The idea of canon is a slippery one. Who’s to say what should be considered part of an actor’s canon and what shouldn’t be? Who could be so arrogant as to nominate themselves as the arbiter of such things?
Well, me, for one.
And who better to start with on this little project than America’s Greatest Living Movie Star: the one, the only…TOM CRUISE!
Now, I should note from the onset that I am an unironically huge fan of the Cruise Missile so if you aren’t, well, you might find a lot of common ground here. But this isn’t about Cruise as a man. I’m not looking to dissect his faith or discuss the fact that he would be opposed to my career choices, just to look at his films and tell you what ones not to miss. So let’s do just that, shall we?
Tom Cruise Canon (In Chronological Order) (Roughly)
Risky Business- Introducing Tom Cruise as the walking charisma dispensing machine! Also shows off his penchant for choosing projects that tend to skew darker than you might expect from an initial logline (“This kid’s parents go on vacation and he gets into mischief. Can he get out of it in time for his college interview?”)
Top Gun- The 80’s action film. I’m not sure we’ve entirely outgrown the template yet either. Loud, slick, and pretty, this one has a bit more depth than its progeny, but only a bit. Still, undeniably iconic.
Color of Money- Arguably, Cruise’s first reach for seriousness that landed. He’s up against Paul Newman and being directed by Martin Scorsese. It would’ve been easy to be overwhelmed, but he nonetheless hangs. And, more than hangs, he turns in a believable performance as a hustler who is wildly talented but perhaps too cocky for his own good. One is tempted to imagine that, had the internet been around, it would’ve spawned numerous thinkpieces about how similar Cruise and the character were at that juncture of his career.
Rain Man- One thing that gets mentioned every now and again is that while Dustin Hoffman (as “Raymond/Rain Man”) is the far flashier role with its savantism and “hot water burn baby” pathos, Tom Cruise actually has the harder role. While I’m not sure of that—difficult in a different way, perhaps, but not necessarily harder—it is certainly true that Cruise does well and makes a mark with a role that could have been a thankless and rote performance of a purely surface guy finding his depth (and his soul, perhaps) while on a cross country road trip with his differently abled older brother.
Born on the Fourth of July- Angry, serious, and sporting some truly heinous facial hair, this is probably the last time Cruise could “disappear” in a role without prosthetics and makeup (we’ll get there).
A Few Good Men- Great writing, all kinds of scene chewing, and Cruise looking so effortless in the middle of it all. He’s so smooth it can be hard to sometimes realize he is also very good in this one.
Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible III, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol- Perhaps the most Tom Cruise movies out there (note the lack of M:I II; this is not a mistake). They simultaneously put him out front and center while masking him in makeup, voice modulators, and literal masks, all while he participates in increasingly bombastic stunts that are no doubt the bane of some poor insurance guy’s life. It doesn’t hurt that these three are all really good either.
Jerry Maguire- In a thread I was following on Facebook someone made the point that this is arguably Cruise’s last “human” role. It’s actually probably Lions for Lambs, but the point is still incisive. As Cruise has proceeded into middle age and beyond, he has increasing shed the skin of mere mortal and become something else. Something more incredible, for certain, but one does wish he’d return to this kind of performance now and again. The movie is the story of a man broken, more or less, by his own success who finds a way to do what he does well in a more moral way but refuses to confirm, as credits roll, that he will be happy or his most recent reach for “true love” is, in fact, the real, lasting thing.
Magnolia- Frank “T.J” Mackey is a wounded animal, all barely suppressed rage dressed up in the façade of a slick womanizer. What’s impressive is that Cruise makes him increasingly monstrous and then still sells us on his slow unraveling at the bedside of his dying (and possibly hated) father.
Minority Report- There was a time when it seemed Tom Cruise was only making movies in which he was disfigured and/or hidden by masks and Minority Report falls in this era. As directed by Spielberg, however, the scene in which Cruise injects himself with a neurotranquilizer that makes his face look as though it is melting off his skull becomes a reflection of the movie as a whole. This false face is actually more real than the pretty one he walks around with because it more accurately captures the essence of his inner self, one twisted and crushed by grief and drugs.
