No one better than Tom Cruise exemplifies the breed of megastars who dawned during the 1980s, felt like gods during the 1990s, and are now a curious class of their own in the twilight of the traditional stardom they represent. Since the early ’80s, Cruise steadily and successfully carved out a career fueled by his boyish megawatt smile, a practiced brand of charisma, and an interest in physically throwing himself into his roles with dangerous gusto. His work has run the gamut. He’s swaggered through dramas, romantic comedies, heaps of science fiction, and most often, action films — including his latest, Mission: Impossible — Fallout. In honor of the actor’s latest big-screen spectacle, we revisited and ranked all of Cruise’s performances in order to interrogate why he’s remained such a fixture in the public imagination all these years.
42. Rock of Ages (2012)
The worst thing a star can do is refuse to grow. Cruise has had performances that reached high yet fell short, but in his turn as rock star Stacee Jaxx, he’s never been more unengaging or laughable. Jaxx illustrates the reasons for many of Cruise’s recent duds: a lack of self-awareness, a refusal to adapt as he’s grown older, an element of humorlessness. Watching Cruise shirtless-singing to ’80s metal hits like “Pour Some Sugar on Me” tips into self-parody. It’s a train wreck of a performance that lacks any of the charm necessary to not come across as an unintentional joke, making this Cruise role hard to forget for all the wrong reasons.
41. The Mummy (2017)
No matter how miscalculated his moves, Tom Cruise isn’t usually the kind of actor you’d ever call listless. He’s known for that manic energy and sheer force of will that marks so much of his work. But in The Mummy, playing Sergeant Nick Morton — a military man who unintentionally unearths the tomb of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who haunts him after choosing him to be the vessel for the god Set for some damn reason — Cruise is drained of any energy. He leaves no distinct impression; the part feels like it could be played by anyone and no one in particular. It doesn’t help that the film is more or less terrible, but sometimes Cruise can rise above that. Not this time: His performance comes up empty.
40. Endless Love (1981)
Cruise’s first big-screen appearance is a brief role in this 1981 romantic drama about a bunch of teenagers in the Chicago suburbs. It has none of the vitality to hint at the star Cruise would become later in the decade. (Also, 19-year old Cruise has a surprisingly high-pitched, annoying voice.)
39. Losin’ It (1983)
Losin’ It is one of a string of films that pockmarked the decade that brought Cruise to prominence. They are failures to be sure, but forgettable enough to not rank lower. This charmless teen comedy, hinging on a group of friends trying to lose their virginities, marks Cruise’s first starring role, one that’s unfortunately saddled by dullness. There’s not enough appeal here to make this more than a masochistic exercise for Tom Cruise completists.
38. Cocktail (1988)
For some, Cocktail is a beloved albeit thoroughly ridiculous testament to the cinematic excesses of the 1980s. To others (including myself), it’s a testament to how easily Cruise can read as loathsome and smarmy rather than buoyantly alluring. The film focuses on Brian Flanagan (Cruise), a student who turns to bartending to make ends meet. Cruise is energetic to a manic degree (which doesn’t always work in his favor), producing a vibe that repels rather than seduces.
37. Legend (1985)
I have a bit of a soft spot for this Ridley Scott–helmed dark fable, one of Cruise’s only forays into fantasy territory. But it’s hard to ignore how miscast he is as the adventurous, dashing young man saving his beloved from the Lord of Darkness (an unrecognizable and amazing Tim Curry). He’s a bit lost and even seems perpetually confused in this muddled story, unable to create the gravitational pull he’d go on to prove capable of elsewhere.
36. Knight and Day (2010)
Knight and Day reteams Cameron Diaz with Cruise in a markedly different film than their first collaboration, Vanilla Sky. This spy/romantic romp should play to Cruise’s strengths, but there’s something severely miscalculated about his performance as Roy Miller, an oddball superspy on the run who ropes Cameron Diaz’s everywoman into his mission against her will. What’s supposed to be played as eccentric ends up falling into an uncomfortable territory that kills any sense of romance or intrigue. This role, more than any other he’s played, shows how easy it is for the hypercapable, badass superspy character to tip into asshole/know-it-all territory, more eye-roll-worthy than charming.
