the role, offering a glimpse of the manic intensity that would define some of his career’s best roles. Think of it as a mellowed Fast & Furious for Cruise lovers, and hey, that’s not a terrible bargain.
31. Knight and Day (2010)
James Mangold takes quintessential action-hero tropes and turns them on its head in Knight and Day, which is as fun and hilarious as it gets. Tom Cruise’s secret agent is on the run from the CIA (because, of course, he is) and needs to team up with June Havens (an extremely charming Cameron Diaz). The Diaz-Cruise duo works exceptionally well, both in serious dramas and comedic routines. The latter was proven true in Knight and Day, which remains rewatchable despite being predictable to some point. While Cruise’s Roy Miller/Matthew Knight follows the same mold as a dozen characters he plays in a bunch of action films, Knight and Day rank higher sheerly due to its purely enjoyable hijinks, which follow neither logic nor plausibility. Which is fine; let’s live a little.
30. Mission: Impossible II (2001)
After the genre-defying Mission: Impossible by Brian De Palma, which cemented Tom Cruise as the indomitable Ethan Hunt, John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II fell flat. Although not a terrible film by traditional genre standards, the sequel, unfortunately, does not inch any closer to the measured brilliance of the first MI film by investing in a borderline-nonsensical plot that does not do justice to the franchise’s core. However, the inherent shortcomings of this film are neither Woo’s nor Cruise’s fault, who undoubtedly bring their individual brands of commitment to this particular installment.
Due to the ridiculous nature of the script, Hunt emerges more as a bland villain than a morally complex anti-hero, although the subsequent films steadily paint him as the undisputed hero of the franchise, despite his moral complexities. The film also lacks the standard Woo-esque action flair. In fact, one is better off watching The Killer or Face/Off to genuinely appreciate what John Woo is really capable of.
29. Jack Reacher (2012)
No, please don’t yell at me for ranking Jack Reacher higher than MI 2 — let me explain. While Tom Cruise’s best efforts are crippled by Mission: Impossible II’s headache-inducing script and characterization, Jack Reacher allows the action star to shine while adding an ounce of thrill to its titular character. This first installment is better received than its sequel because it understands what kind of film it is and works overtime to deliver the freshest thrills possible within that limited ambit.
Christopher McQuarrie employs Cruise’s natural charisma in favor of the storyline while weaving in an interesting antagonist in the form of a feral Werner Herzog. Also, I find Cruise’s brooding, cold-blooded persona an interesting turn among the long list of suave good guys he has played, especially within the framework of an action thriller that is meant to be a fun ride.
28. Valkyrie (2008)
Before I delve into how Valkyrie fares as a political drama, I want to focus exclusively on Tom Cruise’s performance as Wehrmacht Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the foremost members of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Cruise’s casting was the subject of controversy, as he was deemed too American for the role (compounded with the fact that none of the Nazi officers sported an accent throughout the film).
Despite these odds, Cruise churns out a reasonably good performance within the limitations of a plot that favors glitz and glamor over complex characterization. However, Cruise is not a standout here, as the rest of the cast belts out equally convincing performances. Meanwhile, the film fails to soar above the fringes of well-made mediocrity. Although Valkyrie is not laughably bad, it is not exceptionally good either, especially if you re-contextualize it through the German lens, given that the film fails the test of historical accuracy on many fronts.
27. Oblivion (2013)
Oh, I know: most lists would bill Oblivion way, way lower, as it is generally perceived as one of Tom Cruise’s inferior entries in the sci-fi genre. However, as an Oblivion apologist, I believe the film boasts something essentially significant: its plot stands out as wholly original despite suffering from some pacing and narrative issues.
Cruise is the heart of Oblivion — he sells the chaotic reveal halfway through the film, which seems to take clear inspiration from Solaris (the Andrei Tarkovsky original, not the American remake). Cruise perfectly plays a fractured character who is meant to be a ghost of his core self, chasing objectives until the mirage dissipates. Joseph Kosinski, who is a master at capturing aesthetic beauty, gift wraps Oblivion as a beautifully bleak dystopian experience that is worth experiencing at least once.
