Tom Cruise has been one of Hollywood's top leading men for nearly four decades. While his occasionally tumultuous personal life (remember that time when he jumped on Oprah's couch?) and connections to Scientology sometimes overshadow his work, he stands today as one of the last actors who can reliably open a movie on name recognition alone, and his pandemic-motivated advocacy for the power of cinema (and the importance of movie theaters) has earned him a rash of recent goodwill. With the release of the seventh movie in the blockbuster Mission: Impossible franchise, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1 this year, let's look back and rank all of Cruise's 44 major film roles!
As before, my rankings are predicated on a non-scientific combination of the film's overall quality, its rewatchability, and how well it serves as a showcase for Cruise, with no cameos, non-acting credits, or minor roles considered (sorry Endless Love fans, you can consider it #44 if you'd like).
43. Rock of Ages (2012) - Stacee Jaxx
Cruise sleepwalks his way through a leaden adaptation of the jukebox musical by the same name.
42. The Mummy (2017) - Sgt. Nick Morton
The latter half of Cruise's career has found him shepherding a number of franchises, some more successfully than others. This loose remake of the classic Universal horror film is definitely one of the less successful ones, a movie so bad and received so poorly it more or less killed the studio's planned Dark Universe franchise on arrival.
41. Lions for Lambs (2007) - Senator Jasper Irving
Remember this political drama directed by Robert Redford and starring Cruise as a US senator? Neither does anyone else.
40. Losin' It (1983) - Billy
A forgettable, by-the-numbers teen sex comedy from very early in Cruise's career, in which he is essentially little more than a pretty face.
39. Valkyrie (2008) - Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg
A movie about an interesting piece of history (a plot by German military leaders to assassinate Hitler in the waning days of World War II), Valkyrie isn't necessarily bad, but it is fairly stiff and fails to live up to the intrigue of its premise. It's also the rare film in which Cruise is more of a detriment than an asset: surrounded by a supporting cast stacked with British character actors, he is routinely the least interesting person on screen (Valkyrie is notable, however, for representing the first pairing of Cruise and screenwriter/director Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the script; McQuarrie and Cruise team-up on some of Cruise's biggest later career films).
38. Jack Reacher : Never Go Back (2016) - Jack Reacher
The second entry in another late period Cruise-shepherded franchise, whatever charms the original Jack Reacher film possess are largely stripped out of this one via its dull, by-the-numbers script (which, notably, McQuarrie didn't write).
37. Taps (1981) - Capt. David Shawn
An okay but largely forgotten military drama, Cruise's first substantial film role is still a relatively small one, with the actor yet to really embrace the cocky bravado that would define his early roles.
36. All the Right Moves (1983) - Stefen Djordjevic
Like Losin' It, this is another early by-the-numbers genre movie starring Cruise (here, it's a sports drama). But this time, Cruise mentions to elevate the expected story beats a bit as he starts to embrace his abilities as a leading man, bringing some depth and nuance to what is otherwise a pretty stock character.
35. War of the Worlds (2005) - Ray Ferrier
The first of two films starring Cruise directed by Steven Spielberg in which the director attempts to grapple with an aspect of the post-9/11 zeitgeist, Cruise is the everyman POV character for this ground-level depiction of a Martian attack on Earth. The problem is that Cruise is playing, somewhat atypically, a bit of a cad, a deadbeat dad forced to step up in the midst of the apocalypse. That, combined with the intentionally claustrophobic direction, makes the film a bit of a slog, and not terribly fun to watch, despite its moments of technical proficiency.
34. Jack Reacher (2012) - Jack Reacher
When Cruise was announced as the star of this adaptation of the first in a series of popular airport thrillers written by Lee Childs, the news was met with derision by fans of the book that the film never really escaped (see, in the books, the title character is notably large, while Cruise is infamously short, etc.). But if you don't care (or can get past that), the end result is a relatively enjoyable thriller (with a script by McQuarrie) with Cruise, playing the character almost as a more grounded Ethan Hunt, bringing a kind of haunted intensity to the role.
33. Far and Away (1992) - Joseph Donnelly
One of the interesting things about Cruise's career, given its length and breadth, is the way his filmography can be broken down into different subcategories (something I took advantage of when creating these rankings to create a series of smaller ranked sets before considering them all together). Far and Away is the first of three on-screen pairings with Cruise's one-time wife Nicole Kidman to appear on this list, and it's the least effective of those three films. The score from John Williams is easily the best thing about it.
