By John H. Foote
Tom Cruise has dominated the movies world box office for more than 30 years, so much so it is often forgotten what a bold, daring actor he has been, and with each new role is willing to be. He is what the greatest actors are, fearless, and when working with other fine actors and a confident director Cruise has been known to shine very bright indeed. Of the finest of this generation, he is not at the top of the list, but he is certainly among the top ten.
Far superior an actor than academic or elitist critics would have you believe, Cruise throws himself into the role in every way, with reckless abandon, his ferocious energy often dominating the performance. Always a risk taker, you can see it in his work, during tough emotional scenes, intense moments within the film, Cruise is 100% present in each moment.
Often better than the movie he is in, that said, his work has elevated good films to great films. The first indication Cruise could act, that he was the real deal, was in Risky Business (1983) as Joel. Cruise was electrifying as the gonzo pool shark Vincent in The Color of Money (1986) working with Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese for the first time. Two years later he gave the best performance in Rain Man (1988), though his onscreen brother Dustin Hoffman got the accolades and the Oscar. The following year he truly broke through as an actor winning the Golden Globe and nabbing his first Academy Award nomination in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth Of July (1989), in which Cruise was mesmerizing as Vietnam veteran, the anti-war activist Ron Kovic.
Rarely has he stopped working, taking challenges with the top directors in movies. Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Stone, Rob Reiner, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg (twice), Neil Jordan, Robert Redford, John Woo, Ben Stiller, and, of course, the late Stanley Kubrick. Indeed, they elevated his work, but it must be stated just how he brought their game up a notch or three
His off-screen behaviour has drawn criticism with his maniacal devotion to Scientology. In 2017 he exerted such control over The Mummy, he turned the horror film into a Tom Cruise action movie, but a terrible one. When he sticks to acting with no baggage he is terrific, and perhaps that is where he should remain, acting for the big screen.
Many believe Cruise has controlled every aspect of his career, which might be true, and if so one cannot argue with more than five billion dollars to the box office.
For those who have never taken Cruise seriously as an actor, wake up.
Like any fine actor there have been missteps: Legend (1985), Days of Thunder (1990), Far and Away (1992), Knight and Day (2013), and the atrocious The Mummy (2017), but look deeper and find these 15 performances, along with the wild action of the Mission: Impossible franchise, which are not all great but when they work, pure magic.
Sean Penn, long time friend to Cruise calls him one of the best and bravest working in movies. Coming from perhaps the greatest talent of our generation, that is high praise indeed.
You will not find his performance in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) on the list, because that film belonged to his wife at the time, Nicole Kidman. Cruise was good, she was great.
Remember I am discussing his 15 best PERFORMANCES not films.
15. EDGE OF TOMORROW (2013)
In this hugely underrated, recently rediscovered science fiction war epic, Cruise is outstanding as Cage, a soldier who keeps reliving his last day, getting further along each day. Seems the alien race wiping out humanity has ripped a hole in the fabric of time allowing a couple of warriors to figure out how to beat them, but they must live and die each day as they get closer to the kill. At first stunned into pure wonderment, Cage teams up with a kick ass Emily Blunt to fight for the human race. They become a near unstoppable team, slightly ahead of the aliens, able to anticipate what is coming next because they have lived and died it already. In a complicated narrative Cruise helps us make sense as we figure it out with him.
14. INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994)
Wild outrage abounded when Cruise was cast as the century’s old vampire Lestat, even author Anne Rice was horrified by the casting. But when she saw the film she was silenced and went public with her endorsement of Cruise as the evil vampire. In Neal Jordan’s handsome adaptation, Cruise stalks the film with a predatory rage, proud of his immortality, thrilled with each new kill, eventually betrayed by a child he turned. Some critics accused Cruise of playing one note, and true, it is not the best of his work, hence the placement, but he attacked the role of the villain with a hunger we had not seen before, seeming to relish being the bad guy.
13. RISKY BUSINESS (1983)
With his overbearing parents away for the weekend, Joel (Cruise) wants to have a few drinks, play the music way loud and get laid. He hires a hooker for the night but does not realize he is charged every time they do it. When he cannot pay, her pimp gets involved and he thinks he is doomed until the hooker admits to having a thing for him, leaves hooking to be his girlfriend and helps him out of a terrible jam. Cruise was terrific as Joel, his socks and underwear dance sending girls screaming from the theatre, marking himself at that moment as a major star. The film made a fortune and his ending line, “Sometimes you got to say, what the fuck.” Words for a generation. A stunning breakthrough for the actor which led directly to his being cast in Top Gun (1986).
12. THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986)
Cruise is terrific as a high energy young pool shark, Vincent, taken under the wing of Fast Eddie Felton (Paul Newman) in this solid sequel to The Hustler (1961), in which Newman gave one of us finest and greatest performances. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film is an interesting study of a retired pool player finding the love for the game again through this flaky young hotshot. Cruise is like a pool rock star, making impossible shots, ruining any chance of being groomed into a hustler. The two actors have a lovely chemistry and when Newman received an Oscar nomination, and won, he wrote Cruise a note stating he could not have won without him and that he too deserved a nod. He was right.
11. ROCK OF AGES (2016)
In a terrible movie, Cruise is superb as the preening, vain always “on” rock God who knows exactly what his legions of fans expect him to be. Every move is deliberate, he does nothing by accident, or in a hurry, knowing whoever is there will wait for him. Cruise does all his own singing and does just fine as the rocker Stacey Jaxx. No one around him comes close to his brilliance, but when they were shooting, did his performance look as incredible as the finished product? I doubt it. Just watch him, the confidence, the startling arrogance of a rock star who waits for no one, because he knows everyone is in awe of him and waits for him. It is a funny yet biting performance of a rock God. Great towering, performance, in a dreadful film.
10. MINORITY REPORT (2002)
Steven Spielberg directed this science fiction noir with intelligence and dark flair. Cruise is John Anderson who runs a Pre-Cog unit, discovering crimes before they happen using three psychics. Obviously in the future, Anderson does his job well until he is accused of a murder he has not yet committed but will. Years earlier his son disappeared from a public pool and he has sought him ever since, though years have past and his marriage ended he remains haunted by the loss of his boy. Now on the run he realizes the Pre-Cog system is deeply flawed and used by his boss to cover crimes. It is an impressive, physical performance from Cruise, but he is a smart enough actor to let the intelligence show. A brilliant, exciting film.
9. RAIN MAN (1988)
Dustin Hoffman might have got the Oscar for Best Actor, but the lion’s share of great reviews went to Cruise. As the younger brother of Hoffman, an autistic savant, Cruise is sensational, giving himself over to the selfish, self absorbed character he is portraying with great relish. At first he looks at his brother and sees money, the birthright he has been cheated out of, but slowly the ice around his heart melts and he begins to like that he has a brother and wants to take care of him. It is a beautifully controlled and modulated evolution of character that deserved at least an Oscar nomination. His evolution from selfish punk to genuinely caring brother is a thing of beauty to behold.
8. A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)
Cruise goes toe to toe with the greatest of actors, Jack Nicholson, in what has become one of the most iconic courtroom scenes in movies. As Danny Coffey, an Air Force lawyer, he is asked to defend two young marines accused of murder and he has a hunch their commanding officer gave the order, called, off the books a Code Red, a secret code to commit murder. Obsessed with his case, Caffey works day and night and realizes he is going to have to accuse an officer of a crime in court, a crime unless he can get the Colonel to admit he did so. The battle of wits between Cruise and Nicholson is electrifying, two great actors upping each other’s game. Director Rob Reiner must have stood back and just let them tear at each other. Praying the cameras were in focus. An acting workshop from both.
7. AMERICAN MADE (2017)
Barry Seal, a pilot, father and husband embarks on a new career smuggling drugs through the skies for the deadly Medellín drug cartel. Suddenly, he has more money than he can possibly hide, and the FBI and government agencies target him. He can become an informant, or he can go directly to jail, so of course he chooses being an informant. Laundering cash becomes more difficult than he imagines, but his problems are far greater than that. Now the cartel wants him dead. Cruise is outstanding in the film, entirely unexpected, directed by Doug Liman. As the paranoia grows and the tensions rattle higher, Cruise portrays a myriad of emotions, brilliantly, but is at his finest when he realizes the cartel is out to kill him, and he knows they will, eventually.
6. COLLATERAL (2004)
Quietly lethal, his hair grey to match his suit, Cruise is brilliant as Vincent, a dangerous hitman in LA to do some work and get out as quick and as clean as possible. Confident, almost alarming in his intensity, moving like a killer shark through LA, Cruise controls the film as he is driven about in a cab, killing those he has been contracted to execute, while chatting amicably with cab diver Jamie Foxx. The actors bounce off each other nicely, but it is Cruise who has the upper hand in Michael Mann’s top-notch noir. Cruise gives a commanding, powerful performance as a man with ice water running in his veins, a man who places little value on human life, only what he is paid. Dangerous, always watchful, missing nothing I am thinking a Best Actor nomination was warranted and missed.
