10 Defining Movies that Shaped Tom Cruise’s Illustrious Career


  • Risky Business launched Tom Cruise’s career at just 20, showcasing his charisma and acting chops in a darkly comedic film.
  • Top Gun solidified Cruise’s superstar status, showcasing his aerial skills and magnetic personality in a high-flying action movie.
  • Rain Man displayed Cruise’s range as an actor, earning him accolades and proving he could excel in drama as well as comedy.

One of the premiere movie stars of the modern era, Tom Cruise has a career that can be traced along several distinct milestones as marked by some of his most significant films. Tom Cruise’s famous love of stunt work, tenacious charisma, and sheer unbridled energy have helped him maintain a position as a versatile movie star in Hollywood. Though the actor has not been free from controversy over the course of his career, he has endeared himself as a staple of the film industry for nearly forty years.

From his early films of the mid-80s to his breakout hits of the present day, Tom Cruise’s best movies each mark an important chapter in the legendary performer’s lauded career. The most iconic films attached to Cruise’s name typically mark a new milestone, be it a high point or a low point, or introduce Cruise’s acting capabilities to a new genre or tone. Whether he’s dangling from a ceiling, flying a cutting-edge jet, or fostering a tender emotional connection, Tom Cruise’s varied performances tell the story of his stardom just as much as the story of the film they’re within.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning in front of the DC Comics logo
Related Tom Cruise has been rumored for both Marvel and DC heroes; however, new DC Universe art makes the case for the actor to play a terrifying villain.

10 Risky Business



A generation X classic, Risky Business was a strong catalyst for Tom Cruise’s rise to stardom. The film set the precedent for the great films of John Cusack, following the romance a high school senior, played by a young, hungry Cruise, and a lady of the night. From the iconic dance scene set to Old Time Rock and Roll to the film’s ability to balance comedy with darker themes, Risky Business was an instant success.

Essentially Cruise’s breakout role, Risky Business put the actor on the map at the tender age of 20. Perhaps the single most important film of Cruise’s career, without Risky Business, the short-statured movie star wouldn’t have gotten the chance to head major action franchises. While The Outsiders of the same year also placed Cruise in an impressive ensemble cast managed by Francis Ford Coppola, Risky Business put him front and center, giving him room to flex his dazzling performance.

9 Top Gun


In this classic action flick, Tom Cruise stars as daring young pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Among the other students at the United States Navy’s elite fighter weapons school, he competes to be best in the class, and learns a few things from a civilian instructor that are not taught in the classroom.

Top Gun strapped a freshly-famous Cruise into the cockpit of an F-14 as the hot-blooded Maverick.

If Risky Business proposed Tom Cruise’s superstar status as a thesis statement, Top Gun confirmed it, officially cementing him in place as one of the premiere forces of personality Hollywood could rally around. To this day the single most influential dogfighting movie of all time, Top Gun strapped a freshly-famous Cruise into the cockpit of an F-14 as the hot-blooded Maverick. Fueled by a glam-infused 80s soundtrack, earnest patriotism and a palpable chemistry between Maverick and the rest of the Top Gun Academy pilots, the film was a near-instant success.

Top Gun went a long way in earning Cruise even more trust in Hollywood, proving he could pilot a blockbuster that left a massive cultural impact.The many planes of the Top Gun franchise also helped inspire Cruise’s own love of aviation, later using much of his wealth to buy planes of his own, including a genuine P-51 Mustang from World War II. The choice of Cruise for the responsibility of putting a face to the absurdly expensive film paid off in a big way, with the U.S. Navy seeing record recruitment numbers after the film’s release.

8 Rain Man



Cruise may have proven himself as a scenery-chewing action hero in Top Gun, but Rain Man presented him an opportunity to re-ignite his comedy chops while showing off a new, more tender side to his performances. Starring opposite the great Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise starred in the film as a hustler who learns of his estranged brother, an autistic savant with a knack for numbers. The road trip buddy comedy excelled in both comedic pacing and genuine drama, thoughtfully promoting awareness of autism even if it did leave many audiences with an unrealistic view of the condition.

