Tom Cruise may be the last person standing when it comes to old-fashioned Hollywood movie stardom. While others have fallen by the wayside, Cruise still has the ability to deliver crowd-pleasing, spectacular movies that appeal to the all-important “four-quadrant” demographic when it comes to paying customers at the box office—at least as long as the words “Top Gun” or “Mission: Impossible” appear somewhere in the title, anyway.
Whether Cruise can score with movies outside those two intellectual properties is a subject for a different article, but it’s clear that he’s done so plenty of times in the past. More importantly, what has often gotten overlooked in Cruise’s long string of successes is that not only is he a movie star, but he’s also a damn good and frequently underrated actor, with a range that has taken him beyond the “Tom Cruise” brand a number of times.
Below is our unscientific ranking of Tom Cruise’s best performances. This doesn’t mean every film was wall-to-wall great, but most of them are, and all benefit from a stellar Cruise appearance. You may have your own choices as well, but here are the ones we found not just iconic but also indicative of an actor working at the peak of his craft.
15. Magnolia (1999)
Magnolia may be one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s more divisive films. Coming after the relatively accessible and often fun Boogie Nights, it was a difficult piece for audiences to wrap their minds around, but it certainly pushed PTA’s trademark glittering ensemble cast into new frontiers as actors. Chief among those was Tom Cruise, who felt his portrayal of the disagreeable sex-seminar guru Frank Mackey was so outside his usual brand that he kept a low profile during the film’s advance promotional efforts.
That made sense in a way, because Cruise’s star power would have overshadowed the shock value (we mean that in a good way) of seeing his performance for the first time. Cruise is so unpleasant, so shady, and yet so larger-than-life that it’s almost a palate cleanser after the frigid nature of his previous performance in Eyes Wide Shut from the same year. And his climactic scene in Magnolia, at the deathbed of his father (Jason Robards), packs a weighty emotional punch. It remains one of Cruise’s boldest strokes as an actor.
14. Risky Business
Tom Cruise’s fifth feature film role is considered his breakout performance, and it’s easy to see why. Still very young (he was just 20 when he made the film), Cruise nevertheless began to establish the “Tom Cruise” persona with this movie that would be the template for many of his roles: a flawed, smart, often cocksure young man who thinks he knows more than he does, gets his ass handed to him as a result, but comes out of it as a better person and (in his early films, anyway) a true adult.
In addition to his iconic dance in briefs and button-down shirt (an image which arguably helped and hindered his career), Cruise gives a well-rounded and fully-developed performance as Joel, the college-bound rich kid who learns a thing or two about business from a hooker and her pimp. Aside from being funny and cynical, the movie is hot; Cruise and a sizzling Rebecca De Mornay share a sexual chemistry that Cruise has rarely found since (one of his career blind spots).
13. Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
You’ll notice that the original Top Gun is nowhere on this list: that’s because a) it’s not a very good movie at all (nostalgia goggles be damned), and b) the young Cruise was still figuring out how to modulate his then charismatic but largely superficial performances. Last year’s sequel, however, was an entirely different story. While the movie was formulaic to a large degree, its infectious energy, dazzling air sequences, and high cinematic value almost hid the fact that Cruise was also acting at the top of his game.
His Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is aging, careworn, and seasoned by both the experiences and disappointments of his life while haunted by regret and also burdened with the decisions he took on for others. Yet he is still a leader in every way, and a courageous fighter on his own, making this version of Mitchell far more complex and empathetic than that cocky young pilot we met nearly 40 years ago. It’s Cruise acting his age, and the movie is all the better for it.
12. Rain Man (1988)
The amazing thing about watching Rain Man today is that while Dustin Hoffman won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the autistic savant Raymond Babbitt, it’s actually Cruise who delivers the more complex, nuanced performance as Raymond’s younger brother Charlie, a fast-talking hustler of collectible items who initially sees Raymond as an impediment both financially and personally, but ultimately grows to love and protect the sibling he only has a vague childhood memory of.
Cruise’s initially callow Charlie has the real character arc of the movie, and Cruise’s beautifully modulated work anchors the film, even as the already confident young star concedes the spotlight to Hoffman’s more showy performance. The film itself is modest, formulaic to a degree, and yet warm and funny. This and the less effective The Color of Money from two years earlier represent a turning point for Cruise’s maturity as an actor.
11. Jack Reacher (2012)
Yes, we know: Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s books is a monster of a man—six-foot-five!—while Tom Cruise is nearly a foot shorter (he’s five-seven). We realize that Alan Ritchson, who currently plays Reacher on the Prime Video series, is a much more physically accurate version of the character. But, admittedly never having read the books, we still find much to like in Cruise’s tough, no-nonsense, dark performance as the mysterious drifter who helps people solve their problems.
