Nowadays Tom Cruise is mostly known as an action star who’s accepted so many impossible missions, the stunt coordinators need to figure out how to top themselves on a more frequent basis. But Cruise hasn’t always been the total man of action that the world sees him as. In fact, on either side of landing the role of Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible franchise, the actor has made quite a few films that showcased other acting muscles that were always present.
In particular, there are a handful of films that deserve quite a bit of attention, as they show off varying degrees of Tom Cruise’s success as both a leading man and a supporting player. All are off the beaten path of his action, and each film has that unique spark that makes it a Tom Cruise movie.
Risky Business (1983)
Early on in his career, Tom Cruise was cast in iconic teen movies of the ‘80s like All The Right Moves, and most notably in writer/director Paul Brickman’s Risky Business. Playing as a sort of John Hughes-style comedy, Cruise plays Joel, a teenager who accidentally embroils himself into a caper that involves prostitution, wrecking a Porsche and having to replace an expensive vase. And while there’s a lot of comedy to be had, there’s certainly some drama with Joel’s dealing with officially being in over his head, while head over heels for Rebecca DeMornay’s Lana.
Tom Cruise’s chemistry with her, Curtis Armstrong’s Miles and Joe Pantoliano’s Guido allows Risky Business to showcase his early range of acting abilities in an impressive extent. The Cruise swagger is there, but it’s tempered by a young insecurity. But what really makes Risky Business a prime example of Cruise film magic is the fact that it plays similar notes to a Hughes teen comedy, but isn’t afraid to go into darker, more R-rated territory with those themes.
Rain Man (1988)
The story of Raymond and Charlie Babbitt, two brothers who reunite unexpectedly after their father’s death, is the core to director Barry Levinson’s Academy Award-winning film Rain Man. And operating in that core is both Tom Cruise as Charlie, as well as co-star Dustin Hoffman as Raymond, the older brother with Savant Syndrome he never knew he had. Their road trip of a lifetime not only helps them connect as siblings, but it also allows them to get into some misadventures that help them learn a little more about each other.
Watching Tom Cruise’s Charlie evolve from an eager opportunist who’s using his brother for money, to someone who actually loves and cares for Hoffman’s Raymond, is a truly emotional experience that Rain Man banks on to its great success. Those dramatic chops wouldn’t be going away any time soon, and without his chance to stretch into heartfelt drama in this film, another Tom Cruise movie classic may not have ever happened.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Before making a leap to action laden spectacle, but after passing his years as the dewy eyed teen heartthrob Tom Cruise once represented, character-driven drama was an avenue that presented many great opportunities. We saw it before with Cruise’s heartfelt performance in Rain Man, but that felt like a big windup for the role of Daniel Kaffee in director Rob Reiner’s feature adaptation of A Few Good Men.
In the role of LTJG Kaffee, Tom Cruise takes on a role that sees him enter the genre of courtroom drama, with the words of writer Aaron Sorkin on his tongue nonetheless. The same intensity he brings to leaping off of buildings or skydiving from great heights is brought to cross-examination and instigating testimony in A Few Good Men, with Tom Cruise getting to square off against Jack Nicholson in a scene that’s still as memorable to this day as when the words “You can’t handle the truth!” were first shouted back in 1992.
Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)
Tom Cruise almost always plays the hero in the films he acts in. That’s kind of what makes them Tom Cruise movies, as he’s very rarely been known to play a baddie. But when he’s given the choice to let himself off the moral leash, like in director Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, it’s an absolute thing of beauty seeing him torment not only his victims, but also his beloved cohort Louis, played by Brad Pitt.
As the story of his association with Lestat is told in an extended flashback, it’s Louis who’s in control of the story. That being said, Tom Cruise’s Lestat is one of his most engaging and memorable performances. While his menace can be darkly comic, author Anne Rice’s legendary brat prince is also exceedingly threatening when he wants to be, and Cruise knows just when and where to push that particular needle in his portrayal. It’s a shame there weren’t any further sequels to Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, as this was a Cruise movie that the man himself really did sink his teeth into.
Jerry Maguire (1997)
It’s one of the quintessential films in the Tom Cruise movie canon: writer/director Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire. A light-hearted tale of a superstar sports agent who has a breakdown, only to build himself back from the ground up, it’s one of those Cruise movies that almost always makes the short hand list of best films starring the man himself. It is also probably the most legwork that the actor has been given as a central romantic lead.
While Cameron Crowe films do play the heartstrings as a full-fledge symphony, Jerry Maguire actually gives Tom Cruise a lot more to do than just romance Renee Zellweger to death. Cycling through Jerry’s self-assured form into the full-on “Show Me The Money” spiral incite by friend and client Cuba Gooding Jr., and finding himself changed into a more lovable person, is the sort of thing that Rain Man primed Cruise to follow in his career. And sure enough, that experience gave him the proper grounding to help this film help itself into pop culture immortality.
