Tom Cruise hits the big screen again this weekend in the new sci-fi movie Oblivion, making this the perfect time to assess his career to date. Cruise began acting in his late teens, so we have about 30 years worth of films and performances to choose from. And it's about the same number for distinct characters he's embodied since his supporting debut in 1981's Endless Love. His most recent is aging rocker Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages, a critical and box office disappointment that many found almost worthwhile solely for Cruise's performance.
For such a classical type, by which I mean he's typically just "movie star Tom Cruise" on-screen in his movies, Cruise does have a way of intensely filling his roles. He makes the characters very distinguishable in spite of their common surface appearance. He always seems charming with a touch of crazy, or vice versa, but you could never confuse Ethan Hunt for Maverick or Jerry Maguire for Ray Ferrier. And so it's actually quite difficult to pinpoint his best role, the one that's most exemplary of his acting style and talent, the one in which he gave his best performance, the most fitting him and most fit by him.
Interestingly enough, when I polled readers on Twitter, most went for his later parts, particularly those offering him a chance to go against expectations and surprise us. I guess I do really love him as Vincent in Collateral for that reason, but I can't say it's his "best" role. I kind of want to cheat and say it's "himself" in Austin Powers in Goldmember, but I'm actually going to pick the very underrated Roy Miller in Knight and Day, which isn't that much different. It's a bit of self-parody but still seriously suited for the universe and tone of the movie. Cruise is at his most enjoyable when he's clearly having fun while also showing great dedication to the character, and that's most apparent in that action rom-com.
Here are the responses I received via the Twitter poll:
Collateral [Vincent] - @MattGoldberg
Collateral [Vincent] - @Owsler
The silver fox of COLLATERAL [Vincent] or wanderer of EYES WIDE SHUT [Bill Harford] - @adam_the_k
Born on the 4th of July [Ron Kovic] - @Mr_MSG
Any movie he runs in. But seriously, as intense as his role in BORN ON THE 4TH OF JULY [Ron Kovic] is, I'm inclined to say MAGNOLIA [Frank T.J. Mackey]. It's the rare movie where even though you don't forget you're watching Tom Cruise being someone (his chief problem), it ends up working in his (and the role's) favor. - @alxhuls
It's gotta be Frank TJ Mackey in MAGNOLIA. Took his entire persona inside out and revealed incredible depths as a performer. - @TheTrueBrendanF
Magnolia [Frank T.J. Mackey]. He was robbed the Oscar. - @DennisRthr
Frank T.J. Mackey, Magnolia. - @tintedviolet
Depends on definition. Best performance and best film? Magnolia [Frank T.J. Mackey] (Jerry Maguire close second). Quintessential Tom is M.I. [Ethan Hunt] tho. - @dordotson
I would go with Magnolia [Frank T.J. Mackey]. My sleeper pick would be Risky Business [Joel Goodsen]. His funniest role Knight & Day [Roy Miller] - @bensower
Tropic Thunder [Les Grossman] - @ajabernathy
Les Grossman [Tropic Thunder], so great and funny that I forgot it was Cruise. - @August_Macias
Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic) to join the next discussion.