Friday, March 16, 2012

Top 5 Tom Cruise Performances


Tom Cruise's public image will never be the same after his foolish antics promoting Scientology and acting crazy on Oprah. Looking back over his film career, however, he's had quite a few standout performances. Ranking his roles is tricky because the huge scale of the movies can outshine his acting. Even though they didn't make this list, the Mission Impossible films showcase Cruise's ability to make even the most outlandish plots believable. Also missing are his the '80s pictures that made him a heartthrob. Cruise makes it look easy to play the arrogant yet likable jock, particularly in Top Gun and Days of Thunder. I wouldn't consider those classic films, but they're entertaining and will suck you in when they show up on TV. With Rock of Ages appearing later this year, the 49-year-old Cruise is destined to continue his resurgence. Let's check out the picks!


Honorable Mention, Chief John Anderton in Minority Report (2002)
This underrated sci-fi thriller from Steven Spielberg takes a high concept but doesn't get bogged down by the details. Cruise is perfectly cast as the innocent man on the run from villains trying to frame him. Although it uses big-budget effects, the formula owes more to Hitchcock than Philip K. Dick. Even talented actors could get lost amid the action, but Cruise keeps us aligned with Anderton's desperate attempts to discover the truth. He begins as a true believer in "Precrime" and morphs into a hero willing to take down the system.


5. Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
I'm not a huge fan of biopics, and Oliver Stone's film about Ron Kovic doesn't stray too much from the standard formula. This doesn't take away from Cruise's believable performance as the paralyzed Vietnam War veteran. He's effective playing the idealistic young Kovic who volunteers for the Marines and sees his blind faith in his country destroyed over time. The tricky part for Cruise is playing the wounded guy following the injury, but he does strong work. The film also benefits from Stone's personal experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, but it's Cruise's performance that sticks with you for a long time.


4. Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man (1988)
While Cruise had the showy performance in Born on the Fourth of July, he takes the straight-man role in Barry Levinson's Rain Man. While it seems like the lesser part, I'd argue that it's trickier to pull off successfully. Cruise's Charlie Babbitt is unlikable at the start and slowly grows into a better person based on his experiences with his brother Raymond. The character's growth is subtle and isn't pushed too hard, especially while Hoffman's Oscar-winning performance dominates the screen. Cruise lets his co-star shine and doesn't overplay his part, which is a key reason the characters both come off well.


3. Jerry Maguire in Jerry Maguire (1996)
Probably the most divisive movie on this list, Cameron Crowe's portrayal of a sports agent struggling to find his way is much better than it should be. Yes, there are cheesy lines ("You complete me") and overplayed scenes ("Show me the money!"), but it all comes together into a highly entertaining movie. If you're willing to take the ride with Crowe, it's a heart-warming movie. Cruise throws himself into the material and fits very well into the director's world. Similar to Charlie Babbitt and Ron Kovic, the character starts out as self-centered but evolves into a better guy during the story. It's an obvious progression but works because he sells the material and knows this type of character so well.


2. Vincent in Collateral (2004)
The final two picks are major departures, and that's why they deserve such high recognition. In Michael Mann's excellent crime thriller, he finds a dark side beneath Cruise's affable exterior. The spare thriller takes place over a single night as the professional hitman Vincent takes out a series of targets. Cruise has a believable chemistry with Jamie Foxx's cab driver Max, who's the unwilling participant in these crimes. I wouldn't call them friends, but the connection drives the film. Cruise is at the top of his game and fits comfortably in Mann's urban world where the criminals are never one-note characters. He raises the straightforward story and helps Mann to craft one of his strongest movies.


1. Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia (1999)
This is the obvious choice for the top spot, but I'll stand behind this fiery role as Cruise's best performance. Mackey fits nicely into Paul Thomas Anderson's strong ensemble for Magnolia, which is one of my favorite films. He brings great energy to his early scenes giving the extremely sexist motivational speeches, but it's the quieter scenes with Jason Robards that make this Cruise's top role. Kneeling down next to the dying father who crushed his childhood, Mackay's massive anger and sadness is convincing but never goes over the top. Cruise sells both the character's nastiness and the emotional burden that he's carrying behind the charisma. It's stunning work that ranks among the best in the film, which is saying a lot given the excellent actors involved in this picture.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list in the comments section. You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

Next week, I check out the Black Fortress and hang out on the planet of Krull.

22 comments:

  1. While I can't stand the scientology fraud thing, I can't deny that he's a good actor. He's done so many good movies when you start thinking about it. When I recently saw him in MI, I realized that I had missed him quite a bit. It's been a while. I'd love to revisit some of those movies. and yes, I agree about Minority Report being sadly underrated. It's one of my daughter's favorite movies, so I've had the pleasure to see it a lot, if nothing else going on in the background. It holds up!