26. The Last Samurai (2003)
Edward Zwick’s epic period drama, The Last Samurai, positions Tom Cruise as an American captain who crosses paths with samurai warriors in the Meiji Restoration period in 19th century Japan. Right off the bat, I applaud the film’s stunning action sequences, which still hold up due to their fluidity and seamlessness, like poetry in motion. In terms of how Cruise fares in this drama, he brings equal amounts of badassery and heart to his conflicted character and adds an edge to the intelligently-penned plot with great conviction.
However, my issue with The Last Samurai lies in the inherent treatment of its subject matter: the white savior trope defines copious chunks of the third act. Moreover, the film falls prey to an idealized, sanitized portrayal of the ways of the Samurai. Although a marked improvement from the problematic Americanized retellings of Japan’s complex socio-cultural landscape, The Last Samurai is still an extremely flawed epic that props up embellished versions of actual historical figures. Still a great watch.
25. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Yet another potentially controversial ranking, most ranking lists delegate Vanilla Sky to the fag end of best Tom Cruise films. However, for me, the film fulfills the dual role of evoking a deeply surreal tale and allowing Cruise the space to showcase his terrific range, and it emerges as one of the cornerstones in Cruise’s career. Now, Vanilla Sky pales miserably compared to its Spanish-language original Abre los Ojos. But it still remains an ambitious adaptation that dares to tackle deep existential themes (while lacking the depth to grasp its implications fully).
Even though Cruise portrays what one can essentially describe as a self-centered prick, he still manages to evoke some amount of sympathy even for such a morally-degraded character. Overall, the film functions best within the domain of dream logic, where the conscious and the subconscious meet to expose our deepest desires, which are often inherently cruel and unimaginably selfish.
24. Tropic Thunder (2008)
Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder has too many gems to boast of, being a film that still remains darkly comedic and hilarious in the best of ways. However, one of the standouts among the film’s many, many highlights (Jack Black experiencing drug withdrawal in a wildly unhinged manner takes the cake for me) is Tom Cruise’s small but defining role as sleazeball businessman Less Grossman. Cruise’s maniacal monologue where he “negotiates” with the kidnappers and screams, “I’m talking scorched earth, motherfucker!” as a dumbstruck Matthew McConaughey gawks at him is enough to qualify it as a memorable Cruise performance. And oh, Cruise also busts out some sick moves as Grossman toward the end of the film, which perfectly caps off this delightfully bonkers cameo role.
23. American Made (2017)
This Doug Liman joint melds heart-thumping action with a devil-may-care protagonist embodied by Tom Cruise effortlessly while being inspired by the life of TWA pilot Barry Seal, who flew a mission for the CIA. This is an admittedly winning combination, as American Made is an extremely enjoyable and breezy watch, with Cruise using his cult of personality in the film’s favor with no holds barred. This is the kind of Cruise performance that revels in the actor’s strengths: a script that demands stuntwork (that he would happily oblige to do), a character that creates space for exhibiting boisterous charm, and a decently good screenplay that ties everything together. Although American Made is too glib to be taken seriously, the film delivers exactly what it means to and works in sync with everything that defines Cruise’s wheelhouse.
22. The Outsiders (1983)
Francis Ford Coppola’s coming-of-age gem, The Outsiders, is an eccentric yet effective adaptation of the source material, with a host of young talent grounding the film. Tom Cruise is one among the many names, alongside Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, and Emilio Estevez. What’s interesting about Cruise’s performance in The Outsiders is that it is a peek inside the Hollywood star’s strengths before he adopted a more suave, polished, leading-man persona.
Here, Cruise’s Steve Randle is an awkward adolescent who plays a marginally smaller role in the plot than the rest of the cast but still manages to intrigue. There’s a naturalistic and rough-around-the-edges aura to Cruise’s rendition of the character, which is never seen again once the actor officially enters the territory of a confident, charming leading man. Moreover, The Outsiders is a pretty solid film that tackles teenage trauma with great nuance, championing an authenticity often missing in mainstream genre entries.
21. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
What’s not to love about Mission: Impossible III? J.J. Abrams took the reins of a franchise that had previously faltered with one underwhelming installment and reinvigorated it by highlighting the brimming potential of a saga about a tenacious IMF officer. The stakes in MI3 seem higher than ever, with the odds abundantly stacked against Tom Cruise’s Hunt — especially when he’s up against the deadly Owen David, played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
While the Rabbit’s Foot functioned more as a McGuffin to drive the plot forward, MI3 expertly weaves bombastic action with heartfelt stakes by introducing Julia (Michele Monaghan) into the mix. Needless to say, Cruise elevates Hunt by investing a special brand of guarded vulnerability in him, which undoubtedly pays off in future installments.
20. The Firm (1993)
Yes, I know, this is an adaptation of a John Grisham thriller in the ‘90s, and films with similar plots and mysterious shenanigans were a dime a dozen at that point in time. However, The Firm set a precedent for such adaptations and proved that a great legal thriller is a careful combination of star power, evenly-paced thrills, and hard-edged cynicism.
Here, Tom Cruise plays Mitch McDeere, a Harvard-educated tax lawyer with brimming ambition, who gets accepted into a legal firm under conditions that seem too good to be true. And they are, as Mitch finds himself at the heart of a web of lies and deception, trapped against his will in the corrupt ecosystem with no way out. Cruise exhibits incredible range in this wonderfully-eventful drama, going from a promising, wide-eyed lawyer to a man desperate not to lose everything he holds dear. Also, I have got to especially mention Gene Hackman here, as his presence creates intriguing, dangerous friction in the scenes shared by Mitch and Hackman’s mentor character.
19. War of the Worlds (2005)
Alien invasion plots are a Steven Spielberg specialty, and his War of the Worlds, a gripping adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic, is frankly phenomenal. Here, Tom Cruise does not play a decorated hero but an everyman forced to step up to the mantle — specifically, a sort-of deadbeat, emotionally vacant father whose kids cannot stand the sight of him. This is fresh territory for Cruise, who manages to add something viscerally relatable to his character’s plight, who does not seem to know how to bridge the gap between him and his children amid an alien invasion.
Spielberg’s commentary about the futility of war and the perseverance of the human spirit in the form of close-knit families elevates this post-apocalyptic thriller, which manages to intrigue with its frenetic action and emotional depth. Cruise is the glue in War of the Worlds, making disparate elements work rather effortlessly, while embodying a deeply flawed character with great skill. I also have a deep love for the scene in which he furiously makes peanut butter sandwiches for his miffed kids (it is both sad and hilarious).
Related Content: 10 Best Films By Steven Spielberg
18. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Anne Rice aficionados who’ve read The Vampire Chronicles will immediately understand the importance of Interview with the Vampire, which raises vital questions about creation, consumption, humanity, and lack thereof. Not a traditional vampire tale, Interview situates a newly-bitten Louis with the cruel, unapologetically hedonistic Lestat de Lioncourt, who assumes various roles for our protagonist, including maker, nemesis, and lover.
While the Hollywood adaptation completely neutered the homoerotic underpinnings between Lestat and Louis, one would be a fool to deny the brand of passionate, frenzied sexuality that Tom Cruise brings as the pompous, effortlessly stylish Lestat. A brat through and through, Cruise’s Lestat eggs on, coaxes, and torments Louis throughout while celebrating the cruelties inherent in being a creature of the night without abandon. Shame is an alien emotion to Lestat, and Cruise perfectly embodies this by treating Louis’ empathy with dripping disdain. While Interview with the Vampire is not the best Rice adaptation (the AMC series is clearly superior in every way), Cruise is pivotal to bringing the novel’s morbidly dreary world to life.