35. Lions for Lambs (2007)
Tom Cruise seems tailor-made for the role of a Republican senator pointedly trying to cajole and enchant a liberal-minded journalist (Meryl Streep) in order to get positive coverage for a new initiative in this muddled Iraq War drama. But he lacks the slipperiness and conviction necessary to elevate the dialogue, and the movie suffers for it, coming across as a well-intentioned morality play with little heft.
34. Far and Away (1992)
It is often said about actors of Cruise’s stature that they are merely stars that play themselves again and again. It’s an argument I disagree with for a number of reasons. In Far and Away, the tepid 1992 romantic drama directed by Ron Howard, it’s clear Cruise purposefully working against that notion — but in all the wrong ways. He adopts a shaky Irish accent in order to play a boxer/immigrant who joins Shannon Christie (Nicole Kidman) in America looking for a better life. Cruise gives it his all.
But he’s an actor best suited for our times, coming across as uncomfortable in period dressing. His energy and style is far too modern to pull this off completely, although his chemistry with Kidman remains a bright spot in an otherwise drab entry.
33. Days of Thunder (1990)
I can see how Days of Thunder seemed like a good idea, as it reteams Cruise with Top Gun director Tony Scott. And Cruise, as a race-car driver trying to make a name for himself, does have nice rapports with co-stars Robert Duvall and Nicole Kidman. But it isn’t enough to craft a strong emotional center to what is an ultimately bland performance.
32. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
This misguided, tonally confused sequel is an example of a decent Tom Cruise performance dragged down by the lackluster film that surrounds him. Cruise is highly dedicated as the titular character, going at it with a scrappiness and sense of focus that’s fun to watch. Unfortunately, he’s burdened by a makeshift family story line (which includes Cobie Smulder as a wrongfully framed colleague and a teenager who may be Reacher’s daughter?) as he goes on the run. Cruise admirably nails the action-oriented scenes, but when he’s called to sell the emotional reality of his predicament (particularly with his maybe-daughter character) he fails to deliver.
31. The Last Samurai (2003)
Cruise is widely considered one of the last stars in today’s Hollywood ecosystem whose sheer force of personality and high-wattage smile is a brand unto itself. But not even he has enough confidence to distract from how ill-formed this bloated epic is, or how ill-suited he is to lead it. Cruise himself doesn’t seem convinced in his portrayal of the bitter, alcoholic war veteran who travels to Japan and finds himself fighting alongside the rebellion he was originally tasked to help quell. This is just more fuel for my belief that something about Cruise’s energy is all wrong for period pieces (except for one example that comes later) — especially a 19th-century period piece set in Japan. Co-star Ken Watanabe provides the authenticity and complexity that Cruise lacks, leading him to steal the film entirely.
30. Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
After the success of the first outing, the franchise moves into vastly different territory, thanks to Hong Kong action legend John Woo and screenwriter Robert Towne doing a very obvious riff on Hitchcock’s Notorious and, more broadly, operatic action films that rely on a lot of slow-motion. These qualities are important to understanding what doesn’t work about Cruise’s performance as he’s asked to handle clashing tones and earnest romance, leaving him out of his depth. A part of me actually enjoys his chemistry with leading lady Thandie Newton, who plays an amoral thief. Unfortunately, Cruise sometimes tips into skeezy territory, and his best action work relies on a sort of simpleness that Mission: Impossible 2 seems allergic to. Despite his considerable efforts, Cruise often gets lost in the movie’s bombast.
29. The Firm (1993)
I’ve seen The Firm several times, but not much of it, including Tom Cruise’s starring performance, sticks with me. It’s a capably structured legal thriller but not much else. Cruise seems disconnected from the story, lacking the right mix of raw-nerved paranoia and intensity to rise above the admittedly lacking narrative. Mark this as another solid but otherwise uneventful performance.
