Born on the Third of July


Today is Tom Cruise’s 52nd birthday, which seemed as good a time as any to take a quick inventory of his career. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a little ambivalent about Cruise – I think that he’s got real screen presence and is talented, but the shenanigans in his personal life (primarily his ongoing relationship with the Church of Scientology) often cloud my perception of him. When Tom Cruise, the man, can disappear into a role, the likelihood that I’ll enjoy it is much higher. But when his performance or the material fail to distract me from the fact that I think he’s a little kooky, I’m not going to be entertained. If he doesn’t meet that threshold, I’m most likely walking away from the film feeling underwhelmed.

But since it’s the man’s birthday, let’s focus on the good rather than the bad. I may be fairly wishy-washy about the majority of his performances, but there are some that I have really enjoyed or that I find impressive. This mostly happens when Cruise plays against type – darker or more unlikable than his carefully cultivated persona – or has a smaller part in the film; I don’t dislike all of his blockbusters, but the chance that I’ll be a fan is increased when he steps out of his comfort zone. I could probably live without ever seeing him run or ride a motorcycle again as well.

So without any further ado, here are my favorite Tom Cruise performances to date, with the important caveat that I haven’t seen everything that he’s done. I’ve somehow missed Born of the 4th of July, Days of Thunder and The Color of Money, so while he may have been great in them, I can’t include them.

Magnolia (1999)


This is definitely my favorite Tom Cruise performance, possibly it was the first time that he really derivated from the “Tom Cruise formula” and portrayed someone that was crass and on the surface not a very nice guy. It was nice to see him mix it up a bit and because it wasn’t more of the same I think this role was more memorable. It helped that he was surrounded by a very talented cast and people behind the scenes, which elevated his performance. I’m not sure that I really got this movie as a whole – the whole frog thing kind of confused me when I first saw it – but Cruise as Frank T.J Macky is the first thing that I remember from Magnolia.

Tropic Thunder (2008)


Again – perhaps I am easily impressed by a balding and swearing Tom Cruise, but Cruise as Les Grossman was a real surprise. There was no vanity in this performance and Cruise totally became Grossman (with the help of some prosthetics). Tropic Thunder is a very funny and clever movie, but Cruise manages to steal all the scenes that he is in; I think it works because it is a smaller role and you don’t get sick of Grossman because he is a secondary character. Of course, Hollywood has to ruin everything so there are plans for a spinoff Les Grossman movie, which I think is a real mistake. But until they ruin this character with overexposure, I think it is one of Cruise’s most enjoyable on screen appearances. He just doesn’t take himself too seriously and that is refreshing.

Jerry Maguire (1996)


Jerry Maguire is dangerously close to a rom-com, but there is enough sports stuff and a cute kid that helps balance out this film and makes it something that a person like me would enjoy. This film is perhaps the most likable that I’ve found on screen, partially because though Jerry is basically a good guy, he is definitely flawed which I find much more interesting. Sure, this movie gave us that cheesy “You had me at hello” nonsense, but Cruise and the rest of the film are able to overcome it.


Collateral (2004)


Yup – we are back to dark and disturbed Cruise, which I guess is my favorite flavor that he has to offer. I am overdue in my revisiting of Collateral, but it managed to pull off the impressive double feat of making me enjoy both Cruise and Jamie Foxx, another actor that I struggle with. Cruise is usually the hero, but as contract killer Vincent he strikes all the right notes and gives a fantastic villainous performance.

From the above recommendations, it is clear that if I were shepherding Cruise’s career that I would have him taking far more chances and playing smaller, darker characters. While he may be more comfortable in the action/hero genre, I really think it is when he stretches his wings and tries new things that he really is at his best. He doesn’t take many risks anymore and that’s a shame.

What are your favorite Tom Cruise roles? Do you think my picks are crazy? Sound off in the comments below.