Over the last 25 years, he’s completed three impossible missions, learned about Wapner time, and driven the highway to the danger zone — but Tom Cruise has never been the subject of a Total Recall, so in honor of the about-to-reach-theaters Valkyrie, we’re here to look back at the best-reviewed films of his career.
For a guy with so many movies to his name, Cruise has had remarkable good luck with critics — his overall Tomatometer rating is 62 percent — and by limiting ourselves to his 10 most critic-friendly efforts, we had to exclude a number of fan favorites (sorry, War of the Worlds and Last Samurai). Still, we think you’ll find plenty of vintage Cruise on this list, culled from the years both before and after he became better known for abusing Oprah’s furniture than his acting. Let’s stroll down the Tom Cruise block of memory lane, shall we? (And don’t forget — when you’re finished, you can take a look at Cruise’s entire filmography!)
Take note, future Hollywood stars: When you’re trying to come out of a public relations skid that has lasted through several years, the dissolution of a high-profile studio partnership, and the loss of your longtime business partner, there’s no cure quite like strapping on a fat suit and letting the profanity fly in an acerbic sendup of the hand that feeds you. Cruise’s appearance here as foul-mouthed studio executive Les Grossman just about stole the show, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider that the cast included Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, and netted Cruise a Golden Globe nomination in the bargain. In the words of TV Guide’s Ken Fox, “Cruise is downright scary. It’s the creepiest — and most entertaining — performance since his unforgettable appearance in that Scientology video.”
It wasn’t just a hit, it was a phenomenon, spinning off a Top 40 hit for Bruce Springsteen, five Academy Awards nominations for the cast and crew, and Renee Zellweger‘s entire career. By blending sports with romance — and liberally sprinkling the script with instantly quotable one-liners — Cameron Crowe unlocked the formula to the perfect date movie (and, not coincidentally, oceans of box-office cash). As the sports agent who loses his high-paying job — and finds himself in the process, natch — Cruise brought his million-dollar charisma to its logical conclusion, which is probably why he spent the next decade choosing projects that obscured it. Though some critics were immune to its charms, most critics agreed with Kevin L. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal, who applauded Jerry Maguire by saying “it has a lot of charm and it’s smarter than most Hollywood movies. It’s terrific entertainment.”
You’ve got a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, Rob Reiner behind the cameras, and a cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, and Keifer Sutherland. Perhaps the most surprising thing about A Few Good Men is that it wasn’t more successful — critically, anyway. Though it was one of the biggest box-office winners of the year, and Nicholson received an Oscar nomination for his brief performance, some critics were bothered by what they perceived to be a formula legal drama. Even some of the more complimentary critics were lukewarm in their praise — like Time’s Richard Schickel, who called A Few Good Men “an extraordinarily well-made movie, which wastes no words or images in telling a conventional but compelling story.” While it wasn’t his most memorable role, playing junior-grade lieutenant Daniel Kaffee only added to Cruise’s box-office clout, and — thanks to Nicholson barking “You can’t handle the truth!” — added to the list of iconic scenes in Cruise’s career.
After the spectacular success of Boogie Nights, New Line gave director Paul Thomas Anderson carte blanche on his next project — and he took full advantage of it, spinning a three hour-plus yarn about the lives of various residents of the San Fernando Valley. So much serious analysis has been devoted to Magnolia that it would be foolish to try getting into it here; even a cursory synopsis would require more space than we have. Suffice it to say, then, that playing sleazy “self-help” guru Frank Mackey was the perfect way for Cruise to shake off the years he’d spent working on Stanley Kubrick‘s Eyes Wide Shut — and though the movie doesn’t rest on his performance, his work here still won praise from a number of critics, such as Chris Gore of Film Threat, who referred to it as “an amazing display of acting for Tom Cruise, and one of the best films of 1999.”