28. The Outsiders (1983)
With a supporting role in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s beloved classic, Cruise turns in a solid if not altogether memorable turn, dimmed a bit by the presence of his more fascinating co-stars, including a magnetic Patrick Swayze.
27. All the Right Moves (1983)
As a football player hell-bent on leaving his dead-end small town with a scholarship, Cruise provides the kind of tender and heartfelt performance the film calls far. He convincingly communicates the intensity and grandeur that comes with high-school sports, in which every win or loss feels like a harbinger for rest of your life.
26. Valkyrie (2008)
Cruise was far from the best choice to play doomed German army officer Claus von Stauffenberg, who aims to assassinate Adolf Hitler and undermine the Nazi Party with his dedicated crew of peers. But he actually finds a nice rhythm as the stakes for his character escalate, even if he doesn’t bring the kind of electricity needed to stand out from the film’s ensemble.
25. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015)
After the critical failure of Mission: Impossible 2, the franchise course-corrected; any sort of emotional arc would play a distant second to Cruise’s interest in difficult stuntwork. Good: The franchise is pure thrill-ride cotton candy. Still, not all thrill rides are created equal. Cruise’s return as superspy Ethan Hunt has its pleasures, yes; a particular highlight is watching Cruise work with Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, an undercover MI6 agent with steely intensity. The primary joy of Rogue Nation, however, is in watching Cruise pivot from one action scene to another, running with a peerless frenzy. It’s fun one, if a bit weightless.
24. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Cruise’s work in Cameron Crowe’s trippy, messy psychological thriller is best described as an admirable failure. He plays David Aames, a rich and powerful publisher whose romantic cruelty has disastrous results when a former paramour (an unhinged Cameron Diaz) drives their car off a bridge. Post-accident Ames is disfigured and plagued by visions that question the nature of his reality. Unsurprisingly, Cruise is able to play up Aames’s narcissistic and exacting qualities, but as the film ventures into more confusing, less emotionally well-thought out territory, he loses hold of the character.
23. Taps (1981)
Taps was only Tom Cruise’s second performance on the big screen, but it already shows the nascent version of a character type he’d later perfect: a man who’s determined to the point of psychosis. Cruise plays Cadet Captain David Shawn, a rigid young man whose youthful aggression becomes sinister when his fellow military students decide to take over their school in hopes of saving it from closing. He proves to be the perfect foil for the conflicted Cadet Captain Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn) and more thoughtful lead Cadet Major Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton). Cruise’s performance lacks the fine-tuning he’d demonstrate down the line, but it is an impressive early turn that nearly dominates the entire film and proves his star presence.
22. Jack Reacher (2012)
What makes a truly good action film? I’m talking about the bare-bones qualities of an action film that forgoes the fantasy or horror gleam that many modern examples have these days. I’ve thought about this question a lot, especially while watching Tom Cruise in his first appearance as the titular Jack Reacher, a bruising U.S. Army military police corps officer with no fixed address. Cruise is notably completely wrong if you’re looking for a direct adaptation of the Lee Childs hero. His fights are more brutal and occur in closer range. His humor veers from dry to downright caustic. He’s a bit darker-edged than the typical lead Cruise tends to adopt. And while there are moments when Cruise doesn’t quite nail the tone — or the blunt, vaguely offensive jokes (like the clip above demonstrates) — this performance still holds many delights.
21. American Made (2017)
American Made is a confused film, unsure whether it wants to be a glossy Hollywood anti-hero romp or a grimy 1970s crime flick. Tom Cruise’s leading performance as Barry Seal — a perpetually sweat-drenched hot-shot TWA pilot turned gun/drug runner for the American government and narcotics smuggler for the Medellín cartel — reflects that confusion. It isn’t a wholly terrible performance. Cruise is engaging, carrying a blend of cocksure bravado and befuddlement at the sheer ridiculousness of the situations he finds himself in. American Made feels like an throwback to Cruise’s well-worn playbook; it’s particularly in line with his work in Top Gun. It’s mostly fun, though Cruise does lose points for trying (and failing) to pull off a Baton Rouge accent that can be best described as Generic Southern Accent That Doesn’t Really Exist™.
20. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)
Ghost Protocol sees the MI franchise eschew even the semblance of reality. It’s full-on cartoonish, bombastic action, and it’s clear Cruise is having a ball with the increasingly inventive dilemmas his superspy is forced into. Ethan Hunt is a bit more world-weary here than he’s been before (can you blame him?), but the film never gets dour thanks to Cruise’s great chemistry with castmates Simon Pegg and Paula Patton.
19. Tropic Thunder (2008)
To survive at Cruise’s level of stardom, you have to understand how the business works. That veteran insider knowledge goes to great use in his small but uproarious turn in Tropic Thunder. He’s nearly unrecognizable as studio exec Les Grossman, who makes venomous, expletive-laden insults an art form. But Cruise’s approach to the character is the chilling undercurrent he lends Grossman. Just look at the dead-eyed glare he gives Matthew McConaughey when he calmly explains how to use an actor’s death to his own advantage. It’s rare but refreshing to see Cruise cut loose and be a little less concerned about endearing himself to the audience.
18. Oblivion (2013)
At first blush, Oblivion looks to embody some of the more noxious issues that mark a lot of recent Cruise work: a sterile action film with a science-fiction sheen; thin emotional through lines; Cruise paired with actresses notably younger than he is. Thankfully, Oblivion proves to be a fascinating, if uneven, study on the nature of loss, much of which is thanks to Cruise’s turn as a futuristic repairman in Earth’s devastated future — a role that gives him the opportunity to stretch a bit more than he’s had to lately.
17. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Edge of Tomorrow adds new wrinkles to the typically hypercompetent military figure he’s played elsewhere. This time he’s an official with no combat training thrust into a messy war with an alien species — and he dies nearly immediately when he hits the battlefield. He ends up reliving his final day again and again, dying in creative ways each time. In truth, the movie’s true badass is a curt Emily Blunt as Sergeant Rita Vrataski, who whips him into shape, creating a fun tension between the two. But it’s exhilarating to watch Cruise lean into the physical humor and meld together the various personae that have come to define his career as a leading man.
16. A Few Good Men (1992)
Legal dramas — particularly those written by the likes of Aaron Sorkin — can be tricky pursuits for actors, requiring a verbal dexterity that can easily overpower them. But Cruise is excellent here, conveying an ease and gravitas as Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, who must work a thorny case when a Marine is murdered and a cover-up ensues. Cruise more than holds his own against the bluster of Jack Nicholson, an actor who can easily dominate whatever scene he’s in. But by the end of the film Cruise has a confidence and steadfast demeanor that proves to be a fascinating, subtle transformation.
15. The Color of Money (1986)
In an interview on Inside the Actors Studio, when discussing this Martin Scorsese–helmed sequel to The Hustler, Cruise described co-star Paul Newman as an idol. It’s clear here that Cruise is learning from Newman’s trademark ease and depth as an actor, rising to the challenge the movie asks of him. Cruise has played plenty of young, talented hot shots early in his career, but his work as Vincent Lauria is particularly noteworthy for the exuberance he carries, and how wonderfully he plays off the weary Newman.
14. Risky Business (1983)
In her excellent essay collection This Is Running for Your Life, Michelle Orange wrote, “True movie stars are born twice.” She’s right. There is, of course, the first story of how their stardom happened. The second birth is when they do something fans can’t forget, moments that became singed into the cultural consciousness. Cruise has produced a handful of them, but one of the most important happens here, when he dances to “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Bob Seger. Risky Business helped launch Cruise’s stardom, and it’s no wonder why.
