The ‘Tom Cruise movie’ might as well be its own genre. When you sit down to watch a Tom Cruise film, there are things you know you’ll see: Running, really fast? Check. A performance of magnetic intensity? Check. Feats of physical endurance and stunt-based spectacle? Mostly, check. Through the years, Cruise has proved that there are few vehicles or buildings he won’t cling to or jump from; no skill he can’t master to showcase on screen; no story he can’t hone into its most crowd-pleasing shape. There’s a reason he’s still one of Hollywood’s biggest stars: the man makes amazing movies.
He’s also had a fascinating career – one that began with a series of roles that dialled into his charisma and confidence as an upstart, before moving into more nuanced character dramas, and then into blockbuster spectacle. And through all those career modes, there’s a sense of sincerity in the stories being told and the characters being brought to life – one that, today, finds him pushing the limits of on-screen action further than most thought possible. Empire’s ranking of the 10 best Tom Cruise movies spans his entire career – early works, curiosities, all-time American classics, and pulse-pounding adventures – going (spoiler alert!) right up to the thrilling, nostalgic, and emotional Top Gun: Maverick. The highway to the danger zone begins here…
When Brian De Palma first brought '60s spy series Mission: Impossible to the big screen in the mid-'90s (with Cruise producing as well as starring), it wasn't yet an action juggernaut – the height of spectacle here is an exploding fish tank, or the helicopter-in-a-train-tunnel chase (which perhaps began Cruise's fondness for clinging to speeding vehicles). But the DNA of the ultimate Tom Cruise franchise all comes from this first entry. There's the twisty, double-triple-crossing plot which turned memories of the original show upside down. There are rubber mask rug-pulls. There's that iconic lit-fuse title sequence and theme tune. And at the centre of it all is Cruise's Ethan Hunt, perpetually on the backfoot, barely surviving near-impossible predicaments by the skin of his teeth. Even back in '96, the Mission movies were all about breathless setpieces – though at that point, they were more about beads of sweat pooling on Hunt's forehead while he dangles in a temperature-controlled computer vault, than strapping himself to an aeroplane while it takes off.
If you know someone's about to commit a crime, can you punish them before they do it? That's the knotty question at the heart of Minority Report, which saw Cruise team up with the one and only Steven Spielberg for a gritty, noirish thriller with a lot on its mind. Cruise is John Anderton, an officer in the Pre-Crime unit of 2054, which uses the visions of three psychic siblings (the 'precogs') to proudly reduce the murder rate in Washington DC to zero. But when his own face comes up as the unit's next criminal to catch, it throws the entire system – and Anderton's beliefs around it – into question. This meeting of legendary cinematic minds produced something darker and more dystopian than you might expect, but Cruise is on impeccable screen-swiping form as an action hero, a care-taker for precog Agatha (Samantha Morton), and a man whose entire world-view is shattering around him, desperate to clear his name. Plus, we get to see him have eyeball surgery. Feast your illegally transplanted retinas on that.
Released in the same year as the original Top Gun, this lesser-known Martin Scorsese banger is absolutely the former's equal in displaying the young Cruise's prodigious talent, captivating charisma, and cocksure confidence. His pool-hall wizard Vince (so self-adoring that he literally walks around in a t-shirt with his own name on it) simply cannot help showing off, broadcasting his considerable skills with a cue for all to see – even if it means imploding the hustling scheme he's cooked up with Paul Newman's veteran Fast Eddie. (This is a legacy sequel before they were a thing, with Newman reprising his role from 1961's The Hustler.) The pool sequences are electrifying and all-out Scorsese cinematic – and an early example of Cruise dedicating himself to learning new skills for his art, clearly potting all the balls himself in extended takes – but the character drama is just as captivating, with Vince stepping into his power, Eddie facing his own decline, and the hustler becoming the hustled.
Silver-haired, super-focused, and stalking through the shadows of an LA night, Cruise's Vincent (we never learn his last name) is one of the actor's great assholes – a tunnel-visioned assassin who drags Jamie Foxx's reluctant and goodnatured cabbie, Max, into a night of murderous mayhem, Michael Mann–style. Sleek and cool but also sociopathic and callous, Cruise has rarely been more controlled as he rides around in the back of Max's taxi, dispensing hot takes and hotter lead to victims; but it's in the way he slowly, painstakingly depicts the way Vincent loses control as the night begins to run away from him that's so impressive. He really should play more grade-A shits.
