The Films of Tom Cruise
With Top Gun: Maverick finally releasing after numerous pandemic delays, Tom Cruise makes his glorious return to movie theaters following his longest absence ever, marking his entry into his fifth decade of moviemaking. To celebrate, we figured what better time to take a look back at his previous 40 years on film — and as our resident Cruise expert and aficionado, I used the opportunity to finally catch up with the likes of Losin’ It and Endless Love and go through his career piece by piece. While our past breakdowns of directors’ filmographies have used a thematic tier system, the relative tidiness of Cruise’s consistent output led me to go in a different direction: I’ve split his filmography from 1980-2019 into eight clean half-decade spans, each of which tells a distinct story through the 4-6 films released in each five year period. I’ve then ordered each half-decade by how successful they are on a whole, starting with, coincidentally, Cruise’s arrival onto the scene:
Peak: All the Right Moves (‘83)
Valley: Endless Love (‘81)
The Rest: Taps (‘81), The Outsiders (‘83), Losin’ It (‘83), Risky Business (‘83)
Everyone’s gotta start somewhere, and in many ways it’s a testament to Cruise’s star trajectory that his first half-decade remains his weakest — he’s not an actor you can accuse of peaking too early. There’s not much to write home about regarding his first credited role, a bit part in Franco Zeffirelli’s disastrously bad Endless Love, but he fares better in the more-interesting-than-you-might-expect Taps the same year before eventually giving us hints of the career to come with a diverse range of projects in 1983. Risky Business was the hit, of course, and The Outsiders had the Coppola name behind it, but Cruise’s most interesting performance in this span appears in the small town football drama All the Right Moves — though the film around him is merely functional, Cruise brings real emotion to the role of a teenager desperate for a better life.
Peak: War of the Worlds (‘05)
Valley: Lions for Lambs (‘07)
The Rest: Mission: Impossible III (‘06), Tropic Thunder (‘08), Valkyrie (‘08)
Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds stands as the lynchpin for this era of Cruise. On the one hand, the film itself is great — even if the third act is admittedly a bit of a letdown, what comes before remains a high point for tension-driven disaster movies. On the other hand, however, is the film’s press tour, an eye-popping act of self-sabotage that includes the “you’re glib, Matt” interview and the Oprah couch-jumping incident. Suddenly, the quirks of Cruise’s personal life became harder to ignore, and — related or not — the films of the next few years mostly fail to reach the heights of what to this point had been nearly two decades of sustained success. That’s not to say it’s four years of write-offs: sure, toss out the terminally boring double feature of Lions for Lambs and Valkyrie, but he’s at least having fun with limited screen time in Tropic Thunder and the eminently watchable Mission: Impossible III features the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in what is still the series’ best villainous role. The biggest downside of this period, however, isn’t what was made, it’s what wasn’t — that press tour seems to have irreparably damaged the relationship between Cruise and Spielberg, a pairing that should still be churning out greatness to this day.
Peak: Mission: Impossible — Fallout (‘18)
Valley: The Mummy (‘17)
The Rest: Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (‘15), Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (‘16), American Made (‘17)
A decade later, we get essentially the opposite arc: good response for Rogue Nation aside, a strange array of choices had many wondering whether Cruise had lost his touch. The second Jack Reacher couldn’t live up to the surprising success of the first, and American Made, while fun enough, never really felt like a Cruise project. And then there’s The Mummy, which stands out as one of the strangest missteps in a remarkably steady career. It’s not just that the first film in the quickly axed “Dark Universe” is one of the worst Cruise ever made (it is), it’s that it’s one of the few times where he truly hitched his wagon to the wrong horse. Lucky for us, the relative failure of two back-to-back franchise attempts in Mummy and Never Go Back seems to have inspired Cruise to put everything he had into the sixth Mission: Impossible, a decision that paid off in spades. Not only did Fallout immediately find itself on the shortlist of Best Action Movie of the 2010s alongside the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, it solidified what the prior installments in the franchise had been pushing Cruise toward: for the time being at least, his place in the cinematic landscape is secure — he’ll risk life and limb performing increasingly dangerous practical stunts for our entertainment.
Peak(s): Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (‘11), Edge of Tomorrow (‘14)
Valley: Rock of Ages (‘12)
The Rest: Knight and Day (‘10), Jack Reacher (‘12), Oblivion (‘13)
These five years can be read as a course correction, or maybe more accurately damage control, after the post-War of the Worlds wasteland — Cruise, for better or worse, leans fully into action star mode and away from pretty much everything else. Fortunately, he’s very good at being an action star (arguably the best we’ve ever seen), so even the three decidedly average projects from this era (Knight and Day, Jack Reacher, and Oblivion) are — at worst — compelling in a “you probably won’t change the channel when they show up on TNT” kind of way. But it’s the two other action movies that enable him to fully lay claim to the action GOAT crown: I’ve watched the Burj Khalifa sequence from Ghost Protocol (medium-hot take: the best Mission) dozens of times and it never fails to amaze, and Edge of Tomorrow similarly only gets better with age (hot-hot take: the best version of the Groundhog Day premise). Really the only knock on this era is the awful Rock of Ages, but none of the blame associated with that movie can be directed at Cruise, who through sheer will somehow makes a halfway compelling case for the film’s existence.