32. Cocktail (1988) - Brian Flanagan
Another subcategory of Cruise films are the ones where he plays a cocky hotshot who has to learn a touch of humility before proving he really is as good as he thinks he is (this was the bread-and-butter of the first half of his career). Cocktail, which is basically Top Gun with bartenders instead of fight pilots, is not without its charms (including an iconic soundtrack), but it's still one of the lesser entries in the 'Cocky Cruise' canon.
31. Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) - Ethan Hunt
An okay Cruise performance and a lackluster John Woo film make for the least of the Mission: Impossible films. Cruise hadn't yet settled on his portrayal of Ethan Hunt as the uber-secret agent, and this film occasionally toys with a darker, more tortured version of the character, which flirts with being interesting. But it's not enough to overcome a largely nonsensical script and a lack (a few doves and motorcycle tosses aside) of Woo's usual action directing flair.
30. The Outsiders (1983) - Steve Randle
A film mostly remembered for its stacked 'before they were stars!' cast of young actors (including Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, and Ralph Macchio), Cruise is simply part of that ensemble (and a relatively minor part). Yet its an interesting performance nevertheless, the last gasp of the rough-around-the-edges, still-figuring-it-out Cruise, in a sharp, authentic, teen drama.
29. Tropic Thunder (2008) - Les Grossman
Part of Cruise's post-couch jumping rehabilitation tour, his turn as the crass, heavily made up studio exec Les Grossman shows the actor willing to both have a sense of humor about himself and subsume his pretty boy image. It's a relatively small role, but it's one of a handful of the more memorable things from the movie despite that.
28. Days of Thunder (1990) - Cole Trickle
Both another 'Cocky Cruise' and 'Tom and Nicole' entry, Days of Thunder sees Cruise reuniting with his Top Gun director Tony Scott (and appearing on film with Kidman for the first time). The end result fails to match the highs of their earlier collaboration, but Cruise, adept at this kind of role at this point, is reliably entertaining, and if the beats of the story are expected, it still hits them well enough.
27. Legend (1985) - Jack
Cruise's only foray into fantasy to date, Legend is an absolutely bonkers film featuring a goth Mia Sara, Tim Curry unrecognizable in makeup as a monstrous devil figure, and a trippy score from German band Tangerine Dream. Unfortunately, Cruise is the least successful element of the movie, seeming at times completely overwhelmed by the film's trappings. There's lots to enjoy here, even if, from the perspective of Cruise, it's for the rarity of seeing Cruise outmatched by everything around him.
26. The Color of Money (1986) - Vincent Lauria
Often considered one of the lesser Martin Scorese movies, this legacy sequel (before that was a common thing) to The Hustler features an electric Tom Cruise performance. As a hotshot young pool player (yep, it's another Cocky Cruise movie), Cruise holds his own against the likes of Paul Newman and John Turturro, commanding the attention of the audience in every scene he's in, almost physically vibrating with sheer energy. The sequence in which he clears the table while Warren Zevon's 'Werewolves of London' plays deserves to be considered as iconic a moment of early Cruise as the 'dancing in his underwear' scene from Risky Business.
25. American Made (2017) - Barry Seal
We now enter a point in this list where I start to go to bat for some underrated Cruise films I like more than most people. Directed by Doug Liman and based on the real life story of Barry Seal, who smuggled drugs while flying covert missions for the CIA, Cruise brings the full weight of his charm to the role in American Made, making us care about the fate of someone who, on paper, is little more than a smarmy opportunist.
24. Knight and Day (2010) - Roy Miller
Another oft-derided late period Cruise flick, while this isn't as technically proficient as really any of the Mission: Impossible films, it's just as fun in parts. With a few exceptions, Cruise often struggles to generate chemistry with his leading ladies; this is one of those exceptions (and Cameron Diaz is an utter delight throughout). High stakes, cool action scenes, globe-trotting scenery, Knight and Day is basically a frothy James Bond-lite, and Cruise is perfectly cast as a slightly winking variation on his super spy type.
