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Whether you love him or hate him, whether you appreciate him or are embarrassed by him, there’s no denying the talents of Tom Cruise. The tireless Movie Star (capitalized for emphasis) has occupied the center of celebrity’s white-hot spotlight for decades, delivering countless critical and financial successes while balancing a mix of franchises (Mission: Impossible), prestige pictures (Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut) and flat-out gambles (Tropic Thunder).
If anything, Tom Cruise is undervalued as an actor. Industry pundits pay close attention to his global drawing power, with little to no credit given to his performances – a short-sighted approach that overlooks some incredible turns under the direction of multiple, powerful directors. Cruise, over the course of his career, has actively sought out collaborations with challenging storytellers, and the ones unafraid to push back against the mystique of the Tom Cruise Movie Star (still capped) often get fearless performances from this dominant force.
In an effort to honor the movies of Tom Cruise – with the pending release of Doug Liman’s spectacular Edge of Tomorrow -- we embarked on the fool’s errand of selecting the Best Tom Cruise performance. We immediately realized, as a staff, just how many great Tom Cruise movies there are to choose from – but it was exhilarating fighting for which film each of us would get to defend.
Here, then, are our choices for Tom Cruise’s Best Performance. Undoubtedly, you have a different one. Be sure to tell us which movie, and why you picked it, in the comments section! For now, we start with:
Risky BusinessAn overwhelming majority of the movies Tom Cruise has made over the past few decades have been TOM CRUISE MOVIES. They have been carefully adapted to maximize his strengths, minimize his weaknesses and use every last dollar available from the studio. They’ve been event films, disaster films and sprawling sci-fi epics. In short, they’ve been engineered to generate revenue and make their star look like a total badass. That’s not a problem, of course. Many of them have been incredible and are even featured on this list, but in a way, all that glitz and all those dollar bills have made us forget just how capable Cruise is of turning a movie that would have otherwise disappeared into a classic.
At its core, Risky Business is a goofy coming-of-age black comedy with a stupid premise. It’s about a high school senior who turns his house into a brothel while his parents are gone. With a first time director and a script that occasionally ambles, it seemed destined to mildly amuse the raunch comedy crowd and then settle nicely into a life of late-night reruns. Thanks to Tom Cruise’s superhuman effort, however, it turns into something so much more.
It’s really, really hard to be emotionally affecting in the middle of a ludicrous premise. That’s why, even with someone like Tom Hanks, Bachelor Party is still Bachelor Party. Delivering a master class performance here, however, Cruise is somehow able to make Joel feel like an honest to God human being we can relate to. Sure, he accidentally hires a trans prostitute, loses his dad’s Porsche in a lake and is at war with a pimp, but his reactions all feel familiar and even understandable. He just feels like a normal kid who wants to make his parents happy, wants to live for himself, wants to figure out what type of person he is and wants to find somewhere he belongs. He’s one of us, and in a movie like this, you don’t find those guys very often.
The first impulse for any actor in a film like Risky Business is to push further. The first impulse is to play up the humor, the awkwardness and the stress. Tom Cruise doesn’t do that. He turns the knob down, and instead of exploiting the black comedy for as many laughs as possible, he walks the straight and narrow for the benefit of the larger movie.
Risky Business isn’t Cruise’s highest-grossing movie, or even the one most people would first think of, but it is perhaps the single greatest example we have of Cruise putting a film on his back and turning it into something beloved. That’s why it is and always will be his best movie.
MagnoliaBack in 2000, Tom Cruise earned what would prove to be his third and most recent Academy Award nomination for his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. The competition in the Best Supporting Actor category was absolutely stacked that year, however, and Michael Caine wound up walking away with the trophy for his role in the Lasse Hallstrom-directed The Cider House Rules. In retrospect, this may have been one of the worst mistakes the Oscars have made in the last quarter century, as Cruise’s blisteringly emotional and stunningly charismatic turn as Frank T.J. Mackey not only stole the show in the ensemble drama, but also continues to stand as the greatest of his career.
As this cumulative feature proves, Cruise’s career is filled with endlessly memorable characters, but few have challenged him more than his part in Magnolia - and in few films has he succeeded more admirably. Frank Mackey, a.k.a. Jack Partridge, is a man that proves to have two very distinct faces. On one side, he is the dominating, bleeding-confidence host of "Seduce And Destroy," a highly misogynistic, testosterone fueled seminar where he teaches his legion of followers to trick women into sleeping with them by setting jealousy traps and repeating the mantra "Respect The Cock, Tame The Cunt." It’s only when that horrific, shallow persona is ripped away by an investigative reporter that we see Frank’s real face emerge: the damaged boy who watched his mother slowly die after being abandoned by his famous producer father. An average actor would be tested with even one half of this massively complex role, but Cruise plays both personas so well and handles the transition so seamlessly that it makes you want to stand up out of your seat and applaud – even if you’re just watching the movie in your living room.