Sometimes, villains aren’t theatrically inclined vampires or silly entertainments. Sometimes they aren’t even villains, but come off as such. Frank “T.J.” Mackey is one such role, and writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson created him in the film Magnolia so that Tom Cruise could eventually come in and knock out one of his most dramatic performances yet.
As a pick-up artist who gives seminars to teach men how to “tame” women, Tom Cruise’s Frank has some deeper issues to deal with that help keep Magnolia’s revolving storyline in time. Those problems stem from the absence of his father, played by the late Jason Robards, and how his departure from the family left Frank all alone to take care of his dying mother. Showing that Cruise is as good an ensemble player as he is a lead, this Cruise movie is emotionally devastating, so you may need some time to prepare or recover after watching.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise re-teamed in 2001 for the film Vanilla Sky, an English language remake of the Spanish film Abre los Ojos. Rather than return to the same mill that made Jerry Maguire famous, Crowe created Cruise’s role of David Ames for one pretty big purpose: to engage on a mind-bending mystery so twisty, it’s still one of the greatest rug pulls in any film. So forgive us if we don’t say a lot about the film’s story, and what it’s all about.
As self-centered media mogul David Ames, Tom Cruise yet again turns on the boyish charm alongside co-stars Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee and Penelope Cruz. Through the lens of Vanilla Sky’s examination of love, loss and reality, that charm gets transformed into so many other emotions, some of which Cruise has to portray through an expressionless mask. By time you’ve finished this film, you’ll see why it’s no ordinary Cruise movie, and why that’s totally a good thing.
Previously, we learned the valuable lesson that while Tom Cruise movies stand to benefit from casting him as a hero, it’s an even better idea to let him go dark once and a while. As fate would have it, the Michael Mann directed film Collateral would take that advice with interest, as Cruise was cast as Vincent, a hitman on a very dangerous mission. In the hero slot this time around is Jamie Foxx, as Max, the cab driver who is hired by random choice to ferry Vincent about the underbelly of L.A. for a night of professional murder.
Much like his performance as Lestat, Tom Cruise gets to play into gallows humor quite a bit in Collateral, but still knows how to keep the scared, but rapidly evolving Max in his place. When that relationship starts to break own, we get to see Cruise at his most lethal. There’s still some action chops to be had in Collateral, but that’s interspersed with such thrilling close quarters drama between Cruise and Jamie Foxx that the action is more of a cherry on top rather than the sundae. And if this movie was a sundae, the ice cream would be Cruise’s cold, hard stare.
War Of The Worlds (2005)
Tom Cruise and director Steven Spielberg are one of those pairings that are so absurdly memorable, you wish they’d done more films together. Out of the two films that the powerhouse duo created together, their adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds modernized a sci-fi classic in a pretty refreshing manner. Playing one of his rare turns as a movie dad, Cruise’s Ray Ferrier struggles to find and protect members of his on-screen family, as Martian invaders start to take over the Earth.
Now in this role for War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise gets to touch upon a hybrid of his skill set that allows him to play doting father to Dakota Fanning, but also to be a totally cold menace when the need arises. All it took was one particular scene with Tim Robbins playing a basket case survivalist to allow that cross-section to exist, and it’s something we haven’t seen from a Tom Cruise movie in some time.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Rounding out our selection of Tom Cruise movies that are off of the action beat is a film that sees Cruise as more of a supporting character who works from the comfort of his own office. But after seeing co-writer/actor/director Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, you can see how some would make a case that this film belong to Cruise, as he stole every one of his scenes in the whole movie through the character of studio chief/human blast furnace Les Grossman.
Despite Tropic Thunder’s narrative being focused on Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. trying to make their way out of actual peril after getting lost while shooting a Vietnam war epic, Tom Cruise’s Grossman is one of those people who doesn’t take orders. He gives them, and how dare you look at him as if you didn’t know that already. Cruise got to swear up a storm, share key scenes with both Matthew McConaughey and Bill Hader, and even learned how to dance in a fat suit for Tropic Thunder. Not to discount anyone else’s contributions, but that certainly qualifies for a spot in the Tom Cruise movie pantheon; and we’ll still gladly take that spin-off if you please.
Everyone knows Tom Cruise more these days as Ethan Hunt, and so long as the Mission: Impossible franchise is still around, that’s mostly what he’ll be known for. But if you look close enough in the man’s resume, you’ll still see him deliver other off-beat films here and there, like The Last Samurai or American Made.
So after taking a good look at the movies mentioned above, feel free to be inspired to discover your next favorite Tom Cruise movie you didn’t even know about, if only to remember that he should be known for more than just his work in the realm of action.