17. Top Gun (1986)
The reasons Top Gun landed here on my list can be attributed to many factors. First off, the film, despite boasting groundbreaking aerial sequences that still hold up after all these years, is not devoid of faults. Only stimulating in parts and cheesy as hell, Top Gun is one of those films that enjoy the benefit of nostalgia, which does not necessarily void out the film’s many strengths. Top Gun definitely acted as a launchpad for Tom Cruise’s journey into superstardom, positioning him in the shoes of a highly cocky yet endearing Maverick, who undergoes great personal loss and has to tackle with overwhelming guilt in the end.
There’s a ribbon of sexualized masculinity that runs throughout the film, but refreshingly, it never descends into misogyny or toxicity of any kind. The way Top Gun props up male friendships is frankly beautiful, case in point being the glorious volleyball sequence that still manages to make us feel giddy.
16. The Color of Money (1986)
Martin Scorsese’s sports drama, The Color of Money, is clearly Paul Newman’s film, but part of the film’s charm is undoubtedly contributed by Tom Cruise, who belts out a major supportive performance. Playing protégé to pool player Fast Eddie, Cruise, once again, uses his cocky boyish charm to add an easygoing quality to the narrative, which makes for a really enjoyable performance.
Moreover, Scorsese’s masterful direction allows the huge ensemble cast to feel meaningfully fleshed out, where the central trio stands out distinctively amidst a host of colorful characters. This entry is so high up on my list because Cruise, who was still cementing his talent at the time, convincingly managed to hold his own opposite the likes of Newman and John Turturro, especially with Newman eventually winning an Oscar for his performance in the film. Also, The Color of Money is a certified banger, so there we go.
15. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Ghost Protocol is a pure, adrenaline spectacle, both from an action and narrative standpoint. Everything is tuned up to a 100 as Hunt and his crew take on increasingly dangerous missions that are, heh, impossible. The fact that Tom Cruise scaled the Burj Khalifa to deliver one of the most electrifying setpieces in the franchise is a reason alone for Ghost Protocol to deserve all the love. Still, the film also props an extremely good Jeremy Renner among the chaos.
The literal definition of deliciously good popcorn entertainment, Ghost Protocol is fun, chaotic, technically impressive, and features some choice emotionally-resonant moments. My only (minor) gripe with the film is the unspeakably embarrassing Anil Kapoor cameo, which literally adds nothing to the plot and could’ve been handled better. But I digress: Cruise brings renewed energy to Hunt, who gradually morphs into a legend who cannot be bested, no matter the odds.
14. Minority Report (2002)
I love Philip K. Dick, and I love Spielberg’s Minority Report, which encapsulates the high-concept sci-fi action aura of Dick’s novel. Here Tom Cruise’s Jon Anderton has the ability of precognition — a staple trope in Dick’s works — which posits an interesting conundrum between free will and determinism, along with the dire cost of prescience. However, in my book, Cruise’s performance, while skillful, does not necessarily make the movie what it is, as the plot works due to a combination of factors, including incredible secondary performances.
Even though Cruise is the leading man burdened with the gift of prophecy and the fates of many depend on him, it is the dual performances of Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell that shine through, adding a biting edge to an already competent storyline. While Cruise does what he does best (he also runs, which is aces), the film’s many strengths far outnumber his contributions, which explains my reasoning for not ranking it in the top ten.
13. Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (2015)
Christopher McQuarrie simply serves in this Mission: Impossible installment, which contains all the telltale ingredients that make every MI entry a blast. Unbelievably fun, Rogue Nation knows which aspects of the franchise work best and employs fresh thrills alongside time-tested hits that have elevated Ethan Hunt into the once-reluctant (now willing) hero he is. The mystery elements of the plot are extremely tense and genuinely thrilling. At the same time, the presence of Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa (who is now a staple) breathes new life into the secondary dynamics of the film.