23. The Last Samurai (2003) - Nathan Algren
This film ultimately suffers under the weight of the White Savior tropes which suffuse it, which is a shame, as it's otherwise a quite compelling examination of the price of progress and the value to be found in cultures cast derogatorily as an "Other" by the ruling powers. Cruise, playing somewhat against type as an accomplished but broken military officer, gives a haunting performance, while the action scenes are shot beautifully, almost elegiacally.
22. Mission: Impossible III (2006) - Ethan Hunt
The pivot point between the 'original' Mission: Impossible films and the current iteration of the franchise, M:I III is, suitably, more kinetic than the earlier films but not quite yet as over-the-top as the later ones. It also asks Cruise to bring a bit of humanity to Ethan Hunt by introducing Michelle Monaghan to the franchise as his wife, yet in the end, he's overshadowed by a brilliant turn from Phllip Seymour Hoffman as the film's villain, possibly the most chilling villain in the history of the franchise, which drops it a bit down this Cruise-centric ranking.
21. Vanilla Sky (2001) - David Aames
Another oft-maligned film I like more than most, this admittedly-shaggy examination of consciousness, memory, and identity from Cameron Crowe is not without its faults, but it's also an example of Cruise having a conversation with his status as an A+ movie star, probing questions of how much internal and external depictions of self define us and give us value. It's also another example of Cruise using his charm to make us care about a character who is, ultimately, a self-centered cad.
20. Mission: Impossible (1996) - Ethan Hunt
The first Mission: Impossible flick is far cry from its bombastic sequels, a relatively more cerebral potboiler that still manages to pack in at least a few thrilling action setpieces (and contribute at least one sequence — Cruise suspended over the pressure-sensitive floor of the vault in CIA headquarters — to the Hall of Fame of iconic Cruise images). Cruise as Ethan Hunt spends much of the film simmering with barely-contained energy; while later films will tap into that to have him scale tall buildings or hang off airplanes, here it comes out via hardened stares and spurts of dialogue, a different but no less intense version of the character.
19. Top Gun: Maverick (2022) - Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell
I am, admittedly, not as hot on this movie as most people are; I am certainly a sucker for many forms of nostalgic pop culture pandering, but here the efforts felt especially forced, as if the characters themselves knew they were in a sequel to a beloved film, echoing iconic lines and sequences. Yet there's no denying the quality of Cruise's performance (and Jennifer Connelly's, as well), as he manages to temper Maverick's — and Cruise's own — trademark bravado with the effects of time and loss and regret.
18. Oblivion (2013) - Jack
Another Cruise film I'm more bullish on, and another later career sci-fi outing. The plotting gets a little wonky towards the end, but there's an engaging sparseness to the production design and a haunting yet propulsive score. And while Cruise's performance isn't as metatextual as in another later career sci-fi outing further down on the list, this is definitely a different (and better) film with him than without, playing around as it does with concepts of identity and self-definition, with Cruise's character playing a role of sorts within the film similar to what Cruise himself (and essentially all actors) does here and in other movies, presenting someone who both is Tom Cruise and is fundamentally not.
17. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015) - Ethan Hunt
Taking the template (and a chunk of the supporting cast) from the third and fourth M:I films, the beginning of the Christopher McQuarrie iteration of the franchise continues the series' late period reinvention and reinvigoration, adding Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa to the mix and introducing the first multi-film antagonist in the series. Cruise at this point remains the steady leading man as Ethan Hunt, but McQuarrie's scripts still provides enough openings to let Cruise add nuance to the character.
16. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1 (2023) - Ethan Hunt
So we meet again. The Mission: Impossible movies - especially the latter era, never fail to impress and the 2023 movie doesn't disappoint. It has all the hallmarks of a great action film - and a great M:I film - but still doesn't reach the heights of two others you'll read about in a moment.
15. Rain Man (1988) - Charlie Babbitt
While it's Dustin Hoffman's performance which garners the most attention (and won him the Oscar), it's Cruise — as Hoffman's younger brother — who actually gets the arc in the film, learning to love and accept his brother for he who is, as something more than an obstacle or a tool. It's an early example of Cruise's ability to charm an audience into investing in the journey of a morally ambiguous character and making their ultimate face turn feel both suspenseful and earned.
14. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) - Dr William Harford
Another of the metatextual Cruise films because it gains a little something from the ways its fiction intersects with the facts of Cruise's real life, this is also the last complete film from director Stanley Kubrick. Widely renowned as a legendary director, Kubrick is also infamous for how he treats his actors, and the stress he put Cruise under during the multi-year shoot is evident in his performance. It is also the last (and best) of the 'Tom and Nicole' movies, as the pair would split up a couple years after its release. The line between fiction and reality in Eyes Wide Shut's depiction of how paranoia and insecurity can deconstruct a relationship is both blurry, and fascinating.
13. Collateral (2004) - Vincent
Cruise very rarely turns heel, with his role in this Michael Mann film his purest — and most committed — villain performance. Coming at a pivot point in his career between his earlier 'cocky hotshot' and later 'reliable franchise helm-er' runs, in the midst of his most protracted 'serious actor' period, it represents a little of everything he brings to all those types of roles to make them successful, equal parts thrilling, intense, and engaging. It's hard to look away from Cruise when he's onscreen in this one, as much as you might want to.
12. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) - Ethan Hunt
In terms of pure gonzo stunts, it's tough to top this movie's signature sequence, in which Cruise free climbs the tallest building in the world. But there's lots more to enjoy than the over-the-top set pieces, including a compelling Jeremy Renner playing a sort of mirror Ethan Hunt. Anchoring it all is Cruise, who nimbly shepherds the franchise into its latest (and, to date, current) iteration.
11. Minority Report (2002) - Chief John Anderton
Steven Spielberg and Cruise are both at the top of their games, elevating a delightfully pulpy high-concept sci-fi yarn ('what if cops could see the future?'). Spielberg by wedding the concept to his continued examination of the post-9/11 zeitgeist (exploring here the increased police state heightened in the name of security), Cruise by wringing all the pathos he can out of a father broken by the abduction of his son, and his ultimate quest to help another lost child find justice.
10. Risky Business (1983) - Joel
Neither his first role nor his most acclaimed, Risky Business is the movie that put Cruise on the map, the movie where his 'cocky SOB you can't help but love' routine that would define the first half of his career came into being, the movie which gave us the first iconic sequence of his career (dancing in his underwear to Bob Seger's 'Old Time Rock 'n' Roll'). It is, it must be said, terribly dated in its treatment of sex workers and trans women, but the Cruise performance at its center remains foundational.
9. Jerry Maguire (1996) - Jerry Maguire
The beginning of Cruise's mid-period 'serious actor' phase in which he seemingly sets out to consistently prove he's capable of capital-A acting while working with some of Hollywood's most notable directors, his role in this film netted him his second Oscar nomination. And while his performance here is quite good, striking the right balance between bravado and vulnerability, it's also hard to escape just how parodied and memed a lot of it became, keeping it from charting higher on this list.
8. Interview with the Vampire (1994) - Lestat
Cruise's biggest, hammiest heel turn of all. Certainly not as menacing as he is in Collateral, but way more fun, which makes him integral to the film's success. Next to Brad Pitt's dour, brooding Louis, Cruise is electric, gleefully relishing the circumstances of his existence as a vampire in contrast to Louis' lamentations of the same. Cruise, as Louis' opposite, serves as both a cautionary tale and the thing which makes the first ⅔ of the movie as entertaining as it is, and it's a striking turn against type moment for Cruise in his filmography.
7. Born of the Fourth of July (1989) - Ron Kovic
Responsible for his first Oscar nomination, Born on the Fourth of July is somewhat overlooked amongst both the Cruise and Oliver Stone canons, but it's a searing indictment of the lies at the heart of patriotic zeal and the costs of war, anchored by an outstanding Cruise performance which, coming relatively early in his career, is his first statement that he's more than just a cocky heartthrob. It's also an early example of Cruise's public image informing his performance: his transformation into the angry, bitter post-war Kovic is made all the more surprising because his earlier pre-war portrayal of Kovic as a sort of prototypical matinee idol marching off to war fit audience's preconceived notions of Cruise so well.
6. Edge of Tomorrow/Live Die Repeat (2014) - Cage
Similarly, this sci-fi riff on Groundhogs Day would be entertaining if it starred just about any major actor, but Cruise's involvement elevates it to a whole nother level. Post Kidman split, post-couch jumping, post-lots of uncomfortable questions about Scientology and Cruise's devotion to it, there were still plenty of people understandably wary of Cruise in the second half of his career. This movie doesn't absolve him of anything (no movie could), but it does help make it easier to separate the performer from the performance, thanks to the catharsis born of watching Cruise die over and over and over again, often in deliberately grandiose, over-the-top ways. Hampered by weird title changes, this is an underrated movie in both the Cruise and sci-fi action canons.