Cruise is front and center and does his part justice, and even if the script is fairly routine, the action is terrific. We mean, who doesn’t like a movie where Werner Herzog is cast as a terrifying Russian villain? We respect Reacher fans (and ultimately Child himself) not caring for Cruise’s work here, but we dig it. On the other hand, the sequel (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) just plain sucks.
10. Minority Report (2002)
Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg only collaborated twice, but both projects were science fiction and both proved to be among the darkest films of each man’s career (the other is 2005’s War of the Worlds). Minority Report is based on a Philip K. Dick short story and stars Cruise as John Anderton, the grief-stricken, drug-addicted head of a specialized police department known as Precrime. The experimental operation prevents crime by arresting the perpetrator before the crime ever happens thanks to three psychics who can foresee the future. Naturally, Anderton himself is soon fingered by the psychics, called Precogs, and goes on the run as he tries to prove he’s innocent of a murder he’s yet to commit.
This one is a winner all around, from Spielberg’s breathless direction to Cruise’s complex performance (and a striking supporting turn by then-newcomer Colin Farrell). Even the world-building of the film, which envisions a society where surveillance of all kinds (including advertising) is omniscient and ever-present, appeared to predict much of our modern world today. It’s an immersive, kinetic thriller, marred only by one of Spielberg’s famously tacked-on “happy” endings, making for the only flaw in an otherwise top-notch collaboration.
9. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
We’re old enough to remember when late author Anne Rice objected to the casting of Tom Cruise as her signature creation, the vampire Lestat, only to turn around and admit she was wrong after actually seeing Cruise perform the role in the film. And we remember how we felt seeing Cruise in his 18th century vampire garb as well: tickled and entranced by his larger-than-life, decadent, campy performance, almost utterly unlike anything else he had done up to that point. Eyes glittering, blonde wig flowing, and teeth stained with blood, Cruise is decadent and deliciously evil in the role.
Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Rice’s horror classic is atmospheric and seductive as well, finding the right atmospheric balance between romance, homoeroticism, and depraved Gothic chills to support Rice’s rather thin narrative. We’ve always been mixed on Brad Pitt’s mopey turn as Louis, Lestat’s long-suffering vampire companion, but Cruise is a delight when he’s onscreen and nearly matched by Kirsten Dunst’s debut as the child bloodsucker Claudia.
8. The Firm (1993)
Based on John Grisham’s 1991
pile of unreadable crap massively best-selling novel, The Firm is one of those big Hollywood movies that actually sort of transcends its source material and provides an entertaining good time on its own merits. A large part of that is the cast, a glittering ensemble confidently led by Cruise and including some of the most reliable character actors in the business, including Gene Hackman, Wilford Brimley, Hal Holbrook, Ed Harris, and Paul Sorvino (not to mention Holly Hunter in a movie-stealing, Oscar-nominated turn as a sexy-smart secretary).
Directed by Sydney Pollack, The Firm is the epitome of a legal thriller, and Cruise effectively portrays Mitch McDeere’s transformation from wide-eyed, ambitious young lawyer to cynical yet principled dealmaker as he navigates both his crooked law firm and the crime family it represents. It’s a fine performance in a crowdpleaser of a movie.
7. Jerry Maguire (1996)
“Show me the money.” Audiences did indeed show Jerry Maguire the money, turning out in droves for Cameron Crowe’s effective, sharply written mix of romantic comedy and biting sports agency satire. Cruise is brilliant as the title character, a sports agent whose sudden crisis of conscience (a no-no in his business) results in him losing his job, his fiancée, and almost all his clients. His sole remaining one, Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), needs to reappraise his life as well. Meanwhile Jerry also unexpectedly finds love with his new company’s sole staff member, Dorothy (Renee Zellweger).
Jerry Maguire finds both writer-director Crowe and star Cruise at the top of their powers, with Cruise giving Crowe’s incisive character study everything he’s got emotionally. The movie is a rare rom-com for the actor, an avenue he had potential to explore more if he didn’t pursue the sci-fi and action route so aggressively. Cruise received his second Best Actor nomination for the film; we’ll get to his first in a bit.
6. Tropic Thunder (2008)
It’s tempting to call Les Grossman—the vulgar, megalomaniacal, preening movie producer in Ben Stiller’s side-splitting skewering of Hollywood—Tom Cruise’s finest hour onscreen. To begin with, he’s unrecognizable. It’s only a few minutes in, once you get past the bald pate, the beard, the extra padding, and the glasses, that you realize whose voice and eyes those are. And then your mouth drops open as it washes over you that we’ve never, ever seen Cruise like this before.