Also, it is just a really cool, well directed film that puts you into a fully realized future that feels just a few seconds removed from our own.
Collateral- Cruise does not have many villains in his oeuvre so perhaps it might not seem like much to declare Vincent his scariest creation, but it is still true and it still means quite a bit. I’ve read reviews here and there that compare Vincent to a shark and that feels pretty accurate to me: single-minded, utterly unconcerned with the morality of his actions, and inhumanly deadly. What makes the character so indelible though is that it is all paired with a gift for gab, but not in the “I’m a genius murderer taunting you” kind of way.
Tropic Thunder- I almost did not include this one just because Cruise’s Les Grossman—consumed by prosthetics, makeup, and a hairy fat suit—is just in the movie enough to be slightly more than a cameo. But as the purest expression of any movie in his filmography of his gift for comedy and how different it is then anything else he’s done, I had to include it. The rest of the movie, thankfully, is more than enough to keep you laughing even when Cruise is nowhere to be seen.
Edge of Tomorrow/Live Die Repeat/All You Need to Kill- The story of how Tom Cruise became Tom Cruise but if he was a solider in a war against aliens instead of movie star. It is slyly funny, propulsive, and lets Cruise be realistically flawed and weaselly while giving an in-text explanation for his later perfection. If he hadn’t already starred in Minority Report, I’d label this his sci-fi classic. But then, he did also star in Minority Report so this will have to settle for second.
Lesser Films Still Worthy of Consideration
Taps- A rare Cruise as villain offering, this one is almost Risky Business’s mirror opposite. In the same way Business captured all the charisma and smoothness that makes Cruise intriguing and infuriating to so many, Taps captured his obsessive at-any-cost dark side.
Outsiders- Remember when Tom Cruise could disappear into an ensemble? This might be the only time, actually. In any case, it is an intriguing glimpse at an alternate universe in which America’s Greatest Living Movie Star went reliable supporting character actor instead.
Interview with a Vampire- The movie has not aged particularly well, in my opinion, or I might’ve been tempted to put it above. What still holds up is Cruise’s performance as a vampire that delighted in indulging his id. He makes Brad Pitt’s more solemn tortured vampire feel like a walking funeral dirge.
Vanilla Sky- Another offering in the “Tom Cruise Disfigured/Hidden” subgenre that seemed to dominate his early aught efforts (see also: Minority Report, all the damn masks of M:I II)
Last Samurai- Ok, this one I actually don’t really care for, but a lot of people do. So maybe I’m missing something? I am including it here for that reason.
War of the Worlds- Before the effects take over (and they are spectacular effects), the film does an interesting job of showcasing a single dad who is…ok, but disappointing in any number of ways. Cruise nicely embodies this flawed hero who, eventually, pulls it all together enough to protect his loved ones, but the film never tries to paper over that this a dad who may not be so great at being a parent.
Knight and Day- Tom Cruise can be funny. And not just in the grotesque (in the best sense) over the top way his executive in Tropic Thunder is. This is, ultimately, a trifle, but Cruise nicely pivots his reputation to create a character that is super competent and more than a little unhinged. The business with people getting undressed and redressed while drugged into unconsciousness ain’t great though.
Oblivion- There’s something kind of perfect about a movie that cast Cruise as both the (cloned) destroyer of Earth and its eventual sacrificial savior. I enjoyed the 70’s sci-fi feel as well, although it turned off many who saw it less as homage and more as a reductive reproduction. I disagree. Edge of Tomorrow/Live Die Repeat/All You Need is Kill might be the best of his recent sci-fi efforts, but this one is still damn good.
A Few to Avoid
Cocktail- If you wanted to mount an argument for the idea that all Cruise was early in his career was an empty pretty boy, this would be state’s evidence exhibit #1.
Days of Thunder- Loud, stylish, and utterly empty. A low point, I think, for not just Cruise but for director Tony Scott as well. But maybe I just don’t like car racing.
M:I II- There are people who will tell you that if you've seen the other 3 (soon to be 4) you might as well see this Mission: Impossible as well. These people do not have your best interests at heart.
Rock of Ages- I actually think Cruise is pretty great as a drugged out rock star on the cusp of has-been-hood. It just happens that the rest of the film is pretty much garbage.