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    1. Jessica, it was interesting to look back at his career and remember the decent number of good films out there. I didn't even mention A Few Good Men in my post, and that's pretty strong too. I agree that Minority Report is excellent. Thanks!

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  2. Glad you included Magnolia at number 1. I think Cruise's performance in that movie is incredibly underrated. Don't know how he didn't get the Oscar.

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    1. I agree. Michael Caine won for The Cider House Rules. I haven't seen that movie, but I expect this may have been more of a career award for Caine. Cruise did win the Golden Globe.

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  3. Magnolia is a great movie and he was the best piece of that incredible ensemble. Love that you picked him at number 1. I would have as well.

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    1. Good to hear. Magnolia is one of my favorite movies, so this was an easy pick. The only one that was even close was Collateral because it's such a departure for him. Thanks!

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  4. interesting top 5. Cruise is one of those who I feel should have an oscar by now, like Leonardo Dicaprio ought to as well.

    His performance in Rain Man is so underrated, it often gets overlooked how good Cruise was, because D Hoffman was incredible in that movie.

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    1. I wouldn't be surprised to see Cruise get some Oscar attention at some point in the future for a supporting role, and DiCaprio is even more likely to follow this path. I really need to watch Rain Man again at some point. I agree that Cruise does very well, and one of the reasons Hoffman is so good is because Cruise doesn't try to outdo him. Thanks!

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  5. I have just done a feature on Tom Cruise and your top 3 were my top 3! Loving this.

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    1. Nice! I see that you're also a fan of his work in The Last Samurai. I haven't caught it, but it sounds like it might be worth checking out at some point. Thanks!

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  6. I would probably flip your list upside down for my first few spots. Born on the Fourth of July is what I consider far and away (pun intended) Cruise's best performance on film. The real Ron Kovic even loved it so much he gave Cruise one of the medals he earned in Vietnam. It was the first film where I thought to myself, "this man can ACT."

    I completely agree that Rainman (my #2) is a little underrated for Cruise and that it had to be really difficult to act against someone who was not reacting to you. Hoffman winning the Oscar also overshadowed Cruise. I would place Collateral third, for the reasons you mentioned. At this point we diverge. I never particularly cared for either Jerry Maguire or Magnolia.

    My fourth would be The Color of Money where he acted opposite another man who went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor - Paul Newman. Finally, I would list Risky Business, which is my generation's coming of age film. You mentioned you were leaving out his early 80s work, though, so perhaps I shouldn't mention it, either.

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    1. Chip, The Color of Money is a solid movie and I considered it, but I don't think Cruise had to stretch much from his persona of the time. I haven't seen Risky Business (too young when it came out) and have yet to see it. It sounds like we're at least in the ballpark with the others that you liked. Thanks!

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  7. I agree that T.J. stands out - it was the performance that turned my head. I have always liked Cruise but didn't think he was willing or able to go against type by such a degree. He had showed his versatility in films like Born on the 4th of July but there was still this image of the pretty boy. I think the "pretty boy" of Frank T.J. Mackey was a great role for him and he's followed it up with some equally delightful turns.

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  8. Dan, I agree that Cruise is a lot more interesting when he's willing to go beyond the pretty boy image. That's also what I like about Collateral, where he's injecting menace into the charm.

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    1. Yes, Collateral is another great "new" Cruise film. I think he's an actor who is destined for a very fruitful career in later life where some of his most interesting films will appear. I suppose it helps when you're as charming as Cruise on and off screen.

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    2. I agree. It also surprised me that's nearly 50 years old. It makes sense when you think about when he started, but he seems much younger in MI:4. It will be interesting to see where he goes.

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  9. Nice list. I probably would have included Vanilla Sky somewhere, even though I know some people didn't like that film nearly as much as I did. Still, I can't argue with the choices you've included!

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    1. I like Vanilla Sky and believe it's underrated. This is a case where I think people didn't expect the twists and got angry, despite the fact that it's a pretty effective movie. I saw it before Open Your Eyes, and I think the original is slightly better, but they're very close. Thanks!

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  10. I have yet to see Magnolia to this day but I definitely agree with your #2. Collateral is such an underrated film and Cruise totally goes against type playing the cold-blooded hitman.

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    1. Castor, I'd highly recommend that you check out Magnolia. I know that it's a divisive movie that some love and others hate, but it's definitely worth the time. Glad to hear that you're also a fan of Collateral, which sometimes is forgotten when people think about Michael Mann (and Cruise). Thanks!

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  11. YES! No matter Cruise does, what choices he makes personally or professional, the man gets a career pass due to Frank TJ Mackey. Excellent choice.

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    1. Thanks Alex! I know that some people don't enjoy the film, but it's hard to argue with Cruise's performance.

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