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The Movies/TV 8 Ball: The Top 8 Tom Cruise Roles

September 26, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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Top 8 Tom Cruise Roles

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!

Tom Cruise makes his way back into theaters this week with American Made. The star hopes to turn his 2017 around after an unfortunate misstep in Universal’s The Mummy with a real-life tale about pilot-turned-drug smuggler Barry Seal. The Mummy aside, Cruise has been one of the most consistent and reliably bankable movie stars of the modern era. He’s an incredibly underrated performer to boot. While he tends to get left out of conversations about the better actors of his generation, he’s been proven to have versatility and an ability to deliver in almost any genre. This week, we’re taking a look at Cruise’s best roles to date.

Caveat: For the purposes of this list, I considered all of Tom Hanks’ fictional narrative performances. Any appearances in documentaries and the like were not considered. As with my usual lists of this nature, Cruise’s cameo and supporting performances got much less weight than leading roles, but they were considered. For these lists, I look at the actor’s roles within the film as opposed to the quality of the overall film itself.

Just Missing the Cut

• Frank T. J. Mackey (Magnolia)
• Stacee Jaxx (Rock of Ages)
• Vincent Lauria (The Color of Money)
• Roy Miller (Knight and Day)
• Joel Goodson (Risky Business)

#8: Lt. Daniel Kaffee (A Few Good Men)

A Few Good Men may be mostly-remembered for Jack Nicholson’s famous “You can’t handle the truth!” quote, but that should take nothing away from Tom Cruise’s work in the film. Despite an Oscar nomination to his name, Cruise was still in the process of building a reputation as a serious actor in 1992. That reputation was bolstered when he starred as Daniel Kaffee, a hot-shot military lawyer with a reputation for cutting deals. Kaffee finds himself defending two Marines charged with the murder of one of their squadmates. Aaron Sorkin’s protagonist was perfectly suited to Cruise’s persona, and he knocked the role out of the park.

The biggest issue that Cruise has in this film is the caliber of the actors he’s working with. Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Pollack, Kevin Bacon and Kiefer Sutherland are at the tops of their games here. But Cruise holds his own nicely and hits all the right notes. Daniel has an eye-opening experience in the film; he has the talent but is willing to coast by until he is forced into believing in something. Cruise embodies Kaffee’s arrogance as a shield for his insecurity. Watching him get drawn in is compelling and by the time he’s putting his career on the line, we thoroughly believe it. Cruise was great here and it would be difficult for me to imagine anyone else in the role.

#7: Lestat de Lioncourt (Interview with the Vampire)

Back in the early 1990s, I didn’t have the level of appreciation for Tom Cruise that I do now. And when I heard Tom Cruise was set to star as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, I was scoffing as hard as any other Anne Rice fan. It’s interesting to consider that since then, I’ve become a much bigger fan of Cruise and have lost my appreciation for Rice. Regardless, Interview was another film where Cruise proved the haters wrong. He changed up his game and stepped right into the skin of Rice’s famous vampire, portraying the character’s arrogance and sinister charm in equal measures.

Having watched it for the first time in quite a while recently, I was surprised with how well Interview holds up. Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, and especially Kirsten Dunst are excellent as Louis, Armond and Claudia. But Cruise is the man who steals the show here. His occasionally-fading accent aside, everything that Cruise does as Lestat is enthralling. He feels less human than any of the other characters, moving his way through the film as a predator among mankind. Cruise’s performance basically ruined the role for anyone else. When Stuart Townsend tried to play the role, he was a pale (no pun intended) imitator at best. I don’t envy the person who tries to play Lestat in the planned television series based on the books.

#6: Les Grossman (Tropic Thunder)

I appreciate Cruise’s ability to subvert expectations. Perhaps because he had a reputation as a limited actor early in his career, Cruise has spent the last several years proving that is no longer the case. While he’s normally billed as the sexy leading man in action and dramas, the unsexy but hilarious cameo of Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder is one of his best works. Ben Stiller’s satirical action comedy is already clever, smart and funny without Cruise. But Les Grossman is the cherry on top that elevates the film from funny to hilarious.

While anyone would have gotten laughs here, there’s no doubt that it’s Cruise who helps make Les so gut-busting. The meta aspect is a big part of that, of course. Seeing someone like Cruise who is so known for his looks in a bald cap and giant hairy arms with a big gut is just funnier than if it had been, say Jack Black. But it’s also Cruise’s commitment. He rampages through the film like a F bomb-spitting Red Bull come to life and overshadows the considerable comedic talents of his castmates. He’s probably best known for the post-credits dance sequence. But I have a greater appreciation for everything before that. Grossman was such a big part of the film’s success that a spin-off film was under consideration for a while. I would have watched the hell out of that.