After so many years of playing good guys (with great smiles), Cruise started to get a little restless in the late ’90s, taking risks by playing against type in films both well-received (Magnolia) and not (Vanilla Sky). It was Michael Mann‘s Collateral, though, that presented perhaps the most intriguing new facet of all: Cruise as unrepentant villain. Stuart Beattie‘s script isn’t the most profound source material — something many critics were quick to point out — but Collateral‘s power comes from Mann throwing Cruise together with Jamie Foxx and framing them against some of the most beautifully filmed nighttime shots of Los Angeles ever seen. Though the action thriller had lost much of its luster by the time it was released, Collateral proved the genre could still work under the right conditions, netting Oscar and Golden Globes nominations for Fox and rave reviews from the likes of From the Balcony’s Bill Clark, who called it “one of the most compelling films of the summer.”
Two years after sharing the screen with Paul Newman, Cruise lined up alongside another acting legend when he shared top billing with Dustin Hoffman in Barry Levinson‘s Rain Man. Though the character of Charlie Babbitt sent Cruise on a by-now familiar path — cocky, shallow ne’er-do-well undergoes life-altering experience, becomes real person — the whole thing is pulled together with such perfectly lovely old-school filmmaking flair that audiences (and most critics) were powerless to resist. It was Hoffman’s work as the autistic Raymond Babbitt that got most of the attention, but his co-star won positive notices of his own, from critics such as the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who said it was “nice to see Cruise working for a change in a context that isn’t determined by hard sell and hype.”
He earned positive reviews for his role in Rain Man, but to many scribes, the Tom Cruise of the late ’80s was little more than the pretty face out in front of critically savaged hits like Cocktail — likable under the right circumstances, but lacking real depth. He’d go on to reinforce their assumptions a year later with Days of Thunder, but with 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise shocked his naysayers by delivering the most harrowing performance to that point in his career, committing so deeply to his portrayal of paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovic that, according to director Oliver Stone, he came close to injecting himself with a solution that would have incurred temporary paralysis. Not all critics loved Fourth of July, but those who found fault with the film generally took issue with Stone’s direction — Cruise’s work received almost universal raves; Emanuel Levy, for instance, referred to it as “one of his most powerful dramatic performances,” and the Variety staff called it “stunning.”
A long-after-the-fact sequel to a classic movie, only loosely based on the source material, helmed by a director who admitted to taking the project in order to secure financing for the movie he really wanted to make? The Color of Money shouldn’t have worked, but it did — in fact, it netted a handful of Oscar nominations (and gave Paul Newman a long-overdue Best Actor trophy). Despite its high Tomatometer rating, The Color of Money sparked a fair bit of critical dissention on its release, receiving two thumbs down from Siskel and Ebert, and cries of “unnecessary sequel” from others. Okay, so it isn’t The Hustler‘s equal — but few films are, and Newman brought out the best in the young, irresistibly toothy Cruise. It is, in the words of Empire Magazine’s Angie Errigo, “a joy to see two masters (Scorsese and Newman) at ease with their work, and one, Cruise, in the making.”
Originally conceived as a sequel to the (similarily Philip K. Dick-inspired) Total Recall, Minority Report endured years of developmental twists and turns — including the loss of a supporting cast that originally would have included Meryl Streep, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett — before finally landing in theaters in 2002. Typical for a Dick story, Report raises some interesting questions about the ethical implications of untrammelled technology, and its dystopian view — not to mention the dense, thorny plot — represented something of an evolution for a director and star whose early work is synonymous with the sunny Technicolor vistas of the big-budget ’80s. More importantly for Fox and DreamWorks’ shareholders, it represented an unqualified commercial and critical success, raking in over $350 million in worldwide grosses and glowing reviews from the likes of FilmStew’s Todd Gilchrist, who deemed it “a film for the critical cognoscenti as much as it is for the Goober-munching masses.”
It wasn’t his first movie, but for most of us, Risky Business is Ground Zero for Tom Cruise’s superstardom — and for good reason. A number of good reasons, actually, including Paul Brickman‘s intensely stylish direction, Tangerine Dream’s classic score, Rebecca De Mornay‘s adolescent fantasy of a performance, and — of course — the iconic scene in which Cruise’s Joel Goodson celebrates his parents’ trip out of town by dancing around the house in his underwear. It’s been lumped in with the many T&A-fueled teen comedies of the decade, but Risky Business has a much darker heart than most, and provoked comparisons to The Graduate from none other than Roger Ebert, who called it “one of the smartest, funniest, most perceptive satires in a long time.”