As one of the last true movie stars, Tom Cruise has spent the last 33 years making us laugh, cry and everything in between, but no movie on his resume better exemplifies his talents and strengths better than Magnolia. He makes you hate Frank Mackie for his rhetoric, laugh at him for his over-the-top charisma, and cry with him at the bedside of his dying father – all while making you completely and utterly forget that he is one of the biggest name actors in the world. You know you’ve put on a memorable show when you upstage Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, and William H. Macy, and for Cruise it meant putting on the best performance of his career.
A Few Good MenTry to imagine an actor of lesser presence holding court opposite a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. Imagine Ryan Phillippe, Josh Hartnett or, hell, even Channing Tatum in Rob Reiner’s courtroom thriller. Terrifying, no?
For so many reasons, A Few Good Men contains the quintessential Tom Cruise performance – one role that manages to capture all that Cruise can bring to the table at any given moment, from the crippling, egocentric confidence that comes with looking like Tom Cruise to the humbling, nerve-rattling ability to hold down a scene opposite some of the best actors in the business. A Few Good Men arrived at an integral point in Cruise’s career. By 1992, at the ripe old age of 29, the mega-star had carried marquee-busting blockbusters (Top Gun), and chased industry credibility with Oscar-caliber projects shepherded by proven talents (Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July). He was standing at a crossroads, looking at paths that could make him the next Gene Hackman, or the next popcorn-driven sellout.
A Few Good Men allowed him to straddle the fence, sinking his teeth into Aaron Sorkin’s awards-worthy screenplay while delivering a crowd-pleasing thriller at the box office. (Reiner’s movie would be the fifth-highest-grossing movie of 1992, riding on the back of its Best Picture nomination, and its incredibly memorable performances). Looking even deeper, the character of Lt. Daniel Kaffee arrived at the perfect moment in Tom Cruise’s career, personifying many of the attributes we all associated with the star (even though we hardly knew him at all). Kaffee’s early arrogance stemmed from an undefeated run through the court system – similar to the hit train Cruise was riding through the box office. Much like Kaffee, Cruise was unwilling to back down from a project when he spied the raw material at play. And as mentioned earlier, though he was only 29 at the time, Cruise somehow had the personal gravitas to stand toe-to-toe with a murderer’s row of intimidating character actors – from Nicholson and Keifer Sutherland to Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollak and the spectacular J.T. Walsh – lobbing dramatic softballs and allowing them to swing for the fences in scene after scene.
This feature boasts an outstanding selection of Cruise performances over the years. But I truly believe that the actor’s at his best when he’s contributing to an ensemble, stepping up to the plate when his number is called and giving exactly what is needed – be it charm or modesty, anxiety or calmness – to complete the scene. Wait, I’m drifting into Jerry Maguire territory (another brilliant Cruise role). The answer is A Few Good Men.
CollateralCollateral is hands down Tom Cruise's most nuanced performance of the modern era, or any era of his career for that matter. Playing off of mostly Jamie Foxx during the entire run of the film, Cruise plays the role of Vincent. He's just a guy who's in Los Angeles for a couple of days, with some time to kill. Actually, he has some people to kill as well, and he forces Foxx's character of Max to ferry him around from murder scene to murder scene in order to finish the jobs at hand. Naturally, Max puts up a fight and tries to escape with some rather crafty and unconventional means. However, Vincent wouldn't be very good at his job if he wasn't able to improvise and adapt to his environment, which means Max is going to have to put up a huge fight to escape his supposed fate.
The reason that Vincent is Tom Cruise's best -- and probably most important -- performance of his career is that it's one of the rare moments where he plays someone we're not supposed to root for. Sure, he previously got to flex his villain muscles in Interview With The Vampire, but Lestat has more of a comedic edge to him that makes the character more enjoyable when he murders people in cold blood.
Vincent, on the other hand, is an existential sociopath. He wonders what our place on this Earth is all about, and so far the answers he's come up with aren't strong enough for him to stop killing people. The man is goal focused to the end, even taking some hits as he chases Max down during the film's action-packed finale. And just when you think he's about to close in for the kill, he's gunned down by sheer, dumb, cosmic luck. In that final moment, he realizes that it's all for nothing. No one will notice he was there, because it was what he'd always aimed for. His goal was always to leave no trace behind, and he succeeds admirably.