Few films were as rewarding for Cruise’s resume as Rain Man, which went on to earn an astounding eight nominations at the 1989 Academy Awards and take home four wins, including the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture. Cruise in particular also didn’t go unrecognized, gaining accolades as the year’s Best Supporting Actor courtesy of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle. Rain Man widened the public’s perception of Cruise’s range going forward, awarding him a reputation as a genuinely great actor rather than just an entertaining action star.

7 Mission Impossible



Of course, Cruise’s days as an action star were far from over, and the thunderous applause of the first Mission Impossible would see to it that he would remain a contender for a lead role in many blockbusters for years to come. Putting Cruise in the role of Ethan Hunt, the reboot of the classic heist film allowed him to flex his physicality, dangling from ceilings and holding on to moving trains for dear life. From the iconic theme song to the death-defying action scenes, Mission Impossible put Cruise on a whole new level.

Beyond spawning the critically acclaimed Mission Impossible franchise, which Cruise has continued to carry as a leading man, the film was among the first to give Cruise a reputation as a daredevil. Considering he was also a producer on Mission Impossible, it quickly became evident that Cruise was willing to go out of his way to put his safety on the line for some breathtaking practical action sequences. From proving Cruise’s ability to drive a long-running franchise to honing his stunt skills and sharpening his producing acumen, MIssion Impossible was an incredibly important feather in Cruise’s cap.

6 Jerry Maguire


Within the same year as the bombastic action of Mission Impossible, Tom Cruise released a more down-to-earth sports comedy that often gets unfairly shadowed by the other giants of his filmography. Playing the titular sports manager, Cruise demonstrates a more poignant acting talent beyond high-flying planes and death defying stunts, simmering in the simple story of a professional wishing to deepen his personal relationships. Though technically a sports film, it’s the human drama that drove Jerry Maguire into success.

Jerry Maguire was the peak of Cruise’s broad audience appeal in the 90s.

Jerry Maguire was the peak of Cruise’s broad audience appeal in the 90s. Not the most narratively complex film, Jerry Maguire relied heavily on its talent to carry the weighty character drama to the end zone. Luckily, Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Renée Zellweger were more than up to the task, and Cruise provided proof of yet another expansion of his versatile acting capabilities.

5 Eyes Wide Shut


Eyes Wide Shut is a 1999 drama mystery directed by Stanley Kubrick centering on a Manhattan doctor who goes to unexpected lengths to please his wife after she admits she was unsatisfied and almost had an affair a year earlier. Eyes Wide Shut stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as husband and wife.

No film was a greater testament to the trust Cruise earned from Hollywood by the end of the 90s than his status as the lead role in the last entry in the great Stanley Kubrick’s filmography. In Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise plays a medical doctor that gets sucked into the scandalous world of a high-society cabal of sexual fantasies. The mystery, psycho-sexual themes and weighty personal tension of the film divided critics, becoming one of the most infamously polarizing films of all time.

If Jerry Maguire was a testament to Cruise’s widespread appeal, Eyes Wide Shut proved he was capable of committing to off-beat stories that wouldn’t necessarily go down easily for every viewer. Even many of the negative reviews of Kubrick’s last film offered at least some amount of praise to Cruise’s fierce, if eccentric, performance, usually not citing his leading role as a problem. In Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise’s willingness to take risks beyond committing to dizzying stunts truly shone through for the first time.

4 Minority Report


In Minority Report’s utopian future, where murders can be predicted and prevented, police chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is accused of a crime he hasn’t committed and goes on the run to prove his innocence. Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a Philip K. Dick short story, the 2002 sci-fi film was a critical and commercial success, grossing over $350 million worldwide.

Tom Cruise entered the new millennium strong with Minority Report, an adrenaline-fueled science fiction film that proved to be more heady and existential than his other action films. Cruise lent his talent as John Anderton, a “pre-crime chief” in the near-future that specialized in apprehending criminals before they had a chance to even commit their crimes in the first place. Exploring themes of determinism, free will, and complicity in a broken system, Minority Report was able to balance its philosophy with some visceral action.