5. Magnolia (1999) - Frank T.J. Mackey
In a frighteningly-prescient role, Cruise plays the kind of snake oil salesman purveyor of toxic masculinity that has taken over whole swathes of the internet today in this sprawling ensemble story from Paul Thomas Anderson. That Frank's whole schtick actually masks the pain of a boy abandoned by his father wasn't surprising, even in 1999. The effectiveness with which Cruise depicts the gradual breakdown of the character's persona, bit by bit, before he collapses into a blubbering, angry mess at his dying father's bedside, is. It's also surprising how, in a movie with a cast filled with as many A+ caliber actors as this one, Cruise's performance remains one of the standout ones. To date, this represents Cruise's last Oscar nomination for acting, and it's the performance most deserving of it.
4. A Few Good Men (1992) - Lt. Daniel Kaffee
This is my favorite Tom Cruise movie, but it's (obviously) not what I consider Tom Cruise's best performance. Much of my affection for it comes from the rhythmic script of Aaron Sorkin (adapting his own stage play). But Cruise is no slouch in the movie, playing an elevated version of his standard (say it with me), 'cocky hotshot who has to learn a touch of humility before proving he really is as good as he thinks he is'. Along the way, he manages to hold his own against Jack Nicholson and a supporting cast filled with excellent 'that guys'. It's also a role that arguably no one but Cruise could have pulled off at the time, thanks to the way he capitalizes on both his boyish charm and acting chops to believably make Kaffee cynical and idealistic at the same time.
3. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018) - Ethan Hunt
The apex of the Mission: Impossible films (for the moment), Fallout synthesizes all the best elements from the various iterations of the franchise into an impressive Voltron of action movie storytelling, featuring big, ridiculous stunts, memorable turns from the supporting cast, twisty plot beats that play with audience expectations, a sneering villain that is fun to hate, and enormous, world-threatening stakes. At the center of it all is Cruise, still playing Ethan Hunt, still risking life and limb for the sake of authenticity, a little older and wearier, but still the steady center of the film, the center around which all the other elements rotate, and he remains more than up for the job.
2. The Firm (1993) - Mitch McDeere
If there's one role which synthesizes all the key types of Tom Cruise performances — the Cocky Hotshot, the Serious Actor, the Genre Leading Man — it's this one, in which Cruise plays a cocky young lawyer who finds himself in over his head when his new law firm turns out to be working for the mafia. In addition to featuring some god-level Cruise Runs and another cast stacked with That Guys (to say nothing of a crucial and somewhat underrated supporting turn from Gene Hackman, playing a sort of 'Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come' to Cruise's character), this is the movie where Cruise gets to do it all — be a charming know-it-all, make Serious Actor faces while struggling with complicated ethical questions, and beat up a surprisingly-menacing Wilford Brimley with a briefcase — and he does it all with aplomb.
1. Top Gun (1986) - Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell
This is the quintessential Tom Cruise performance. Not only is it the apex of the 'Cocky Cruise' subgenre, but it's so definitive a performance in that mode that it's largely come to define the entire archetype of cocky characters who are humbled in the course of their stories but still remain awesome. Maverick is the central character of Top Gun, and Cruise excels at making the audience care about him and the events of the movie despite Maverick being kind of a dick while starring in a glossy ad for the US Navy.
But just as Maverick has become representative of similar characters in other movies, this is the defining performance of Cruise's career, in that everything before it can be viewed as leading up to it, while everything after it is, intentionally or not, riffing on it or playing against it, to varying extents. Daniel Kaffee and Mitch McDeere are 'Maverick as a Lawyer', Lestat is 'Maverick as a bad guy', Ethan Hunt is 'Maverick as a super spy', culminating in Top Gun: Maverick being 'Maverick as an older but still Maverick-y Maverick.' Even his more Serious Actor roles are, to some extent, saying, 'look how good I am at playing someone other than Maverick.'
Most of the big actors of Cruise's generation have one or two iconic performances that define them. Cruise arguably has several, but Maverick looms above them all.
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