5. TROPIC THUNDER (2008)
Unbilled, heavily made up complete with huge hairy hands, unrecognizable Cruise jumped off the screen as movie producer Les, obviously based on bombastic Harvey Weinstein in his heyday as a Hollywood heavyweight. Sitting behind his desk with an array of telephones and his cell, screaming orders and obscenities into the phone, reducing actors and directors to jello, this is a marvellous comedic creation. His dancing is vulgar, yet I dare you to look away as Cruise creates a fresh new comic character. I think what made the character so popular was that those in the know realize he existed, he was the head of Miramax in flesh. The Globes noticed and nominated him, Oscar, blew it. As bold and brave as anything he has ever done.
4. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)
Oliver Stone finally brought the life of war veteran-activist Ron Kovic after many false starts. Universal finally agreed if Stone could cast Cruise, Nicolas Cage or Sean Penn. He went with Cruise because he felt seeing the Top Gun (1986) star reduced to this might draw attention to the war. Cruise was extraordinary in the film, aging from sixteen to forty and going through a kind of hell. Conditioned, if not brainwashed to be a patriot he happily went off to war to return paralyzed from the waist down and angry. “Thou shalt not kill Mom” he cries to his mother who cannot possibly understand his rage, knowing he is forever confined to a wheelchair. The performance forever silenced his critics and he earned his first Oscar nomination and won the Golden Globe for Best Actor.
3. THE LAST SAMURAI (2003)
As Western war hero and Indian fighter Nathan Algren, Cruise gives an extraordinary performance as an American taken prisoner by the Samurai in Japan. Hired to go abroad to train the Japanese Royal Military, Algren is taken by the Samurai high into the mountains where winter is coming. There during the winter, Algren becomes fascinated and obsessed with the discipline of the Samurai, and when he understands why they are fighting, he joins them. Watching Algren find peace as the warrior who finally finds something to fight for is exciting and often deeply moving. His friendship with the leader of the Samurai, portrayed with gentle ferocity by Ken Watanabe is among the highlights of the film, they learn so much from one another. The final scene in the Emperor’s court where Algren tells the gentle leader he will tell him how Katsumodo lived as opposed to how he died is haunting. The admiration and love Algren has for the man is so clear, so beautiful. How the Academy missed him for a Best Actor nomination he richly deserved is beyond me. The man was robbed.
2. JERRY MAGUIRE (1996)
The purest Cruise performance of his career, but also the one he poured his heart and soul into. Frankly it is a toss up between this and Magnolia (1999), they are inter-changeable. As likeable sports agent Jerry Maguire, he puts the role on like a well fitted glove and soars. After writing a mission statement suggesting his firm take less clients allowing them to really take care of those they have, Jerry is abruptly fired and becomes a laughingstock. Making a grand exit from his office, he takes one client with him, and a lonely secretary who believes in him. Through his growing friendship with his cocky, extroverted client, Cuba Gooding Jr., in an Oscar winning performance, he finds himself, falls in love with his secretary and his own firm catches fire. Cruise is heartbreaking as Maguire, being a friend, becoming a better man, realizing money is not everything. There is a lovely, soft chemistry between he and Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) in her breakthrough role. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe for Tom Hanks, Cruise stepped in like happy, perfect Kismet. Nominated for Best Actor, he deserved to win and frankly was robbed because his performance takes your breath away.
1. MAGNOLIA (1999)
Watching Cruise in this film is like watching a dark wizard work his magic. An arrogant, preening, misogynistic jerk, Frank Mackey gives seminars on how to conquer women, or how to get laid. A showboat, he has lied about his background and when a sharp reporter digs it up, he crucifies her with his silence. But when called home to visit his estranged, though dying father, we see there is much more to Frank than anyone realizes. Though he claims to hate the man who abandoned his dying mother, leaving Frank alone with her, he falls apart at his father’s bedside, unable to cope with losing another parent, his tears an admission of love for this man he has tried to hate. In the supporting role, Cruise has never been so majestically dark, so angry or so cruel, but it weaves a dark spell, that like a car wreck, you cannot take your eyes off. From the first moments we see him, exploding onto the stage like a hyper active demon, to the final moments with his father, sobbing like a wounded animal, he is seething with rage and blinding brilliance. Sure, watch this and tell me he cannot act, I dare you.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”