There aren’t many stars like Tom Cruise. Across four decades of superfame, he’s sustained a larger-than-life gravitational pull. His on-screen charisma; that lambent grin – audiences are as defenceless against them today as they were when Cruise first made his name in the early 1980s.
Introduced to viewers with minor roles in middling dramas Endless Love and Taps (both 1981), he rapidly became one of Hollywood’s biggest names, working with the ranks of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann and Paul Thomas Anderson, among many others.
It was as a cocksure romantic lead that his star image was first forged, and that persona has been both cemented and complicated across action movies and auteur projects alike. Perennially secretive on the ins-and-outs of his private life, Cruise banked on his fans’ fascination with his elusive personality to cleverly harness attention to his projects, supercharging himself into being an almost mythical entity. For some, he’s the last true movie star.
As Top Gun: Maverick – the belated sequel to one of his earliest hits, Top Gun (1986) – takes off in cinemas, we backtrack through 10 of his most remarkable performances.
Risky Business (1983)
Director: Paul Brickman
Sporting nothing but a striped pink shirt, white socks and white briefs, a young Cruise slides from side to side on the perfectly maintained wooden floors of a neoclassical suburban American house to the catchy beats of Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock & Roll’. The scene is at the heart of Paul Brickman’s hit comedy, in which preppy teenager Joel Goodman (Cruise) unexpectedly finds himself playing pimp to Rebecca De Mornay’s sex worker while his WASP-y parents are out of town.
The film skyrocketed sales of the Ray-Ban sunglasses worn by Goodman by a whopping 2,000%, a testament to the aspirational draw of Cruise’s performance, which made young, geeky teens confident in their ability to harness hipness through a combination of sheer belief and tactical accessorising.
Top Gun (1986)
Director: Tony Scott
The Californian sky bursts in shades of orange and red as a revving motorbike slides through the smooth beachfront highway. It’s the American epitome of freedom: a lonely man and his ride driving off into the sunset.
On the bike is naval aviator Maverick, a recruit at the Top Gun programme, the prestigious US Naval Fighter Weapons School. Maverick marks the dawn of a recurrent Cruise motif: the overconfident, highly capable and highly reckless guy. Here he’s not yet chiselled by years of rigorous exercise and Hollywood dieting, which only adds to the charm of this full-cheeked, full-browed, boastful cadet.
The Color of Money (1986)
Director: Martin Scorsese
For a young actor at the ripe age of 23 to hold his ground against Paul Newman would be a feat on its own, but, in Martin Scorsese’s pool-playing drama The Color of Money, Cruise goes one step further. Revealing a character who gradually realises he knows very little when he assumed he knew it all, Cruise imbues naive but charismatic rookie Vincent with enough depth to challenge his prestigious co-star.
The long-brewed sequel to 1961’s The Hustler earned Newman his first Oscar and firmly placed Cruise at the adults’ table. The seesawing dynamic between their two characters sustains this thrilling tale of a student becoming a master.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Director: Rob Reiner
In Rob Reiner’s riveting courtroom drama, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee’s moral compass is put to the test when a murder with hints of institutional wrongdoing takes place inside the famed Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Young navy lawyer Kaffee shares many traits with Top Gun’s Maverick: both men belong to the US armed forces, both fall for their impossibly beautiful and charmingly antagonistic superiors (here played by Demi Moore), and both navigate life with the borderline obnoxious confidence of people who’ve faced little hardship.
It’s in the differences between the two, however, that Cruise displays a significant refinement of his craft. Whereas Maverick wobbled towards the cartoonish in his expression of frustration, Cruise’s Kaffee is less exaggerated, harnessing the fear of his impending courtroom defeat to effectively convey desperation.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Director: Brian De Palma
Ten years after Maverick came senior field agent Ethan Hunt, Cruise’s quintessential role. Adapted from the television series of the same name, the first instalment of what has become a long-running franchise follows the spy as he attempts to find the culprit behind a series of murders within his Impossible Missions Force team.
No run-of-the-mill spy thriller, the film is elevated by director Brian De Palma’s vision, which brings the action shades of neo-noir. Cruise’s Hunt gets equal opportunity for gadget-filled stunts – including that nail-biting heist sequence and a trip through the Channel Tunnel by helicopter – and introspective musings on corruption at the top.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
“Fidelio”, utters Dr Bill Harford as he enters a lavish country mansion where cloaked strangers hide their faces under Venetian masks. Minutes later, masks are still on but clothes lie on the floor as bodies merge into one another in an anonymous, elite orgy.
In Stanley Kubrick’s erotic mystery thriller, Cruise embodies the polished, sexually hungry one per cent, nonchalantly dispensing hundred-dollar bills and flashing his medical ID as if it was a police badge. It’s a watershed Cruise performance, not only bringing him a new critical esteem, but also providing a fascinating prism onto his own celebrity – not least his then wavering marriage to co-star Nicole Kidman.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Thrusting and grinding on stage, pickup artist and motivational speaker Frank Mackey lets out a growl as if mid-orgasm, a massive banner with the words “seduce and destroy” rolling down behind him with perfect timing. In the audience, lonely men vibrate with each word, dreaming of the day when their mediocrity might be put on such flamboyant display.
In a later scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling ensemble drama, we see this most repellent of Cruise characters with his defences momentarily down: a single tear rolls down his contorted face at the bedside of his estranged, dying father. Like the same year’s Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia found the star daringly upending audience expectations of a Cruise performance. His portrayal of pained masculinity is mesmerising to watch.
Minority Report (2002)
Director: Steven Spielberg
When the well-groomed locks get chopped in favour of a slick buzzcut, you know Cruise means business. In Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, the actor plays a former cop crumbling under the anguish of losing his only son. The dreadful event has led him to a career in the Precrime division, a department charged with foreseeing future crimes in order to prevent them from happening.
Impeccably crafted, Spielberg’s vision of the future is full of indelible imagery: of limp human bodies floating in temperature-controlled tanks, and realistic holograms playing gory images night and day. Yet it’s Cruise’s portrayal of the blinding, tortuous consequences of unprocessed grief that lingers in the mind.
Director: Michael Mann
Silver-haired Vincent hops on a random taxi with a suitcase and a mission. In the driver’s seat is a man with big dreams (Jamie Foxx), none of which involve a hitman in the back of his car. Alas, dreams rarely go to plan and, after a job goes wrong, the duo finds themselves stuck together for an adrenaline-fuelled night of murder and mayhem in downtown LA.
Cruise’s only proper villain to date, Vincent gifted the actor with the chance to flirt with violent nihilism. The murderer-for-hire punctuates threats with charming half-smirks and musings on life’s bleak purposeleness. He’s an agent of chaos, moving through Michael Mann’s visions of a nocturnal city to the throbbing beats of Audioslave. This is Cruise’s most lethal creation.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Director: Doug Liman
In the years following Minority Report, Cruise found a sci-fi groove with Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2006) and Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013). Most thrilling of all was Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, a futuristic action thriller that sees the star playing William Cage, a US Army major who is forced to relive the same gruelling day over and over. He’s perpetually stuck in Britain as humans attempt to exterminate an alien race and save their kind.
In another refreshing twist on his persona, Cruise’s protagonist verges on the mediocre, and the actor fully commits to his commonplaceness. This shift allows the star to summon the almost comic playfulness he also tapped into in Tropic Thunder (2008) and Rock of Ages (2012), while also giving greater prominence to his dynamic with co-star Emily Blunt. Cruise has always been the man who can, so there’s unexpected pleasure to seeing this particular action hero repeatedly fail his mission.