While he's the film's villain, and a cold-hearted killer; Tom Cruise manages to have some of that mischievous fun that he had with Lestat so many years ago. His performance as Vincent walks a tight rope of calm logic, fierce rage, and grinning idiot. Yet somehow, he gets you to feel just a little sorry for him at the end, as he's slumped over on that train – which calls back to the story told earlier in the film. I hope Cruise and director Michael Mann get to work together again at some point in the future, as this film brought out some of the best qualities of why he still remains an acting force of nature. If you've never seen Collateral, or haven't experienced it in a good long while, I highly recommend you do so. The film is as fresh today as it was back in 2004.
Jack ReacherThe meta-narrative is inescapable with Tom Cruise. He has played variations of the same cocky hero for so long that by the time he seriously started revealing his private persona to the world (circa Katie Holmes), each role came complete with its own baggage. Suddenly, people would see him in a movie and they would ponder Scientology, they would ponder out-of-court settlements, they would ponder Oprah's couch. Anything to get them to hide from the truth: Tom Cruise is the sort of movie star they don't make any more, and when he walks into a room, people are moved.
That carried on in Christopher McQuarrie's plotty suspenser Jack Reacher, the story of which basically involves characters asking, nay, praying for the right awesome person to lead them out of this mess, only for Tom Cruise to walk right through the door. Cruise has every answer, he's got all the plans, and he knows how to shut down everyone around him with a single quip. When goons approach him for a fight, he makes extra sure they really want to engage with him. Even after the public scrutiny, the scandals and gossip, here was Cruise, looking amazing for his age (that HAIR!), playing a guy who was both the smartest and strongest guy in the room.
You don't see that anymore; our heroes are more flawed, filled with more doubt, uncertain as to who the bad guys are. But the pleasurably spartan Jack Reacher is so straightforward that Cruise's performance is almost flirting with comical, somewhere between Eastwood's Dirty Harry and Leslie Nielsen's Dr. Rumack in Airplane!. Some complained that the film lacked suspense because of its bulletproof protagonist. This complaint was lodged in the dopey disqualification of the force of Cruise. He moves like a shark in this film, and when he pauses to think, you see those wheels turning, not only to show how he's simply increasing the amount of steps he's ahead, but that he's also physically recoiling, before he's fired like a bullet. It's as if Cruise has cut all the B.S. out of being a movie star, and having to carry the weight of a film. In this film, he's aimed, he fires, and he destroys with maximum prejudice.
Considering all the gossipy junk he's had to deal with over the years, the meta-narrative this time reveals Cruise to be borderline invincible. There's talk of a sequel. There should be one every year, until Cruise stops caring.
Edge of TomorrowNowadays, we tend to think of Tom Cruise as an action hero, for better or worse. For "better" is a string of thrilling films featuring Cruise's undeniable charisma and dedication to character. For "worse" is that we've ignored his other talents and ability to stretch as an actor.
In Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise is once more an action hero. But instead of spy tech and covert operations, he's strapped into a robotic exoskeleton equipped with a wide and deadly array of weaponry all meant to help his hero, Cage, kill the invading alien force that always seems one step ahead. It's a cool premise, where in theory Cruise could just be cool, flashing his heart-melting smile and strutting with bravado. But part of what makes Edge of Tomorrow such a fantastic ride is that Cage is no typical Cruise hero. He's not noble. He's not brave. He's not flashy. Cruise forfeits his signature smiles to dig into a coward/would-be blackmailer, who will become a hero through the film's tagline: Live. Die. Repeat.
Boiled down, Edge of Tomorrow is my pick for Cruise's best performance because of what it lacks. There's no confident Cruise grin as he throws himself into the fray. His unlikely hero is not the coolest character in the film (that'd be Emily Blunt's Rita "Full Metal Bitch" Vrataski). And he never takes his shirt off to make the audience swoon.
Here, the sex appeal and cool veneer he has spent decades crafting and polishing plays as the perfect setup for the first act, where his Cage--essentially a PR rep for the military whose uniform is little more than a costume--drops Cruise's customary confidence and charm to reveal himself to be a conniving coward. From there, Cruise plays Cage as a man fearful, flawed and forced to be better. It's a fantastic and fascinating arc that plays even better because it's so against Cruise's established type. But what really puts Edge of Tomorrow at the top for me is how truly funny Cruise is in it.
Here, he's downright hilarious. He does deadly dark physical comedy, where mistakes in practice earn him a bullet to the head that video game style puts him back at the start point of his mission. It's a humor that wouldn't have worked if Cruise winked at the audience or played it for laughs. He plays it straight, just like comedy legend Gene Wilder has always advocated. The result is an action movie that allows us to safely laugh at our own mortality. Basically, by trusting in Edge of Tomorrow's pitch-black humor and embracing its chicken-shit anti-hero, Cruise has forged his greatest performance to date.