Although Rogue Nation isn’t wholly original, it simply doesn’t matter: Tom Cruise deepens Hunt’s character by introducing complex, contrarian impulses, and these aspects emerge best when he’s interacting with Ilsa, who is, frankly, a stunning addition to the gang. I mean, you folks remember the opera sequence, right? There’s something endlessly cool about Hunt being one-upped by a competent, mysterious agent, who goes on to forge an emotional bond with him as time passes. Formulaic, but done with skill, so it works!
12. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
While Edge of Tomorrow seems like a typical action thoroughfare, it is truly a remarkable film that establishes conventions only to violently — and effectively — subvert them. Tom Cruise’s hero status in the film is not a given as it is thoroughly earned: he needs to work his ass off and die (countless times) to escape a Groundhog Day-esque scenario and potentially save the world. The one calling the shots, however, is Emily Blunt’s Rita Vrataski, the Angel of Verdun, who pays Cruise’s baffled, utterly confused character no heed for a good chunk of the first half.
In a classic inversion of expectations, Cruise’s William Cage needs guidance and saving throughout. On the other hand, Vrataski deals with all threats in a measured, no-nonsense manner that is absolutely refreshing to watch. Moreover, the Cruise-Blunt combination works beautifully, creating space for humor, pathos, and general badassery in the best of ways.
11. Mission: Impossible (1996)
Brain de Palma laid out the blueprint for the Mission: Impossible franchise with his noir-addled, dramatic-as-heck first entry, which is a perfect film in many respects. The film positions a young Ethan Hunt who’s wholly dependent on his team until a mission in Prague goes horribly wrong and forces him to go rogue. This is history in the making, as de Palma lays the foundation for the over-the-top set-pieces that will define the franchise, key examples being the CIA infiltration scene and the entire train sequence towards the end.
The reason why I’ve ranked this entry so high up is that the film simply would not work without Tom Cruise, who adds so many subtle layers to his hounded, jilted, corned IMF rogue character that it is thrilling to watch him grow as the franchise blooms. Even the penultimate twist is pure de Palma brilliance, executed in a smart, practical, and haunting way. The action, although not as polished as the big-budget blockbusters to follow, is extremely ambitious and pulled off with great panache. After all, we wouldn’t be here eagerly expecting Dead Reckoning without this film, so I’m simply paying the respect that is due.
10. Risky Business (1983)
Risky Business is celebrated for a good reason, as this acclaimed sex comedy ticks all the right genre boxes and features the Tom Cruise performance that put him on the mainstream radar. Here, Cruise turns on his charms to the max in a stylish satire that explores teen angst and the arbitrariness of morality, eliciting genuine laughs along the way. However, the film is not without glaring faults. It is extremely dated (and problematic!) in its treatment of trans women and sex workers, which obviously urges us to direct appropriate criticism toward these aspects.
The reason why Risky Business makes it to the top ten is Cruise and Cruise alone, who plays an entrepreneur-turned-pimp to perfection. A significant factor is an iconic scene in which Joel slides across the floor, miming to Bob Seger’s rendition of Old Time Rock and Roll, wearing a pink shirt and white briefs. This is an image of a true movie star in the making, harkening to the beginning of great things to come.
Also Read: 10 Great Dark Comedies from the 20th Century
09. Rain Man (1988)
Barry Levinson’s Rain Man situates Tom Cruise as the brash, self-centered Charlie, who learns about the existence of his brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant. Although Levinson’s script is decently good and is executed without major blemishes, what makes Rain Man seminal is its central performances, where both Hoffman and Cruise give it their all to bring the story to life.
As we’re honed in on Cruise here, I must say he plays Charlie rather beautifully, portraying the depths of a man who does not quite understand emotional vulnerability as he drowns under mountains of narcissistic resentment. While Hoffman consistently evokes strong emotions with his rendition of Raymond, Cruise emerges as the unexpected X factor in the film, injecting the premise with a realistic sense of shallow, cruel desperation that adds significantly to his character.
08. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
In terms of the culmination of the best traits in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Fallout is sheer perfection. The swag in Fallout is insane, as the amount and dynamism of the set pieces eclipse all expectations, even after being appropriately met in Rogue Nation. Tom Cruise proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is the definitive Ethan Hunt, and transferring the mantle to anyone else would be an absurd, rather foolish decision. Somehow, Cruise manages to make Hunt more iconic than previously imaginable while helming a story with plentiful thrills and mindblowing.
A special ode to Henry Cavill for reloading his muscles in the bathroom fight sequence and adding thrilling stakes to the story as a morally complex anti-hero that I would love to see a return to the franchise (I know, I know, but one can hope?) Moreover, Fallout is a consistent adrenaline high with almost no dull moments — it is a blockbuster through and through, crafted with love and dedication, with an evergreen Cruise at the beating heart of it all. I’ve run out of praises, but you get the gist.
07. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Before you unsheathe your pitchforks again, let me paint you a picture. The prospect of working with Stanley Kubrick is a double-edged sword — on the one hand, there’s the genius artistic vision. Still, on the other, there’s the callous cruelty he exhibits on-set that pushes the strongest actors over the edge. While Kubrick’s heinous treatment of Shelley Duval on the set of The Shining is fairly common knowledge, folks often overlook his treatment of Tom Cruise and Kidman while filming Eyes Wide Shut, which still remains an electrifying, captivating entry in the auteur’s oeuvre. The man exerted such intense pressure on Cruise that the megastar developed ulcers due to the harrowing stress, which is evident in the portrayal of Bill Harford.
Eyes Wide Shut is Cruise pushed to the edge of sanity, where he brings a visceral sense of insecurity and paranoia to the role in an intriguing character study. Personally, I adore Eyes Wide Shut and will defend it to death. While you might disagree with this sentiment, it’s evident that the film dangerously capitalizes on Cruise’s sound capabilities as a serious actor.
Related List: All Stanley Kubrick Movies Ranked From Great to Greatest
06. Top Gun: Maverick (2021)
I watched Top Gun: Maverick in theaters with my father, who is completely removed from the realm of mainstream Hollywood cinema. While he was heavily impressed by the sequel’s astounding aerial action sequences, he made it a point to repeatedly praise Tom Cruise’s screen presence and the absolute command he holds over every scene. This perfectly encapsulates the core reason why Top Gun: Maverick swept the box office the way it did: the film builds meaningfully upon the Top Gun nostalgia while fleshing out an emotionally high-stakes, action-heavy tale with Maverick at the center.
Joseph Kosinski innately understands the mechanics of a Tom Cruise vehicle that works in favor of an almost-flawless film and weaves it into a story about camaraderie and letting go of the past. Yet another stylishly sexy beach sequence acts as the icing on the cake, which works well because the fresh characters are all genuinely likable and integral to Maverick’s journey. Also, Cruise’s comeback as Maverick is remarkably nuanced, as he can imbue the character with emotional depths that are otherwise missing in the original. Simply lovely, no notes.
05. Collateral (2004)
Tom Cruise as a hardened killer, a full-blown villain, is a deliciously rare sight, and Collateral offers this rare glimpse into the actor’s capabilities to turn completely rogue. Everything about this Michael Mann extravaganza is chef’s kiss: it is an L.A. noir about a can driver (Jamie Foxx, who’s also brilliant) who is cornered by Cruise’s dangerously unhinged Vincent, and forced to cooperate till the end of the night in increasingly unnerving ways.
Every supporting performance adds a kernel of authentic thrill to Mann’s expertly-crafted piece, but it is Foxx and Cruise who engage in a mad dance to keep audiences hooked. I have a particular affinity for the nightclub scene in Collateral, where Cruise, who is coolly confident up to this point, starts wreaking havoc by pushing patrons while Ready Steady Go! blares in the background. The way Cruise moves in this sequence is raw, animalistic, and dangerous, exposing the true extent of his villainy and the innate danger Foxx’s character is in. Collateral is no Heat, but it is up there in the ranks of tense, gripping noir-thrillers with stellar performances to ground them.
