Critic's Picks: Tom Cruise's Performances, Ranked Worst to Best

3:20 PM 10/21/2016

by John DeFore

With 'Jack Reacher: Never Go Back' hitting theaters this weekend, a THR film critic ranks the star's work from the cringe-inducing to the classic.

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  1. 32
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    'Cocktail' (1988)

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    Need an exercise in willpower this week? See how long you can look at Cruise's inexplicably serious expression on the poster for this movie about "flair" bartenders without laughing.

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    'Endless Love' (1981)

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    Starting his movie career in a supporting role, Cruise deserves no blame for this schlocky teen romance starring Brooke Shields.

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    'All the Right Moves' (1983)

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    A football-centric high school film that probably played better in its day, this rare directorial outing by noted cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull) pales in the post-Friday Night Lights era.

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    'Rock of Ages' (2012)

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    Some say it was fun on the stage. They say that about Mamma Mia! as well.

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    'Losin' It' (1983)

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    L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson was hardly straining against his exploitation-flick roots in this Tijuana-set sex comedy costarring Shelley Long.

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    'Far and Away' (1992)

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    Handsome production values only went so far in Ron Howard's plodding romance about Irish immigrants, whose epic sweep was more ambitious than seductive.

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    'Days of Thunder' (1990)

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    Top Gun goes to the racetrack, with Nicole Kidman in the Kelly McGillis role. The two met during production and married soon after, but the three movies they made together aren't highlights in either actor's career.

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    'The Outsiders' (1983)

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    Coppola's adaptation of S.E. Hinton's beloved novel sentimentalized '50s teen suffering, and sacrificed a good deal of dramatic impact in its quest for the perfect period aesthetic.

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    'Legend' (1985)

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    Though it has attracted a small cult among moviegoers of a certain age, this Ridley Scott fantasy-adventure is memorable mostly for the spectacular devil makeup worn by Tim Curry.

  10. 23
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    'Knight and Day' (2010)

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    A shallow riff on superspy tropes that might have been dismissed quickly had there been any other actioners worth seeing in summer 2010 (sorry, Salt!), this one (co-starring Cameron Diaz) didn't go far enough in pushing Cruise to satirize his usual shtick.

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    'The Last Samurai' (2003)

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    An old-fashioned historical epic whose West-meets-East perspective risked giving offense, Edward Zwick's story of a U.S. Army captain who becomes the eponymous "last samurai" — couldn't Toshiro Mifune have had that honor? — got by on mammoth fight scenes and well-photographed exotica.

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    'Taps' (1981)

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    Cruise caught a break in his first major movie role, getting cast alongside up-and-comers Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn in a Lord of the Flies-like story about military-school students who decide to take up arms and defend their campus from real estate developers.

  13. 20
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    'Interview With the Vampire' (1994)

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    Hollywood hasn't been great to the work of Anne Rice, but Neil Jordan's lush and violent adaptation of her biggest hit is the best to date by far. Casting Cruise as the vampire Lestat was hugely controversial among fans, but he was widely accepted once they saw him onscreen.

  14. 19
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    'Valkyrie' (2008)

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    Playing an aristocratic German officer who wants to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Cruise wasn't the only curiously cast actor in Bryan Singer's less-gripping-than-it-should-be thriller. But his Americanness is impossible to ignore, despite a vigorous performance.

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    'Jack Reacher' (2012)

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    Less satisfying for fans of Lee Child's famous hero than for moviegoers who came expecting merely shameless, pulpy fun, the first chapter of what seems to insist on becoming a franchise wasn't as bad as many said. But did it deserve a second chapter?

  16. 17
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    'Lions for Lambs' (2007)

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    As a senator shilling a dubious military strategy, Cruise is better than his material in this earnest and talky Robert Redford antiwar film. Matthew Michael Carnahan's script should probably just have been a play; but then, what are the chances we'd have seen Cruise go head to head with Meryl Streep?

  17. 16
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    'Risky Business' (1983) and 'Top Gun' (1986)

    *Tied

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    Three years stood between them, but these two star-making vehicles both found Cruise smack dab in the zeitgeist, winning audiences over even when a plot contrivance should have made them groan. They're as beyond criticism as Ray-Ban's two signature sunglass models, the Wayfarer and Aviator. (Just kidding. The shades are totally open to criticism: Aviators are lame; Wayfarers are kind of cool.)

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    'Oblivion' (2013)

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    Gorgeous to look at and conceptually intriguing, this first of two back-to-back Cruise On Future Earth movies had a bit of difficulty fusing all its elements satisfactorily. But it was a tremendously polished example of a welcome new trend in sci-fi that at least attempts to honor the genre's brain-teasing roots as much as cutting-edge tech.

