After an arguably false start with last year's Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise, Movie Star, makes a big, blockbustery return this weekend in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi effects-fest Oblivion. And not a moment too soon. This is an HOF that's been a long time coming. Join Grantland as we proudly present our favorite Tom Cruise moments of all time.
The Color of Money
Chris Ryan: In 1986, Tom Cruise went supernova. In May, he pulled a 4G negative dive as Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun. This may be an act of rewriting movie history, but I feel like Top Gun gave Cruise a license to print money as a box-office draw. The movie he released that October, The Color of Money, made him a movie star.
I remember seeing this movie when I was pretty young on VHS. It's still one of my favorite Scorsese movies, one of my favorite Richard Price scripts, one of my favorite Newman performances, one of my favorite John Turturro supporting roles, and maybe the best movie ever made about the joys and frustrations of both teaching and gambling. But it's not for everybody. It's moody, it has a serious tonal shift in the third act, and it's basically about some adult shit that you don't fully grasp until you've, at least once in your life, truly succeeded and truly screwed up that success.
The "Werewolves of London" scene almost never was. In Price's shooting script, Cruise's Vincent character hustles Moselle to a soundtrack of James Brown. This is frankly unfathomable. It would be like Robert Duvall air-raiding the beach in Apocalypse Now to the sounds of James Taylor instead of "Ride of the Valkyries." Thankfully, Scorsese or his composer/de facto music supervisor, Robbie Robertson (of The Band fame), made the call to go with Warren Zevon.
This scene served as a cinematic awakening for me. Yes, that sounds completely pretentious. But I still remember, like it was yesterday, watching this and becoming aware of two things: what a director did, and what a movie star did. The tracking shot that opens the scene that basically sets up the whole thing and ends on the Balabushka cue (where's the Balabushka? VINCENT TOOK IT); the slap-in-the-face cut to Newman (THELMA SCHOONMAKER); the way the car horn and street lights seem to be in time with the opening bars of "Werewolves"; the way the camera rolls in on the billiards table along the lead guitar line; the harmony between movement, music, lighting, and performance; the way your emotions are subtly manipulated — that you are watching one of the coolest things YOU HAVE EVER SEEN, and yet you know, deep down, that it's all about to go so wrong. Scorsese does what all great directors do: They make love to their subject. I mean … that cut to Cruise's smile!
Oh, yeah, Cruise. Can you name three other actors in your lifetime who could've pulled off this scene? Someone who could look so assured, so goofy? Someone who could sing along to Warren Zevon and play a real mean game of 9-ball? And not looked utterly ridiculous? George Clooney? Brad Pitt? Matt Damon? Channing Tatum? Ben Affleck? Bruce Willis? Jamie Foxx? Denzel Washington? Tom Hanks? Harrison Ford? No. No, there's really only one. And his hair was perfect.
Steven Hyden: I'm the last person who would ever question the perpetually flowering directorial brilliance of Paul Thomas Anderson, though occasionally I miss the days when he made the world’s most depressing comedies. From Boogie Nights to Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson was also something of a stealth film critic, and his primary mode of deconstruction involved his casting of leading men. Just as Dirk Diggler was a fun house–mirror image of Mark Wahlberg’s hulking man-boy persona, and Barry Egan was a disturbed exaggeration of Adam Sandler’s hulking man-boy persona, Frank “T.J.” Mackey was a riff on the grinning, cocksure, charismatic asshole with daddy issues persona that Tom Cruise played again and again in the '80s and '90s. In each film, Anderson basically runs his stars through the ringer, in some cases literally beating the archetypes out of them. But before we get to that in Magnolia, Anderson crafts the ultimate Tom Cruise moment, a greatest-hits medley of Risky Business dance moves, Top Gun fist pumping, and thunderous A Few Good Men speechifying. Respect the cock? RESPECT THE COCK!
Tom Cruise Can't Throw a Baseball in War of the Worlds
Mark Lisanti: The way Tom Cruise threw the baseball in what should be an easy game of catch with his kid always bothered me. He's clearly short-arming it, like someone who never played Little League, like someone faking his way through it, a poorly trained Russian spy taking a bite of a cupcake and telling you how delicious his all-American apple pie is. The Tom Cruise Brand is predicated on excellence of physicality — he is a textbook on running form made flesh, his torso an iron barrel with skin drawn taut over it — so this lack of attention to detail on the simplest of athletic endeavors is particularly galling. Maybe it was a scene thrown together at the last moment to provide more emotional grounding to the father-son relationship, robbing the perfectionist of his customary 15 months of coaching. Remember, this is a man who had himself reduced to a syringe full of platelets and injected into Jon Bon Jovi's bloodstream for an entire world tour just to do a semi-passable "Wanted Dead or Alive" in Rock of Ages. His commitment to craft was beyond reproach.
So knowing what I wanted to contribute to this Cruiseapalooza, I ventured to YouTube in search of the illustrative clip. And this is what I found.
If you wanted to, you could blame the jacket for his poor mechanics. But you can't blame the jacket for his craven willingness to throw without a baseball in his hand.
How does that apple pie taste, comrade? Is delicious?
Alex Pappademas: Dustin Hoffman went full R-word and won the Oscar, but it's Cruise who has the tougher job in Rain Man. He has to hold the screen opposite the spectacle of one of the most likable actors of the '70s playing a teddy-bearish catch-phrase machine — and he's required to keep treating Raymond shabbily long after Hoffman's Wapnered his way into the audience's hearts. You could argue that "overconfident prick who's really an angry, emotionally vacuum-sealed weirdo" isn't a huge reach for Cruise, but he's never more alive onscreen than when he's fuming, and he gets to do a ton of fuming here. Since I can't find a high-quality clip of the swagger-on-a-billion opening sequence in which Cruise takes delivery on some gray-market Lambos while dressed like Turtleneck Scott Disick, here are Hoffman and Cruise (with Ron Kovic buzz cut) enjoying themselves during a very informal (yet very precisely timed) Rain Man–era interview with a Danish television journalist. Danish TV looks fun.
