Like most talented performers who’ve doubled as quintessential movie stars, Tom Cruise doesn’t always get the chance to demonstrate that he can actually act. There’s often just too much TOM CRUISE in the way for people to notice, especially when he lets his erratic personal life take center stage. Putting together an “essential” list for such an actor is a bit of a tightrope act, walking the line between crowd-pleasing star turns and performances of real substance. That said, here are ten Tom Cruise films that are not to be missed:
Risky Business (1983)
The early 80s were awash in teen sex comedies, most of which have justifiably faded from memory. Then there’s Risky Business, which not only rose above the pack, but made an indelible mark on pop culture history. It wasn’t Tom Cruise’s first movie, but it might as well have been: the moment he slid into the living room in an Oxford shirt and his tighty-whities, he went from hunky kid to household name. And the movie holds up remarkably well more than three decades later, in no small part because Cruise makes Joel Goodsen a real person rather than a stick figure.
Rain Man (1988)
Arguably, Cruise’s first multidimensional role was that of Charlie Babbitt, the young hotshot saddled with an autistic savant older brother he didn’t know he had. Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn as Raymond is the film’s centerpiece, and rightly so. But Charlie could easily be a one-dimensional jerk. The movie stacks the deck against him as it is: we first meet him in the midst of a shady deal involving impounded Lamborghinis. But the brothers bond as they get to know each other, and Charlie is eventually redeemed. It may be a by-the-numbers plot, but Cruise manages to more than hold his own amid Hoffman’s histrionics. Others could have played the part, but Rain Man proved that Cruise, coming off Top Gun and Cocktail, had the goods in the acting department.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
If Rain Man gave us Cruise’s first fully rounded dramatic performance, Oliver Stone’s Vietnam epic unexpectedly put the actor on a new level. Cruise disappears into the role of Ron Kovic, a chest-pounding patriot whose experiences in the war transformed him into one of the era’s leading voices of protest, as he’d done with none before. Partly because it doesn’t rely so heavily on intense combat scenes, Born on the Fourth of July is a more mature film than Stone’s Platoon, and it falls on Cruise’s shoulders to convey its innocence-lost subtext. The film is often difficult to watch (as it should be), but Cruise gives audiences a human center to rudder through the ugly truth of life as a disabled vet, in a role that earned his first Oscar nod.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Rob Reiner’s military courtroom drama draws on everything that makes Tom Cruise Tom Cruise: the affable, boy-next-door charm and the acting chops to square off against Jack Nicholson. Cruise’s Daniel Kaffee isn’t a goofy neophyte attorney who suddenly gets a chance to dress up his act for the big time. Like Cruise, he’s a canny player who knows when to turn on the charisma and when to turn up the heat.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
For Cruise, the role of the vampire Lestat in the first big screen adaptation of Anne Rice’s goth tale had to seem like a huge gamble. After all, this is the actor who turned down the lead in Edward Scissorhands after sweaty conversations with director Tim Burton over what the character might do to his image. The intervening four years apparently gave Cruise enough self-confidence to tackle Lestat’s make-up-and-lace persona (and his Veronica Lake wig). If the look bordered on high camp, however, Cruise’s performance decidedly didn’t. He played the manipulative bloodsucker like a coiled spring, squeezing the blood from a rat into a wine glass (in a scene that garnered a rebuke from Oprah) and leaping from quiet malevolence to fuming rage in mere undead heartbeats.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
For all his star quality, Cruise had seldom played a straightforward romantic lead until Cameron Crowe’s sleeper hit. A chick flick with a sports angle to grab the male demographic, Jerry Maguire was a crowd pleaser that allowed Cruise to demonstrate his softer side. Whether jumping up and down in the iconic “show me the money” phone call, cuddling with Renee Zellweger, or playing an endless game of “Did you know” with her precocious son, Cruise is all things to all people in this role, which garnered his second Oscar nod.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to his porn-industry epic Boogie Nights was even more ambitious, cross-cutting between multiple stories and a dozen disparate characters. But Cruise manages to stand out and make us forget everything we knew about him in the process. With a skeevy Prince Valiant hairstyle and intimidating swagger, his profane motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey dominates the screen. Then the movie pulls the emotional rug out from under us by revealing Mackey’s true character, a complete 180 from the misogynistic beast we’ve seen, and Cruise doesn’t miss a step. If the movie didn’t already have a scene featuring frogs literally raining from the sky, Cruise’s performance would be the most astonishing thing about it. As it is, it’s the nerviest highlight of his filmography.
We’d never really seen Tom Cruise play a villain before Michael Mann’s hit-man thriller, unless one counts Lestat. And like all of Cruise’s best performances, his sinister Vincent is a study in contrasts. He lures in Jamie Foxx’s cab driver like a snake in one breath, then delivers an unexpected punch of wicked aggression in next. And by the end, he manages to make us care about the creep just a little.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
When the dust settled over Robert Downey, Jr.’s audacious portrayal of a white actor who permanently goes blackface to land a role in a Vietnam War drama, Tropic Thunder gave us Les Grossman. Unrecognizable (and uncredited) in a fat suit and bald cap, Cruise’s performance as the foul-mouthed producer is so jaw-droppingly extreme and possessed of such impeccable comic sensibility that we’re left wondering why he hasn’t let himself cut loose like this before…and kind of wishing he’d do it again.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
The actor himself rappels down the glass side of the world’s tallest building. No CGI. No stunt man. That says everything about how Cruise as star (and, significantly, co-producer) continues to breathe life into this franchise. And while he’ll likely continue to find new ways to draw audiences with each installment, he made a statement with this one. Even clinging to the outside of a plane in Rogue Nation seems tame in comparison.