#5: Vincent (Collateral)

Cruise’s role as Vincent in Michael Mann’s Collateral was another eye-opening piece where he went against type. For a variety of reasons — his star power, his looks, his past films — Cruise has always embodied the protagonist role in films. Vincent allowed him to change that up. The character is a true professional, a hit man who has no problem doing whatever he needs to in order to get the job done. But he’s also not flashy; if you passed by him on the street you wouldn’t give him a second thought, perhaps assuming he’s just a businessman. It’s not as easy as it looks to exude the kind of menace that Vincent needs without going over the top, but he pulls of it well.

Of course, it helps that the film is great outside of just Cruise. Jamie Foxx is the perfect counterpart to Cruise, playing everyman stuck in an impossible situation. And Mann’s distinctive visual flair is out in force here. But while Foxx’s character is the protagonist, this is really Vincent’s film and Cruise owns it. During what was a relatively down period for the actor, Collateral stands as one of his most memorable works and Vincent one of his best characters.

#4: Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Top Gun)

While Maverick may not be his absolute best role, it’s perhaps his most famous. It seems odd to have him even as low as #4, but that speaks more to Cruise’s underrated talent as a performer than anything else. Cruise was already a known quantity in Hollywood by this point, but Top Gun is what made him a megastar. It helped establish the Tom Cruise archetypical role that we would see in films like A Few Good Men, Days of Thunder and Cocktail. Maverick was the epitome of those roles: cockiness and charm with a hidden insecurity underneath. It made for a potent blend that shot Cruise toward the A-list.

To be clear, I completely get why some people aren’t keen on Top Gun. It’s the epitome of 1980s high-budget action films and is campy for all the wrong reasons in certain spots. But again, this isn’t about the film’s quality. It’s about the role, and Cruise is fantastic here. More importantly than his individual performance, he has a fantastic chemistry with his fellow cast members. Kelly McDonald, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerrit and Val Kilmer all mesh perfectly with Cruise. This is the classic Tom Cruise film role for a good reason.

#3: Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July)

Born on the Fourth of July was the first films that really changed the perception of Cruise from a “movie star” into a serious actor. Oliver Stone’s Vietnam war drama came after Cruise had already turned heads with his work in Rain Man and The Color of Money, but it also proved that performance wasn’t a fluke. Stone has a knack for finding the right actors for his films and Cruise was a perfect choice to play Ron Kovic, the Vietnam veteran whose autobiography served as the basis for the script.

Cruise’s performance as Kovic is simply mesmerizing. You feel for the character as Cruise takes him from an idealistic young activist through a powerful emotional arc as he suffers the horrors of war, then has to experience what it’s like in the vehemently anti-war environment back home. The film was a critical and commercial success, and no small amount of that was due to its star. Cruise earned his first Academy Award nomination with this film and pushed his career to a new level of success. It is, like many of Cruise’s work, a performance that holds up wonderfully today.

#2: Ethan Hunt (Mission: Impossible franchise)

Tom Cruise is a talented comic and dramatic actor, but there’s little doubt that most people think of him as an action star. And for good reason, too. Most of his biggest films have been action-heavy epics. His love of doing his own stunts is legendary (sometimes to his detriment). He’s great at carrying these films with badassery and a surprising amount of gravitas. He’s had some great action turns, but Ethan Hunt, the hero of the Mission: Impossible franchise, is his best and most well-known.

It’s fair to say that not only does Cruise make this franchise work, he has kept it from falling apart at times. Directors have come and gone, stars cycle through but Cruise has been the constant. He’s been the stabilizing force, keeping the whole thing going through the rough second film and the third film’s lower grosses. He gives Ethan that right mix of cool and intellect to make the crazy stunts and gizmos work. As the franchise ages (and Cruise has as well), the character has matured and become a more interesting one. Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation are the best entries yet, which isn’t something you see often. When it comes to Cruise’s action roles, Ethan Hunt is king.

#1: Jerry Maguire (Jerry Maguire)

As famous as Ethan Hunt is, you can’t not peg the titular hero of Jerry Maguire as Cruise’s best role. Directed by Cameron Crowe, this sports drama is one of my absolute favorite films — and I’m not a sports guy. It’s a movie that appeals to people regardless of their interests, and I love it just as much now as I did when it first came out in 1996. Few films have been able to truly embody what the movie industry calls a “four-quadrant movie”–in other words, appealing to both men and women and both over and under twenty-five years old. Jerry Maguire not only does it, it makes it feel effortless.

And that’s largely thanks to Tom Cruise. There really isn’t much of a competition; this is Cruise’s best performance of his career to date. Jerry’s journey from the start to the end of the film is completely believable and entirely sympathetic. He is a character who has a lot to learn at the beginning of the film, but you see the potential there. Again, Cruise’s chemistry is off the charts here, both with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Renee Zellweger. It’s a funny, exciting and emotional film and Cruise’s performance is the wonderful, layered anchor that keeps it going. This is an easy #1 for me.

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at! JT out.