Minority Report was another successful high-profile collaboration between Tom Cruise and a famous director, this time Steven Spielberg. Whereas Cruise’s thoughtful and action-oriented sides were previously separated by an invisible line, Minority Report proved that he could juggle both within the context of a single film. Earning a litany of awards, Minority Report was a critically and financially successful stop along Tom Cruise’s impressive development as an actor.

3 The Last Samurai



At first, The Last Samurai may seem like just another successful action film in Tom Cruise’s endlessly impressive filmography. However, other than being one of the actor’s more popular films, it also finally granted him a proper tangible recognition as a leading actor. Cruise’s first period film, The Last Samurai posited the superstar as an American cavalryman in the 1870s who finds himself stranded in Japan, adapting to the warrior culture of the samurai while leading them in battle against the modernizing Imperial Army.

The Last Samurai finally gave Tom Cruise his long-deserved dues as an impressive lead performer, earning him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. While Western reviews of the film were merely average, describing it as a stock standard period epic, the film did surprisingly well in Japan, being one of the better Western depictions of the setting according to Japanese critics. It doesn’t hurt that Cruise’s training scene as Algren is one of the best movie sword fights around, maintaining a lasting impression for the entry in Cruise’s catalog.

2 Edge Of Tomorrow


Based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill, Edge of Tomorrow follows Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), who finds himself drafted into humanity’s ongoing war against a seemingly unstoppable race of hostile aliens called Mimics. Cage is killed in combat, but wakes in a time loop, reliving the same battle day after day. Gradually, he realizes that if he teams up with the decorated war hero Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), he can exploit the time loop to defeat the Mimic army and save the human race. 

Returning to the science fiction realm, Edge of Tomorrow holds a fascinating spot in Tom Cruise’s career. Loosely based on the amazingly-titled Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill, the film put Tom Cruise in one of his most fantastic worlds yet, starring him as a hapless conscript in an alien war strapped into a suit of power armor with little choice. In a daring twist, the film was also a Groundhog’s Day-style time loop movie, complimenting the straightforward science fiction action with a puzzling mystery.

Despite critical praise, Edge of Tomorrow had a lukewarm domestic box office reception, making most of its money overseas. While the film has gone on to amass something of a cult following, it was far from the success a well-written science fiction action thriller with Cruise headlining should’ve been. Edge of Tomorrow made the interesting point that Cruise’s involvement in even a big-budget project isn’t an instant herald of success, even if the film in question does nothing overtly wrong. As powerful as Cruise’s star power is, it can’t win every battle.

1 Top Gun: Maverick


Top Gun: Maverick is the sequel to the 1986 original film starring Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a top-tier pilot in the Navy. Thirty years after the original film’s events, Maverick is asked to head up a section of the TOP GUN program to embark on a dangerous mission. Things become personal when the program includes the son of Maverick’s late friend, forcing him to confront his past.

Returning to the role of Captain Peter “Maverick” Mitchell after a whopping 36 years, there were some understandable doubts in Cruise’s ability to ignite the same amount of passion the first Top Gun had so long after what may have been considered the peak of his career. Luckily, Cruise swiftly disproved the notion of the first film’s fading legacy by releasing a smash hit with Top Gun: Maverick. One of the most successful 80s revivals of recent years, the film saw Maverick take a mentor position with a new class of Top Gun cadets.

Earning over one billion dollars, Top Gun: Maverick became Tom Cruise’s single most financially successful film, and for good reason. Critics and casual audiences alike heaped praise on Cruise’s steady returning performance as the loose cannon Maverick, somehow outdoing the first film in both of jaw-dropping visuals and palpable emotional drama. Earning Cruise an honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s safe to say that Top Gun: Maverick reigns supreme as the current peak of Tom Cruise‘s hall-of-fame career.


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