A Few Good Men
Bill Simmons: Tom Cruise gets drunk and abrasive, screams at a woman at the top of his lungs, acts like a total quitter and creates the phrase "galactically stupid." These 260 seconds get more and more amazing as the years pass. The good news: In the very next scene, he does some drunken driving to apologize.
Charles P. Pierce: Here he is: young Tom, as the bull-goose loony special-forces-type cadet in the remarkably cast, but fundamentally bizarre, military school drama, Taps. "IT'S BEAUTIFUL, MAN!!!!!!" And then he opens up with 50-caliber machine-gun fire on some National Guardsmen called in to take back the Academy from young urban terrorist Timothy Hutton, who appears to have some sort of weird crush on George C. Scott through most of the film. I swear, if there had been a machine gun on Oprah's set that day with the couch, this is what we would've seen. Of course, it could be that I'm being unkind here because the man has owed me a beer since shortly before Jerry Maguire came out. I don't like to talk about that.
Lions for Lambs
Sean Fennessey: One of the reasons I will never not be fascinated with Cruise is his apparent obsession with what we think we know about him. For every beleaguered family man or hotshot flyboy or felled sports agent, he does something that makes you wonder about his self-awareness. That it took him nearly 30 years to play a shark-smiling Republican politician probably has as much to do with his boyishness as it does career management. In 2007, he appeared in a small, contained role in Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs, a chest-puffing jeremiad about Who We Are Now. It's a bad movie told poorly, but Cruise is so right for it — the hollow-eyed speechifying, the inoffensive three-piece suit, the swaggering eye contact. He really runs game on Meryl Streep's Judith Miller stand-in here. In a way, Cruise has always been walking bullshit, so to see him take it on (not unlike T.J. Mackey, in reverse) indicates that Cruise is still invested in acting, rather just movie-starring. Lions for Lambs is the last time Cruise acted in a movie; it's been all franchises and blank-slate actioners and hair-metal musicals and Nazi fanfic ever since. In the cosmic trajectory of stardom, Cruise, who's now 50, is approaching a black hole. His next four announced films are all franchise installments. You can feel the box-office desperation in his eyes. (Exhibit A: Jack Reacher.) He likely knows that acting will be there for him in his 60s. His late-career Best Supporting Actor Oscar is all but assured. Everything in between is in flux.
Tess Lynch: Scientology conspiracy theorists don't mind that Vanilla Sky is a remake of Abre Los Ojos. They will go to the Room 237 place, finding "literally mind-boggling elements linking it" to the religion, and I have to hand it to them on the engrams connection. For a movie that I thought I didn't like, I've spent way too long thinking about whether Cruise's performance is a hyper-self-aware reflection of the narcissism of his particular kind of celebrity, how his split with Nicole Kidman and subsequent romance with costar Penelope Cruz (and the potential overlap during filming) is sort of echoed in the fluid identities of whichever woman wakes up in his bed in Dreamytown, and, of course, Cameron Diaz's most meme-able line. I guess that's what Tom Cruise in a mask will get you. Two years after donning a Venetian mask for Eyes Wide Shut, his Vanilla Sky prosthetic could be read as a disguise to conceal the lingering scars of erotic secrets. Or not. We'll find out in another life, when we're all cat-thetans.
"Help Me Help You"
Rembert Browne: Just look at the way Tom moves. He's like a dancer. A crazy, surface-area-covering bag of grace. What a legend.
Dan Silver: Only after the "Look at the mega-star taking the piss out of himself while also taking a bite out of Hollywood in the ass" sheen wore off were we all able to truly appreciate how great a comedic performance Cruise delivers in Tropic Thunder. This dude throws himself into the funny like he dead-sprints away from explosions. I wouldn't go so far as to say that he's fearless, but his tank is certainly overflowing with unabashed confidence. Tom, do more comedy. You're funny. Now let's all take a moment to watch Cruise smack his own teenage ass and dance some more.
Ben Stiller Is Tom Crooze
Amos Barshad: Ben Stiller as Tom Crooze, overeager TC stunt double, is, admittedly, more miss than hit, but I still watch it in full roughly once every six months, and I urge you now to stick through to completion. Because at the end, when Stiller starts Cruise cackling, and then Cruise joins in, and they lock eyes, and they laugh and laugh and laugh, and then — surely unintentionally, but certainly present — you get to see right through to the unhinged mania at the heart of the tortured soul of Thomas Cruise Mapother IV … well, it is everything.
Andy Greenwald: My favorite Tom Cruise performances are the ones in which his insane, blue steel commitment to self-control is played as a feature, not a bug. In Michael Mann's outrageously watchable urban koan Collateral — which, it should be noted, could actually be classified as "fantasy" because of its depiction of Los Angeles traffic — Cruise plays Vincent, a contract killer, with all the grace and efficiency of a straight razor. In this scene, Vincent retrieves his briefcase from two amusingly hammy sideways-gun-toting street toughs. But look at the coiled mamba intensity of Cruise's movements. This is probably the same way he eats, works out, and line-dances. (JK, Tom Cruise doesn't line-dance. He krumps.) And it's definitely the way he says, "Yo, homie."
Eyes Wide Shut
Molly Lambert: Tom Cruise's ability to convey paranoia made him a natural to star in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Slammed by a lot of critics at the time of its 1999 release, it's aged incredibly well, kind of like Tom Cruise! Cruise can be a very subtle actor, and in Eyes Wide Shut, he rises to the material. His '80s übermensch warps into creepy so well.