A sequel 36 years in the making, besieged by pandemic-induced release date delays, with a brand new writer and director on board, and the follow-up to one of the most beloved action movies of a generation? Top Gun: Maverick had a lot to prove. Incredibly, it soars higher, faster and even more full-throttle than anyone could have predicted. Returning to the cockpit with decades of experience in pushing the boundaries of action filmmaking, Cruise, Mission collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (on writing duties here) and director Joseph Kosinski deliver aerial acrobatics (yes, the actors are actually in those planes) that will leave you awe-struck, heart in your mouth, fist punching the air with glee. As with Tony Scott's original, the character work is just as rich as the stunts – Cruise slips back into Maverick's roguish charm with the ease of putting on a familiar patch-covered aviator jacket, but also perfectly evokes the effect that years of tension with his superiors and grief over Goose have had on him – his ever-present over-confidence cracking, just a little. All these years later, it's clear Cruise really did feel the need to return to Top Gun – and on this evidence, it's easy to see why.
Frankly, multiple spots in a list of Tom Cruise's greatest movies could be filled by Mission: Impossible films. To do so (as we've chosen not to) would perhaps overwhelm the sheer variety of the rest of his career – but in a way, Mission is Cruise's career. With each passing entry, the saga became a stunt-filled action masterclass in which its leading man goes to greater and greater lengths to bring visceral thrills to the masses – and no Mission film exemplifies that better than Fallout. It's stacked with jaw-dropping setpieces that go out of their way to foreground the fact that its leading man really is doing a HALO jump in a single take, or flying a helicopter through a gorge, or leaping across the rooftops of London (and, yes, breaking his foot in the process). It makes for breathlessly exciting cinema, a kind of spectacle that subsequently feels lacking in almost every other show in town. The Cruise-Christopher McQuarrie partnership continues to be a perfect marriage – the writer-director helping marry action and story beats to the stunts with style and propulsive pace. This is peak Mission, and the peak of Cruise's own cinematic mission – one that you sense will never truly be over.
Among all the Tom Cruise legal thrillers of the '90s, A Few Good Men stands tallest. His Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a Naval lawyer more interested in baseball than his own cases, begins the film as a smarmy pencil-pusher – but that all changes when he's handed the case of a Marine killed in Guantanamo Bay, and discovers corruption in the armed forces that will all-too-easily be covered up. It's up to him and fellow lawyers JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) to prove what really happened in a court of law, facing up to Jack Nicholson's fearsome Colonel Jessop in the process. It's one hell of an ensemble cast, but Cruise drives it all, capturing Kaffee's increasing desperation and dedication to win the case – and prove that, yes, he can handle the truth – becoming a better person in the pursuit of justice. His intensity is a perfect match for Aaron Sorkin's dense dialogue, all classily captured by Rob Reiner's crisp direction.
As legend has it, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the part of Frank TJ Mackie for Cruise after visiting him on Stanley Kubrick's demanding Eyes Wide Shut set, and deciding that the actor needed to let loose. What fun Cruise would have as Mackie! This cocksure, cock-respecting self-help sex guru struts and shouts and thrusts – yes, there's all of that. But Magnolia is a heavy film, and Cruise, as Mackie comes undone and reunites with his estranged father Earl (Jason Robards), really falls apart, the slick showbiz veneer crumbling as years of emotion burst out. Sitting by his dying dad's bedside, Mackie – away from Cruise's signature grin, away from the big stunts – is unbridled humanity, shaking, weeping, quivering, his anger making way for love. It's a devastating physical catharsis for him, and for us.
One of the biggest blockbuster surprises of 2014, Edge Of Tomorrow (or, Live Die Repeat, as it was later marketed), gave us a different shade of Cruise as action star – his Lieutenant William Cage is a smarmy, cowardly PR guy when we meet him, only growing into an elite soldier through the repetitive, Groundhog Day–inspired, video game-esque nature of Doug Liman's explosive sci-fi thriller. Teaming up with steely warrior Rita (an excellent Emily Blunt), Cage must live through his final two days over and over, picking up skills and learning from his multiple deaths in order to stop the invasion of some big bad aliens. Cruise's chemistry with Blunt is endlessly compelling, the strength of her character and his star-power making them feel like equals on-screen. But it's the progression of his character that's most intensely satisfying, going from a man who's desperate to weasel his way out of doing anything selfless to the kind of all-out hero that Cruise was born to play. It makes for the kind of movie you'd happily be stuck watching in a time-loop over and over and over and ov- You get the picture.
Like many Cruise films, Jerry Maguire has got so many memorable moments and one-liners that they've almost become more famous than the film itself. But the brouhaha over, "You complete me", or, "Show me the money!" masks one of Cruise's best – and most emotional – films. Meshing perfectly with writer-director Cameron Crowe (at his most Billy Wilderian), Jerry Maguire is an often heartwarming, often inspirational, often deeply romantic tale of a cynical sports agent (Cruise at his most winning) who has an epiphany, and begins to hunt around for something akin to a soul. It's cute and charming as hell, especially when Jerry is falling in love with his former secretary Dorothy (a star-making turn from Renée Zellweger), but there's a bite here that's often overlooked, with a seemingly happy ending that may be nothing more than a sticking plaster over a fairly gaping wound. Still, Cruise and Cameron will have you at, "You had me at hello".
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