Tom Cruise is one of those rare actors who climbed to superstar status and never really vacated the position. Since the early ‘80s he’s consistently turned out top-notch, entertaining movies, and he has another on the way this weekend with Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. To mark the occasion of his fifth time playing international secret agent Ethan Hunt, we thought what better time to count down his ten best characters.
This was a tough list to make. We have some die hard Cruise fans among us (Top Gun shaped my life more than I’m entirely comfortable admitting), and as we all have our favorites, there were some heated arguments had during construction. There are great movies where the character may not have been the most memorable, on the on other side of that coin, there are great roles in less notable movies. That said, we think this is a solid list. Let us know what you think we should have included or left off in the comments below.
10. Les Grossman, Tropic Thunder
Tom Cruise isn’t known for being a comedic actor. He can certainly be funny, but scanning his resume, you don’t find a lot of straight-up comedy. That’s what makes his turn as hard-ass studio executive Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder so memorable and hilarious. It’s also one of the few roles, especially recently, where he’s heavily made up, to the point where he’s almost unrecognizable. You can’t help but laugh as Cruise, so out of his usual wheelhouse, screams and rages and belittles his subordinates. And who knew that you always wanted to see Tom Cruise dancing around his office to a hip hop jam, but there it is. So don’t piss him off or you’ll have to get a binding resolution from the United Nations, because he is talking scorched earth, motherfucker!
9. Lestat, Interview With The Vampire
Tom Cruise covered with pasty makeup, full of intense stares and heaving sighs, and prosthetic fangs? Didn’t expect that one, did you? But that’s exactly what you got in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, which featured Cruise as the fan-favorite bloodsucker Lestat. The casting initially met with big question marks from fans of the book, as well as Rice herself, who criticized the choice, though she came around to praise his performance. He embraced the character’s ambiguous sexuality, his charm, his petulance, his theatricality, and the philosophical questions that plague the immortal rogue. This is a role that required Cruise to show a different side of his personality and skills as an actor, and Lestat is one that stands very much apart from anything he did before or has done since.
8. Bill Cage, Edge Of Tomorrow
When you think of a typical Tom Cruise movie, you imagine him in the lead, as the hero, and those are certainly true to a degree in the sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow. Sure, he does ultimately save the day and get the girl and all of that usual heroic stuff, but when Bill Cage starts on his journey, he’s anything but your standard Tom Cruise lead. Spineless, sniveling, and without a heroic bone in his body, his ad exec turned fast-talking military officer finds himself on the front lines of an alien invasion where he is killed off almost instantly upon stepping into battle. Cursed to relive the same day over and over again, Groundhog Day style, he gets a little further each time, until he is humanity’s last hope. His journey is to become your usual steel-jawed Cruise hero, but he plays much of the movie drastically against type. And getting to watch him kick the bucket time after time is also a total blast.
7. Frank TJ Mackey, Magnolia
When you think of Cruise, there’s usually a certain amount of ego involved. He’s the lead, he’s the hero, but in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia he takes a supporting role as part of a large ensemble, and plays a heel to boot. And he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for his onscreen efforts as Frank TJ Mackey, a narcissistic self-help guru that encourages men to worship sex and who lies about his past. His quiet performance, which blends into the larger tapestry of the film, encompasses the pain and trauma and reconciliation he undergoes, and the role allows him to transcend the movie star trappings he often falls into and show off things you didn’t know he had.
6. Charlie Babbitt, Rain Man
Rain Man’s Charlie Babbitt is not quite a con man, but he’s not far off. Self-centered and up to his eyeballs in debt, he learns that he has a brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), in a mental institution. On the road trip that ensues, they bond, count cards, get Raymond laid, and Charlie learns some important lessons. Hoffman’s performance is the obvious, showy one that people watch and praise, and as such it’s easy to skip over Tom Cruise doing some of his best work along side of that. Confused, desperate, and trying to process a ton of new information, Charlie is the true central character in Rain Man, the real emotional core, and Cruise handles it with a deft, delicate touch. He’s so good and so natural that you hardly even notice.
5. Joel Goodsen, Risky Business
Before he played Joel Goodsen in Risky Business in 1983, Tom Cruise was starting to make a name for himself as a handsome newcomer in movies like Losin’ It, Taps, and The Outsiders. It was this role, however, that really made people sit up, take notice, and say this kid is going to be a star. Playing a teen who wrecks his dad’s Porsche when his parents are out of town, and turns his house into a brothel for the night in order to pay for the repairs, Cruise is cocky and brash, but also vulnerable and scared and in way, way over his head. This is the role that really showed he could lead a movie, the one that truly helped make him a star, and from there his career trajectory went from upward to meteoric.
4. Ron Kovic, Born On The Fourth Of July
Cruise had already become a huge international star, but 1989’s adaptation of Bourn on the Fourth of July brought a different kind of recognition, in the form acclaim for his acting and award nominations, including his first Oscar nom. His transformative performance as disillusioned real-life Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic is strong and simple and incredibly powerful. Together with director Oliver Stone, he shows the hidden, lingering consequences of war, and how the problems of that conflict, from both a personal and national perspective, were not easy fixes and were never truly resolved. Even down to small details, like flinching at the sound of firecrackers, Cruise’s performance is visceral and authentic.
3. Jerry Maguire, Jerry Maguire
Few Tom Cruise roles are beloved in the same way as the title character of Cameron Crowe’s 1996 romantic comedy-drama Jerry Maguire. So many of Cruise’s best roles feature the superstar playing against type, and though he’s been a romantic lead before, he had never been one like this. Cruise plays a slick, cynical sports agent who undergoes a massive transformation both professionally and personally. Doing some of his best work, Cruise’s performance was praised across the board and earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. How can you not love that scene of him drunk on the couch with the little kid?
2. Ethan Hunt, Mission: Impossible
For years, Tom Cruise has been adamant about doing his own stunts whenever possible, putting himself in harms way for our entertainment. Nowhere has that been more prominent than as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible movies. He even fired an insurance company on Ghost Protocol because they wouldn’t sign off on a particular sequence he wanted to perform. Ethan is charming and suave, a reckless gambler willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and is full of sharp banter for his rogues gallery of compatriots. Up to and including the latest installment, Rogue Nation, more than anything, the Mission: Impossible films illustrate just how far Cruise is willing to go in order to sell a movie and prove that, even as he gets into his 50s, he’s still one hell of an action star.
1. Maverick, Top Gun
Tom Cruise was famous before Top Gun, well known as a heartthrob and leading man. His turn as renegade Navy pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Tony Scott’s 1986 action drama, however, made him a goddamn superstar, and he never looked back. His badass, live-life-on-the-edge fighter pilot is cocky and rash, oozes charm and charisma, and is impossible not to watch, whether he’s playing volleyball shirtless, riding his Kawasaki Ninja (I wanted one so bad as a kid) recklessly through traffic, piloting a supercharged F-14 Tomcat, or holding his dying best friend in his arms (I still get choked up over Goose). Top Gun is where Tom Cruise truly became Tom Cruise, the personality rather than the man, and it shaped my life more than I’m entirely proud to admit (true story, the kid who grew up next door went to the Air Force Academy largely because he fell in love with the idea of flying during our repeated viewings of Top Gun). Top Gun is where Tom Cruise taught an entire generation how to be awesome.
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