13. Jerry Maguire (1996)
Tom Cruise has not appeared in many romantic comedies, and for good reason. Not many modern rom-coms could play toward his strengths — that practiced allure, the charming opportunism behind his easy-but-calculated smile, and the distinct impression that he’s holding something back. All of these qualities are used to great effect in this Cameron Crowe rom-com/sports drama, which gives Cruise some of his most iconic lines. But most importantly, it gives him a venue to chart a fascinating progression from a self-obsessed sports manager with shadings of a classic fuckboy to a man who reckons sincerely with his more loathsome instincts.
12. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
The third installment of what’s now Cruise’s signature franchise sees Ethan Hunt retired from fieldwork, training new recruits, and eventually squaring off with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who relishes and dominates every scene he’s in. The story line involving Michelle Monaghan as Hunt’s kept-in-the-dark fiancée has some well-worn beats, but Cruise is still an absolute pleasure to watch. The film’s otherwise excellent team dynamics allow him to expand his repertoire within the franchise, showing off some wry humor and even a surprising tenderness opposite Keri Russell.
11. Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018)
During its short time thus far in theaters, Mission:Impossible — Fallout has proven to be an action master class, marrying ridiculous plot turns with astounding set pieces. Cruise matches the bravura of the film around him with gusto. He throws himself headlong into his outrageous stunts — one of which led to an injury, which brings up a host of questions about how his career can continue in this manner. But Cruise is a blast to watch as he navigates confusion and double crosses, his performance dented only by the requirement of traditional romance (although his scenes with Michelle Monaghan bristle with an intriguing awkwardness). He shares the glory here with some great supporting cast, most notably Henry Cavill’s surprisingly effective turn as a bruiser with slippery loyalty and Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa, the gimlet-eyed agent turned quasi–love interest.
10. Rain Man (1988)
While Cruise is obviously adept at providing the presence and physical dexterity action films require, his skills as an actor really shine through in drama films of this caliber. Rain Man gives Cruise the chance to stretch his abilities without resting on his typical charms. The entire film depends on his ability to capably communicate his character’s tricky arc: Cruise plays Charlie Babbitt, an unscrupulous and cunning yuppie who finds out that most of his estranged father’s estate is being given to an older brother he didn’t know about (Dustin Hoffman in an Oscar-winning role). As the two brothers travel across the country, Cruise delivers a genuinely touching portrayal of a man shedding his abrasive, self-centered nature to become a protective, tenderhearted brother. He has rarely felt so vulnerable onscreen.
9. Top Gun (1986)
Maverick is the quintessential cocksure, determined, highly skilled leading character that Cruise has spent a career perfecting. For many people, Top Gun is synonymous with the actor — it’s the first image they think of when they think of Tom Cruise. And while the film, directed by Tony Scott, exemplifies some of the worst aspects of Reagan-era America, Cruise himself isn’t dragged down by this one bit. It’s easy to see why this performance has left such an impact on the pop-culture imagination. His physical bravado, confidence, and joyfulness cast a spell.
8. Mission: Impossible (1996)
It’s easy to believe that Tom Cruise The Action Star has always been with us. But Mission: Impossible is when he became the real-life action figure we know him as today. And what a doozy it is. Helmed by Brian de Palma, in the film Cruise effortlessly toggles between espionage-thriller mood and impactful physicality. The movie perfectly demonstrates how smoothly Cruise can shift between tones when he needs to — just look at the infamous Pentagon break-in sequence, where he blends sweaty anxiety with light humor and, on top of all that, the action-movie tension needed to make it all work.
7. Minority Report (2002)
Minority Report is a sleek, absorbing science-fiction yarn that manages to turn a Philip K. Dick story into an expressive blockbuster action film. But Tom Cruise’s performance as John Anderton, an on-the-run detective in a futuristic world in which people can be arrested for crimes before they’ve even committed them, pushes the dark social commentary and exhilarating nature of the story to new heights. As Anderton, Cruise marries the best of his genre-film talents into one impressively gripping performance. There’s a haunted quality to his Anderton, the kind of man who carries his past wounds with him. Cruise proves to be extremely potent as a neo-noir lead.
6. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
This adaptation of the autobiography of the same name by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic (played by Cruise) is an emotional gauntlet for the actor — and it requires a dramatic physical transformation too. I’ve lamented Cruise’s work in period pieces, but he works well in this film’s ’60s and ’70s settings. One of Cruise’s specialties is to dissect the American myth, and he gets ample opportunity to do so here as he charts Kovic’s transformation from a fresh-faced soldier to an emotionally wounded, paralyzed, war-protesting vet. A mirror opposite of the more traditional military leads Cruise tends to play, his performance here is arresting, raw, and powerful.
5. War of the Worlds (2005)
Cruise is not exactly the first actor you’d expect to play an Everyman like Ray Ferrier, the longshoreman at the heart of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 sci-fi epic. But he brings gravity and heart to the central dynamic of the film — Ferrier’s desire not to be a failure as a father, and the all-consuming goal to protect his children from the alien havoc decimating the world. It’s an excellent, absorbing, humane performance that sees Cruise’s typical mania soften into a heartwarming dedication to save his family.
4. Magnolia (1999)
Few modern actors understand the mask-like quality of celebrity better than Tom Cruise, who interrogates these ideas with aplomb in Magnolia. Has Cruise ever been more utterly disturbing or strangely entrancing than as self-help guru and living embodiment of toxic masculinity Frank T.J. Mackey? Cruise only plays a supporting role here, but he’s what the viewer is drawn to most; he embodies modern masculinity’s most noxious qualities. And when all that bravado is threatened by the mere mention of his family, the way Cruise communicates the damaged vulnerability lurking beneath the surface is a marvel.
3. Collateral (2004)
In a Black Book interview, director Mary Harron shared that actor Christian Bale found inspiration for American Psycho’s obsessive serial killer Patrick Bateman in Tom Cruise. “We talked about how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave. And then one day he called me and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and he just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.” It’s for precisely this reason why Cruise never feels like a truly capable romantic lead: There’s something practiced, even unnatural about his charisma, like a mask being worn. Most directors miss out on this quality, but Michael Mann capitalized on it. Cruise delivers one of his most assured and complex performances as Vincent, a hit man who ropes in an unsuspecting cabdriver played by Jamie Foxx. Cruise’s charisma is finally used as a weapon, not a lure.
2. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Dr. Bill Hartford is an unlikely part for Cruise. He’s humiliated, confused, and frequently out of his depth in Stanley Kubrick’s odd erotic drama Eyes Wide Shut. But it proves to be one of Cruise’s richest and most complex performances as he navigates a strange milieu of sexual desire. The tension between him and then-wife Nicole Kidman, playing his movie wife Alice Hartford, along with Cruise’s utter lack of an equilibrium make this as much about sexuality as it is about the trials and tribulations we endure to find any sense of happiness.
Lestat, the preening and egotistical creation by Gothic novelist Anne Rice, is the photo negative of a typical Tom Cruise role — at least that’s how he seems at first. He doesn’t run or channel manic energy or do stunt work; he saunters and stalks with the coolly focused energy of a wolf. He’s languid and frightening, lupine and menacing. But Lestat does share one trait that snakes its way through Cruise’s greatest work: bold narcissism. Interview With the Vampire allows Cruise to lean into that. It lets Cruise be something he’s rarely been — archly humorous, disturbingly erotic, truly dangerous. It’s wondrous watching him turn from sincere to brutal as he plays off the cheerfully cruel Kirsten Dunst and the solemn Brad Pitt.
More importantly, this is one of the rare performances in which Cruise utterly cuts loose and experiments beyond the usual archetypes he’s grown accustomed to. It isn’t a perfect performance — it’s better than that. Beguiling and malevolently anti-charismatic, Cruise has never been more fun to watch.