In 1981, Tom Cruise made his first on-screen appearance shirtless, wearing a pair of cut-off shorts and bragging about starting shit on fire. Since then, he’s led an illustrious career, remaining one of Hollywood’s last bankable action stars (in 2012, he was the highest paid man in the business). Now in his 50s, the guy is still actually jumping from airplanes, running (oh, so much running), and leading one of the best action franchises of all time that’s not about superheroes. These are the best Tom Cruise roles of all time, ranked from worst to best.
A movie so bad, it was the first and last entry in Universal’s planned monster movie cinematic universe.
Rock of Ages
In this extremely unfortunate musical about ‘80s hair metal, Tom Cruise plays a karaoke version of a rock and roll god named Stacee Jaxx.
Released the same year as Risky Business, Tom Cruise plays the hunk in this high school sex comedy that time forgot. Get it? They’re “losin’ it”—as in their virginity.
In his first on-screen appearance, Tom Cruise is some random shirtless kid in Daisy Dukes bragging about being a pyromaniac.
Lions for Lambs
Nearly a decade before Trump coined the term “Fake News,” Tom Cruise plays a morally corrupt senator making a presidential bid by planting a story through a journalist played by Meryl Streep. In the end, this pretentious and convoluted plot says very little about its moving parts.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
Though the tagline warns to never go back, Cruise unfortunately did go back to play the titular Jack Reacher, in a sequel that plays out like dumb, less tech-savvy Mission: Impossible.
Tom Cruise and Mia Sara try to protect the last of the unicorns from Tim Curry, who is some sort of awesome devil muppet. It’s also the only straight-up fantasy movie Cruise has ever done—and it’s pretty obvious why.
Far and Away
Seven years before they co-starred in Eyes Wide Shut (and two years after their wedding), Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman played star-crossed lovers and Irish immigrants trying to make it in America.
In this post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, Cruise is a drone repairman who’s also into American sports. When he finds a group of survivors (led by Morgan Freeman), he begins to question the nature of his entire reality. As always, Cruise holds down what is otherwise a pretty clunky plot.
Tom Cruise plays a German officer with an American accent who leads a group of German soldiers with British accents in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler during WWII. It’s based on an actual military plot that could have entered some intriguing territory, had it not settled for being average historical escapism.
Knight and Day
In this action comedy, Cruise is once again a secret agent who accidentally ropes Cameron Diaz into an international conspiracy. For all his macho spy stuff, Cruise proves in Knight and Day that he can take this hero stuff lightly too.
Mission: Impossible II
The worst of Cruise’s six Mission: Impossible movies, this one sees Ethan Hunt trying to stop a deadly weaponized virus that’s going to be released by terrorists. Unfortunately, director John Woo’s style didn’t quite fit with the international espionage of this franchise.
In his first of two movies playing the titular former military police-officer-turned-vigilante-drifter, Cruise’s character tries to stop a military sniper on a killing spree. Of course, Cruise also did all his own driving stunts.
Coming down from the golden phase of his career, Francis Ford Coppola assembled an incredible upcoming cast for The Outsiders that included Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, and Diane Lane.
In his second-ever onscreen role, Cruise plays David Shawn, one of the military cadets who attempt to protect their academy from being torn down for local condo developers. Pretty low stakes as far as military dramas go.
War of the Worlds
In this Steven Spielberg re-imagining of the H.G. Wells novel, Cruise plays a father attempting to keep his children safe throughout an alien invasion. Though it has all the highlights of a Spielbergian sci-fi, it wasn’t quite enough to cause riots like Orson Welles’s infamous radio broadcast.
The Last Samurai
A white savior complex brings down what is otherwise a well-acted period period piece about an American Civil War veteran sent to train a 19th century Japanese army.
Mission: Impossible III
Before he was put in charge of both Star Wars and Star Trek, J.J. Abrams’s big Hollywood blockbuster movie directorial debut was at the helm of Mission: Impossible III, which saw a retired Ethan Hunt brought back in the game to stop an excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Cruise stars in this philosophical thriller as a man haunted by the specter of a former flame after becoming disfigured in a car crash. (Fun fact: Penelope Cruz plays the same character in this remake of her Spanish film, Abre los Ojos.)
Days of Thunder
NASCAR moved into the mainstream thanks to this movie in which Cruise plays a promising driver hoping to making it in the big leagues.
All the Right Moves
Cruise plays a hot-headed high school football player hoping for a college scholarship in order to break out his small town.
He might be a bankable Hollywood hero, but Cruise proves in American Made that he can be a beloved anti-hero as well. He plays real-life Barry Seal, the airline pilot who became a drug smuggler and DEA informant.
The Color of Money
Paul Newman returns in this sequel to The Hustler as a retired pool shark who takes on a young prodigy (Cruise) as an apprentice of sorts.
Cruise plays a young lawyer who discovers that his new law firm is working for the mob in this big-screen adaptation of John Grisham’s novel.
An unrecognizable Cruise steals the show in this Hollywood satire, playing an angry movie exec behind the most expensive war movie ever made.
As a hitman who forces his cab driver to escort him to his various targets, Cruise handles the villain role quite well in Michael Mann’s thriller.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation
After decades as one of the great American action stars, the Mission: Impossible franchise might prove to be Cruise’s greatest legacy, providing consistently top-tier entertainment. In this fifth film in the franchise, Hunt must get the now-disbanded IMF back together to stop an international network of skilled terrorists.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
Cruise pulled off one of the most insane stunts of his career when he scaled the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on Earth. He filmed that entire scene hanging 2,722 feet above the ground.
A Few Good Men
Cruise stars as a military lawyer set on uncovering a conspiracy that left a marine dead, but is overshadowed by Jack Nicholson (who wouldn’t be?).
It’s essentially Top Gun in a bar. But it’s still Peak Cocky Tom Cruise, and that’s not a terrible thing.
Mission: Impossible — Fallout
In the sixth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Tom Cruise risks life and limb—literally—for some of the most incredible action scenes of his entire career. He actually does the impossible: keeping this series not only fresh, but groundbreaking, as the IMF team fights to stop multiple nuclear attacks.
Cruise plays a crook who learns how to be an empathetic, grown-up man thanks to his autistic brother in this Oscar-winning comic drama.
Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick’s last film starred Cruise and then-wife Nicole Kidman as a couple whose sexual fantasies uncover dark truths about each other.
Interview With the Vampire
Cruise played a villain for the first time, donning ruffled shirts and blond hair as the immortal and immoral vampire Lestat.
Cruise plays a futuristic cop who hunts down criminals before they commit murder—that is until he’s accused of planning to kill someone himself.
Born on the Fourth of July
Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Ron Kovic’s book features Cruise’s first great performance as a Vietnam vet turned anti-war activist.
Edge of Tomorrow
If Groundhog Day had machine guns and aliens, it’d be this ridiculously fun and sorely overlooked sci-fi action hybrid in which Cruise is stuck on a constant loop (and often hilariously dying in battle).
Brian De Palma’s thriller is taut and twisted, and it’s the movie that launched Cruise’s career as a full-fledged action star.
Cruise is a standout in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ensemble-drive morality play, playing a despicable pick-up artist with a sensitive side that’s overshadowed by his raunchy bravado.
Part rom-com, part introspective drama, this Cameron Crowe film proved Cruise could be a grown up and still be a desirable leading man.
Cruise’s breakout role is still one of his most iconic performances. Don’t tell us you’ve never tried to recreate his dance moves.
The essential Tom Cruise role, and one that defined a character archetype of its own. Every young actor dreams of playing a guy like Maverick.
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