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While the term "movie star" may feel somewhat vague, even antiquated, in this day and age, perhaps no one has continued to embody it — and embrace it — more than Tom Cruise.
The actor has maintained his title as Hollywood's most enduring leading man over the course of four decades, as he's evolved from '80s hotshot to dramatic lead to his current role as intrepid, death-defying action hero — a not-so-stunning trajectory for someone like Cruise even as he approaches 60.
As he dons his aviators, hops into Top Gun: Maverick's fighter jet, and reprises the role that first propelled him to global megastardom, it's never been a better time to take a look back at some of the highs and lows in his career. From his surprising turn as the vampire Lestat to his many action roles, below is a ranking of several Tom Cruise films based on letter grades issued by EW critics at the time of their release.
<i>Magnolia</i> (1999): A
"It's with Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, a slick televangelist of penis power, that the filmmaker scores his biggest success, as the actor exorcises the uptight fastidiousness of Eyes Wide Shut. Preening and trash-talking, Cruise — whose erotic charms have always been displayed wrapped in cellophane — blossoms into a man of potency. Like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, this cautiously packaged movie star is liberated by risky business. Asking for and granting forgiveness in modern life is also risky business, but oh, this overblown, exotic bloom of a movie says, how beautiful it can be." —Lisa Schwarzbaum
<i>Jerry Maguire</i> (1996): A-
"To be or not to be — a human being, that is. That's the question that courses through nearly every scene of Jerry Maguire. America's favorite star is still on smiling Cruise control, but now he finesses it into a dance. He seduces — then steps back; he turns on the charm — then lets it slide into pools of doubt. It's Cruise's deftest performance yet as a slickster grasping for the decency in himself." —Owen Gleiberman
<i>War of the Worlds</i> (2005): A-
"There are elements of Wells' novel in the movie," Spielberg explains. "We have the tripods. We have the red weed growing all over. But I never thought of doing it as a period piece at the turn of the century. It just wasn't an interesting way to go. I just can't stand the styles of that time."
Cruise, on the other hand, probably would have worn a tutu and Mouseketeer ears to make this picture happen. "The minute I read the script, I knew I had to do it," he says. "It's not just a movie about aliens. It's a story…about a dad and his kids and their struggle to survive. It's really a very small, emotional movie." —EW Staff
<i>A Few Good Men</i> (1992): A-
Since we're seeing the action through Kaffee's eyes — through the hair-trigger shifts in his legal strategy — the scene depends on our belief in his nimble intellectual powers. We have to buy the fact that he can outmanipulate a master manipulation.
And damned if Cruise doesn't bring it off. In A Few Good Men, this young superstar performs with his usual brashness (he tosses of his lines like guitar riffs), only now it's laced with a hurtling mental agility. His performance has rhythm and verve. By the end of the movie, we're convinced that Kaffee is at once a classic Cruise hotshot and a great lawyer, and that the two are inseparable." —Owen Gleiberman
<i>Top Gun: Maverick</i> (2022): B+
"Teller and Powell are breezily appealing, actors at the apex of their youth and beauty, though the movie still belongs in almost every scene to Cruise. At this point in his career, he's not really playing characters so much as variations on a theme — the theme being, perhaps, The Last Movie Star. And in the air up there, he stands alone." —Leah Greenblatt
<i>Collateral</i> (2004): B+
"Tom Cruise is a baaaad man. At least he plays one in Michael Mann's new movie. Grizzled and scarred, Cruise is a contract killer on the hunt in L.A. Mann, who has a history of challenging actors with unexpected roles — Russell Crowe in The Insider, Will Smith in Ali — loved the idea of Cruise indulging his blacker side. 'He brings so much aggression and charged energy to this character and a kind of dark, wonderful humor to it,' says the director." —EW Staff
<i>Edge of Tomorrow</i> (2014): B+
"While Cruise sells the déjà vu contraption with his usual single-minded determination, it's Blunt who emerges as the who-knew wild card. We tend to think that stars of Cruise's magnitude are either unwilling or constitutionally unable to let their female costars share the glow. But Blunt is given the chance to shine as the bare-knuckle badass Rita. And she takes to the role like the second coming of Ripley. She may need Cruise's time-bending gifts, but he needs her guts and smarts more. In a way, Edge of Tomorrow ends up being a deliciously subversive kind of blockbuster." —Chris Nashawaty
<i>The Firm</i> (1993): B
"No one is going to confuse The Firm with art, but its high cholesterol virtues a story that keeps you guessing, a dozen meaty character turns-are enough to send you home sated. It helps if, like me, you're not ashamed to admit you enjoy Tom Cruise's gliding-on-air bravado. At this point, there probably isn't much he can do to win over his detractors, but in The Firm, Cruise has just the quality that's called for: the sneaky-minded agility of a true conspiracy-buster." —Owen Gleiberman
<i>Mission: Impossible</i> (1996): B
"With Cruise front and center, Mission: Impossible comes close to being a de facto James Bond thriller, yet without the romance of Bond. Cruise, winning as he can be, is too boyish for the hardened superagent he's supposed to be playing. As the 'love interest,' Emmanuelle Beart, in a role that seems to have been left on the cutting-room floor, is upstaged by her own lips. For all its trickery and bravura, Mission: Impossible remains a quizzical, impersonal toy." —Owen Gleiberman
<i>Minority Report</i> (2002): B