Peak: A Few Good Men (‘92)
Valley: Far and Away (‘92)
The Rest: Days of Thunder (‘90), The Firm (‘93), Interview with the Vampire (‘94)
In 2022, this phase of Cruise’s career essentially reads as the “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like This Anymore” Mount Rushmore. Is Days of Thunder just NASCAR Top Gun? Is Far and Away a very extravagant but very silly period piece? Are either of them that good? The answers are yes, yes, and no, but still — wouldn’t you kind of be thrilled to have these sorts of movies taking up big chunks of multiplex space again? That goes double for the likes of Interview with the Vampire and The Firm, which take pulpy novels, fill them to the gills with great stars around Cruise (Brad Pitt! Antonio Banderas! Holly Hunter! Gene Hackman!), and turn them into rock-solid adult thrillers. A Few Good Men obviously fits this mold to a certain extent as well, but by pitting Cruise directly against Jack Nicholson and giving them some of Aaron Sorkin’s best lines to chew on, the film elevates itself into the stratosphere of star vehicles. It’s perhaps the single film I’ve seen more times than any other, and about as perfect an encapsulation of what Cruise brings as anything else he’s made.
Peak: Born on the Fourth of July (‘89)
Valley: Cocktail (‘88)
The Rest: Legend (‘85), Top Gun (‘86), The Color of Money (‘86), Rain Man (‘88)
I waffled on the placement of this half-decade and the one prior, but while nothing in this stretch for me hits the pure moviegoing highs that A Few Good Men does, this five-year span is so filled with iconic work by Cruise that I couldn’t reasonably put it any lower. Top Gun — a strange, maybe great, maybe terrible film — launches him fully into superstardom, and he follows that up with interesting, bold decisions. Sure, Cocktail is a misfire, but he works with Scorsese and Paul Newman the same year as Top Gun and then (as I think consensus opinion has come around to) gives by far the superior performance in Best Picture winner Rain Man despite co-star Dustin Hoffman taking home the trophy in a year Cruise couldn’t snag a nomination. Having seen two scene partners win Oscars, you can’t blame Cruise too much for chasing gold — especially when his attempts tend to be more substantive than your typical Oscar-bait. That starts with Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, a passionately earnest film that features Cruise at his most “Actorly,” but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it’s not effective. These are the years in which we learn that Cruise has the commitment, the charm, and the chops that will ultimately make him undeniable.
Peak(s): Minority Report (‘02), Collateral (‘04)
Valley: Goldmember (‘02)
The Rest: Mission: Impossible II (‘00), Vanilla Sky (‘01), The Last Samurai (‘03)
We’re very much in personal preference territory here, as I have a feeling few others would have both Minority Report and Collateral among their top five Cruises (with each also being in the top two when ranking the filmographies of their respective directors, though that’s a conversation for another time). To me, these visceral thrillers are masterpieces, with Cruise working in perfect harmony with auteurs at the top of their games. With Minority Report, Cruise puts action and emotion together in a way we hadn’t fully seen from him yet, while with Collateral he subverts the intensity of his style for nefarious purposes — his lack of an Oscar nomination for the latter film may be the biggest snub in a career one (read: I) could argue is full of them. While the rest of the half-decade isn’t nearly as strong, Cruise-heads in particular can find a lot to love: The Last Samurai might be slightly underrated at this point, M:I II is objectively the low point of the franchise but it’s also John Woo stealth remaking Notorious, and Vanilla Sky stands as one of the more fascinating star vehicles of the past 25 years, particularly for an actor at the height of his powers.
Peak(s): Mission: Impossible (‘96), Jerry Maguire (‘96), Eyes Wide Shut (‘99), Magnolia (‘99)
The Rest: n/a
Was there ever any doubt which period would take the top spot? I challenge you to find a better five year run from a movie star in the modern era: there may be some out there, but we’re talking about the rarest of air here. Cruise works with Brian De Palma, Cameron Crowe, Stanley Kubrick, and Paul Thomas Anderson and goes four for four with two more (and to date, his last) Oscar nominations. The first Mission is a pop masterpiece and puts Cruise in control of cinema’s greatest ongoing franchise, Jerry Maguire still stands as both the perfect genre-defying romantic dramedy and the perfect distillation of Cruise’s star persona, Eyes Wide Shut uses the real life relationship of Cruise and then-wife Nicole Kidman to sharply skewer the very notion of sex and marriage to brilliant effect, and Magnolia gives him the opportunity to harness and subvert his own inner workings in what likely goes down as one of the two or three best performances he’s ever given. If you ever needed to succinctly explain to someone, be it an alien or just the next generation of moviegoers, exactly why Tom Cruise matters, why he’s such an important figure in the history of film, and how he’s still standing as the last of a very particular breed of movie stars — this run is how you’d do it. And with any luck, the later periods of his career will take their cues from this one.