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    'The Firm' (1993)

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    The first in a slew of splashy adaptations of John Grisham's legal thrillers remains among the best, a no-nonsense popcorn film that let Cruise put his character's troubled conscience in the driver's seat.

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    'A Few Good Men' (1992)

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    Sure, "You can't handle the truth!" earns some chuckles now, after years as a punchline. But Rob Reiner's heartland-targeting courtroom drama, coming at the tail end of a remarkable string of crowd pleasers, did what it did exceedingly well.

  21. 12
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    'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999)

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    Though it's the richest pairing of Cruise and then-wife Nicole Kidman, this exploration of a couple's sexual fantasies was, for some, Stanley Kubrick's least satisfying movie. But its initial reception was colored by factors ranging from Kubrick's death to the way sexually explicit scenes were altered by the studio; seen on its own terms over the years, the film has only improved.

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    'Collateral' (2004)

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    A too-cute script is a manageable hurdle for this Michael Mann all-nighter about a hired killer (Cruise) who forces a cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to shuttle him around L.A. from dusk 'til dawn. Cruise is intriguingly cold (and, yes, gray), but the pic works thanks mostly to Mann's signature style and his magnetic focus on men who are good at their jobs.

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    'War of the Worlds' (2005)

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    Chop off the last few minutes, and this Spielberg-directed tale of alien invasion — imagined with more seriousness and less smirking than such stories usually get — would jump a few slots up in both this ranking and in the annals of sci-fi, generally.

  24. 9
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    'Vanilla Sky' (2001)

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    No, Cameron Crowe's beautiful head-trip, a remake of Alejandro Amenábar's Open Your Eyes, isn't perfect. But it's Crowe's most underrated picture, probably Cruise's too, and represents one of the rare occasions in which the famously image-conscious star played a character that begged unflattering comparison to his real life. The film is a puzzle that doesn't need to be solved to be enlightening.

  25. 8
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    'Rain Man' (1988)

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    Dustin Hoffman casts a big shadow in Barry Levinson's picture, with a showy performance as the autistic math-savant brother Cruise's character never knew he had. But Cruise's quieter turn deserves respect, and in fact the film would be meaningless without it.

  26. 7
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    'Edge of Tomorrow' (2014)

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    Groundhog Day meets human-vs-alien warfare in this deceptive film, whose FX-heavy bombast belies its smarts, and which allows Cruise to rediscover the charm of his heyday — in between getting blown-up and reborn. Pairing him with the well-matched Emily Blunt helps, as well.

  27. 6
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    'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)

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    One of just a couple of times Cruise has allowed himself to look less than physically perfect onscreen, this Oliver Stone portrait of Vietnam-vet protester Ron Kovic still stands as one of his most ambitious and affecting performances.

  28. 5
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    'Magnolia' (1999) and 'Tropic Thunder' (2008)

    *Tied

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    Since earning above-the-title billing three decades ago, Cruise has almost never deigned to be part of an ensemble. These two turns in supporting roles — one a piercing bit of psychoanalysis for PT Anderson; the other a tremendously entertaining bout of physical comedy for Ben Stiller — prove he should do it more often.

  29. 4
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    'Jerry Maguire' (1996)

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    Does it make one sound annoyingly anti-capitalist to complain that, even after our hero grapples with the soullessness of his life and emerges a supposedly better man, he still devotes his career to making athletes obscenely wealthy while teachers and poets go hungry? Probably. In a movie as potently charming as this, so intent on finding characters' humanity and helping them share it with each other, it's maybe it's enough to improve the world without fixing all its flaws. Cruise is at his movie-star best.

  30. 3
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    'The Color of Money' (1986)

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    A big deal at the time but largely overlooked today, Martin Scorsese's sequel to The Hustler sits pleasingly in the netherworld between character-driven drama and genre fare. Playing the retired pool shark who spots a brash new talent and tries to shape him, an autumnal Paul Newman might as well have been giving Cruise a master class in movie stardom. Like Vince, the prodigy adopted by Fast Eddie Felson, Cruise eventually went very much his own way.

  31. 2
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    'The Mission: Impossible' Series (1996-2015)

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    The gadget-loving, set-piece-laden adventures of Ethan Hunt and Co. have delivered moments both ludicrous (John Woo's hilariously awful motorcycle-jousting scene) and immortal (as when Brian De Palma pulled Cruise's strings in that computer server room). Along the way, they've established the archetypal Tom Cruise blockbuster role.

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    'Minority Report' (2002)

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    Steven Spielberg's thrilling and sometimes visionary Philip K. Dick adaptation wasn't as mood-perfect as Blade Runner or as true to PKD's soul as A Scanner Darkly. But it made an unbeatable techno-adventure for Cruise, who raced around a disturbingly plausible near-future trying to prove he wasn't about to commit a murder whose victim he had never met.

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