04. A Few Good Men (1992)
Jack Nicholson is a force of nature in every film he’s in, tempering his intensity according to the nature of the plot, with great success. To be able to hold one’s own opposite such a dynamic actor is no small feat, and Tom Cruise manages to do just that in A Few Good Men. Rob Reiner’s film might be a tad overdramatic in the way it handles its subject matter. Still, the drama unfolds in the most effective ways, bookended by impetuous performances that leave no space for dull moments in an old-fashioned courtroom drama.
The oft-quoted courtroom faceoff between Cruise and Nicholson’s characters is theatricality at its best, with two-star powers with different sets of strengths meeting together to deliver an unforgettable scene. The “You can’t handle the truth!” monologue is still endlessly quotable. Cruise’s performance extends beyond this little snippet, as he embodies Daniel Kaffee with just the right amount of righteous snark and idealistic indignation. Truly great stuff.
Related Read: Virtues of Moral Duty and Battlefield Heroics in War Movies
03. Jerry Maguire (1996)
“Show me the moneeeeeyyyyy!!!!” I’m sorry, I had to. In hindsight, it feels like Cameron Crowe tailor-made Jerry Maguire solely for Tom Cruise, as the actor was meant to embody the towering narcissism of slick sports agent Jerry Maguire. Used to be handed things on a platter based on his success and charisma alone, Jerry is hilariously at his wit’s end when on the verge of losing everything and starting his own agency. Although some aspects of the film have not aged well, Jerry Maguire still manages to entertain, especially with the help of Renée Zellweger’s breakout character, who adds tempered emotionality to the scenes that require it the most.
Jerry is undoubtedly one of Cruise’s best roles, as it allowed the actor to portray great emotional range while being insufferably slick, all the while managing to remain lovable. Beyond performances, the film paints a reasonably accurate picture of the behind-the-scenes corporate shenanigans that can make or break careers in an instant, and the shallowness inherent within such cultures. Jerry straddles both sides of the road, and emerges as someone deeply capable of genuine compassion — and that is all that matters.
02. Magnolia (1999)
Magnolia is a full-blown experience courtesy of Paul Thomas Anderson, who weaves a frenetic string of ambitious brushstrokes over the span of 188 minutes. As densely intricate as interconnected stories go, Magnolia is a masterpiece in storytelling helmed by various performances that verge on the operatic. Tom Cruise plays pickup artist Frank T.J. Mackey, whose introductory speech immediately puts the actor’s acting chops on display to tremendous effect. Mackey sells vile, misogynistic ideas to his male followers to rile them up and rally them in his favor while conning them to buy into the idea of his ridiculous sex seminars.
The way Cruise conveys this larger-than-life televangelist personality is astounding, offering layered insight into the fragility of male egos when failed by the same patriarchal structures they try so desperately to uphold. When perceived as a composite whole, Magnolia is brilliant and convoluted, and Cruise still stands out in some capacity when measured against the slew of remarkable performances that pepper the film.
Related List: All Paul Thomas Anderson Movies Ranked
01. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Although not a blockbuster or a widely-loved entry by any means, Born on the Fourth of July is Tom Cruise at the pinnacle of his abilities, without question. Cruise’s lead performance as Ron Kovic is downright unforgettable in this Oliver Stone biographical drama, which expertly balances political commentary with a story that brims with heart. In many cases, such biographical Hollywood entries seem to be made with awards season in mind. However, Born on the Fourth of July tackles its serious subject matter with the genuine need to etch a thought-provoking story about an anti-war activist who strays away from idealistic ruminations to being vitriolically furious about the inhumanity of war.
War is never a glorious affair — there is no glory in the basest, most destructive urge of human nature, and Stone conveys this in gut-wrenching ways. The reason I chose this film to cap off this list is because how unconventional this role this when it comes to Cruise’s usual strengths — and how unbelievably brilliant he is in playing such an unflinching, fiery character with roots in real life. Cruise as Kovic perfectly captures the breadth of emotionality the actor can convey, and the raw passion that guides every step of the way.