"Anderton, an alloy of human parts and superhuman willpower, is meant to be most appealing when he exposes his grief. But watching the star run his machinery so energetically for his director, there's something even more fascinating, weirdly so, about the creative instinct that pushes an inscrutable actor like Tom Cruise to follow Vanilla Sky with another indictment of his own closed, pretty face in the service of a particular director's personal vision." —Lisa Schwarzbaum
<i>The Last Samurai</i> (2003): B
"The star of Edward Zwick's rousing, smoothly assembled historical fantasia is no samurai, nor a Civil War captain either, no matter how studiously the actor has applied himself to mastering the arcane techniques of martial arts. The galactic opposite of Russell Crowe (a huge star who eclipses his public persona to become each character), Cruise turns Capt. Nathan Algren into an approximation, a model, an avatar of a Western-born, Eastern-trained warrior. In a moment of loudly telegraphed cultural adjustment, Algren — who has been hired to teach Japanese conscripts how to fight in the "modern" style, with impersonal Western weapons and conventional battle plans — exchanges his dirty, showy officer's uniform for a clean, simple Japanese robe, and for the first time comprehends the elegant humility of padding barefoot in a spotless house. And an audience's first, spontaneous response is: Doesn't Tom Cruise look handsome in a long dress!" —Lisa Schwarzbaum
<i>Valkyrie</i> (2008): B
"Singer has assembled a top-notch international cast — with Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, and Eddie Izzard among the British invasion — and given them leave to speak their lines with the accents they brought from home. And in the middle, standing straight as a Top Gun ace, is Tom Cruise, that quintessentially self-constructed American movie star, speaking in quintessential American tones as he declares, 'We have to kill Hitler.' Cue the trumpets." —Lisa Schwarzbaum
<i>The Mummy</i> (2017): B-
"It all feels a little derivative and unnecessary and like it was written by committee (which a quick scan of its lengthy script credits confirms). Cruise turns out to be the film's secret weapon. He may not be totally comfortable selling some of the film's jokier moments, but at 54, he's a seasoned pro at selling narrative silliness with a straight face, a clenched jaw, and a superhuman sense of commitment. I'm not sure that this aimless, lukewarm, but occasionally rollicking take on The Mummy is how the studio dreamed that its Dark Universe would kick off. But it's just good enough to keep you curious about what comes next." —Chris Nashawaty
<i>Jack Reacher</i> (2012): C+
"That Cruise fails to make a case for Reacher's allure, though, has less to do with physical dissonance than it does with the film's inability — stupefying inability, really — to otherwise make a case for the character's originality in a movie so choked with visual clichés and dreadfully moldy dialogue. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (who previously worked with Cruise on Valkyrie), Jack Reacher stumbles around looking for a unifying narrative tone, while the star soldiers on, offering up his generic action-hero stance of calm, opaque concentration." —Lisa Schwarzbaum
<i>Eyes Wide Shut</i> (1999): C
"Essentially, it's Cruise's movie (Kidman, after the ravishing fury of her monologue, recedes into the background), and the actor seems to express everything but desire. As William, he's curious, urgent, yet never truly possessed, and it hardly helps that the character has to keep returning, in torment, to his banal fantasy vision of his wife's infidelity, or that he's bounced, like a boyish Candide, through one unfathomable encounter after the next. Unlike, say, Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, William may be tempted, but he never makes it past voyeurism. He's too guilty to act." —Owen Gleiberman
<i>Interview With the Vampire</i> (1994): C-
"As a character, Louis stays tangled up in his own gloomy remorse (forget the casket — he might as well be living in a confessional booth), and watching Pitt, about all we register is his stony simian stare: the thick lips and zombie eyes, the look of vague dyspepsia that could be anything from fear to constipation. Cruise does much better. Suggesting at moments a sleeker Tiny Tim, he gives an engaging star performance, caressing his words with theatrical delectation, playing Lestat as a high-camp fop who laughs with caustic delight at his own appetites. If there's a limitation to Cruise, it's that, beneath the mottled-flesh makeup, he doesn't exactly seethe with sensuality. His very competence — and eagerness — in this role comes off as an admirable stretch, but he hasn't endowed Lestat with the dark fillips of perversity that might have made the character memorable." —Owen Gleiberman
<i>Days of Thunder</i> (1990): C-
"There's nothing particular about Cruise's character, or Kidman's or Duvall's. They're mannequins, too false to be archetypes. Our emotional responses are cued by the editing and music rather than by anything the characters do. The relationships of the men and women in Red Line, on the other hand — insecure Mike and flighty Gaby (Marianna Hill), egotistical Ned (John Robert Crawford), and clear-eyed Julie (Laura Devon) — have a wit and maturity that can startle '90s audiences with their perception and that make Days of Thunder's hubba-hubba look like the prattle of children." —Ty Burr
<i>Vanilla Sky</i> (2001): D+
"Whatever goes wrong in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, though (and not a lot goes right), the film does at least have the courage to ask the question, What are you left with when you take away Tom Cruise's face? The answer, I'm afraid, is not very much. Cruise has always been at his worst when he has to express the inner anguish of his being. In Vanilla Sky, the cataclysmic car crash that leaves his smug-grinned yuppie peacock (this time, he's a Maxim-style magazine publisher) scarred and embittered is meant to be a cosmic comeuppance for his life of selfish hedonism. But the sight of Cruise looking like Jerry Maguire playing the Phantom of the Opera is creepy in all the wrong ways. Instead of provoking sympathy, the ugly-duckling nightmare only heightens our awareness of Cruise's vanity." —Owen Gleiberman