“Take a big step back… and literally fuck your own face!” Grossman screams down the phone at someone, just one of the unending river of profanities that emerge shockingly (and hilariously) from Cruise’s mouth. We don’t know (and may not want to legally say) who Cruise based his performance on, but Grossman is the distillation of every monstrous, boorish, money-and-power-driven movie producer you’ve ever heard horror stories about, and he remains the most out-there thing Cruise has ever done.
5. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
It’s a strange fact of film history that Tom Cruise has starred in some of the best science fiction movies of the modern era, including Minority Report, War of the Worlds, the underrated Oblivion, and this, which also counts as one of his finest films in general of the past decade. Cruise appears this time as the rather timorous William Cage, a public relations officer for the military who is involuntarily thrust into the frontlines against an incredibly relentless, hostile alien force. When he is splattered with alien blood, however, Cage soon learns that he has acquired the beings’ ability to reset time. He then finds himself looping through the same day and frantically trying to find a way to change the outcome of the war so he’ll stop dying.
Cage is a classic Cruise character in a way, a smooth-talking hustler with little under the surface who’s then forced to grow into a better human being. It’s a great performance in a powerful story (with the usual gaps here and there in time-loop tales), aided by excellent work from Emily Blunt as a soldier who joins Cruise on his quest every time he loops around. Largely neglected by audiences upon release, it continues to grow into a well-deserved genre classic status.
4. A Few Good Men (1992)
Rob Reiner directs this adaptation of Aaron Sorkin’s hit play (adapted by Sorkin himself, with an assist from William Goldman), in which two Marines go on trial for the death of a fellow Marine and have only a shallow young Navy lawyer (Cruise) to defend them. But as Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee builds his case, with the help of the righteous Lt. Cdr. Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore), he begins to uncover a web of deceit and corruption under the command of the sadistic Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson).
The courtroom drama may be conventional in structure, but the movie rockets along on the strength of its performances, especially those of Cruise, Moore, Kevin Bacon, and of course the explosive Nicholson. Kaffee’s evolution is slow and effective, and it’s arguably here, while going toe to toe with the formidable firepower of “Jack,” that Cruise firmly proved once and for all that he could hold his own alongside the screen’s biggest legends. He’s marvelous, as is the entire gripping movie.
3. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
If Rain Man marked the first stage of Tom Cruise’s growth as an actor, then this Oliver Stone epic the following year solidified the young star’s standing as a genuine screen talent capable of range and depth. Based on the real-life story of Vietnam-veteran-turned-antiwar-activist Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July was also the second of Stone’s unofficial trilogy about that most pointless of wars, nestled between Platoon and Heaven and Earth. And it’s certainly as strong as the former.
In a role originally conceived for Al Pacino back in the late 1970s, Cruise is simply electrifying, smoothly moving through the different phases of Kovic’s life, from the war through his drug-addled aftermath in a series of increasingly decrepit hospitals, and finally to his fawakening as a paralyzed but fired-up protester. The performance earned the actor his first Best Actor nomination at the Oscars, and he probably should have won: his Kovic is impassioned and mesmerizing, and still a high point of Cruise’s long career.
2. Collateral (2004)
Michael Mann’s hot streak as a director, which began in 1986 with Manhunter (and included efforts like Heat, Ali, and The Insider), largely came to an end with this intense crime thriller, but at least he managed to do something that was very rare in Hollywood: get Tom Cruise to play an out-and-out villain. And man, did Cruise take to the assignment. His hair colored a premature gray, Cruise is malevolently magnetic as Vincent, an assassin on a hit spree who recruits a terrified cabbie (Jamie Foxx, also spectacular) as his unwilling driver.
Nihilistic and racking up perhaps the single biggest onscreen killing spree of Cruise’s career, Vincent is an empathy-free killing machine. Cruise once again subverts our expectations of his abilities with his portrayal of this monster, who never redeems himself as so many of the actor’s other characters have done. But then again, Cruise has never played, either before or since, someone as sociopathic as Vincent, making this one of his finest and most distinctive films.
1. Mission: Impossible (1996-2024)
As we say in our review of Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, Tom Cruise has been constructing his magnum opus over the past 27 years with this always intelligent, thrilling, and keenly visceral action franchise. After a first movie that upended the conventions of the elderly TV show it was based on, and a couple of initial sequels that struggled to find the right tone, the film series became not just a true ensemble effort but a showcase for Cruise’s overall skill as an actor and his devotion to doing everything humanly possible to please his audience.
Cruise’s IMF leader, Ethan Hunt, has transformed from a young spy into a furiously independent leader and global protector, with the character evolving along with the actor himself. Ethan may not be Cruise’s greatest or most in-depth creation, but he’s been the most consistent, especially in a world where we regularly change Batmen and James Bonds decade or so. And the series itself has only gotten bigger and better over its seven installments to date, an impossible mission that only Tom Cruise could pull off. Perhaps we’re all the better then that he chose to accept it.