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Best To Worst: Tom Cruise's Action Movies Ranked

Features
by The Playlist Staff
June 4, 2014 12:35 PM
23 Comments
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Every year, pretty much since the early '80s, we've been granted a cinematic occurrence so regular you can set your watch by it, and so reliable that it's oddly comforting — a new Tom Cruise movie. And 2014 is no different, with the Biggest Movie Star In The World's latest, "Edge of Tomorrow" hitting theaters this weekend. Our first-look reviewers were so split on it that we ran a point/counterpoint review of the Doug Liman movie, but since then a few more of us have seen it, and we’re overall pretty high on it. 

Of course, not all the titles over Cruise's long career are summer blockbusters, and not all of them feature him in a starring role. But if there's one type of film that he is most associated with, and that is most responsible for his world-conquering stardom, it's the action film with Cruise at its center, jumping out of buildings and repeatedly saving the world/the girl/democracy/freedom from the clutches of sinister men. "Mission: Impossible 5" is slated to be next year's entry into the canon, with "Jack Reacher 2," the more comedic "El Presidente," and Joseph Kosinski's "Go Like Hell" among many other mooted projects, all pencilled in further out. 

Cruise, however, is over 50 and we have to wonder if he's going to be able to keep this up forever. So far so good; "Edge of Tomorrow" sees him punched and kicked and shot and zapped and fried — hell, he dies like 400 times over — at an age when most men are starting to think seriously about taking up golf, but how much longer can the era of Cruise the badass action star last? We kind of take him for granted, but damned if we wouldn't miss him if he were gone. In this elegiac frame of mind, we take a look back over the action films that have brought the actor to this point, rating them from worst to best, from most disposable to most indispensable, because sometimes it feels like Cruise is such an omnipresent brand name that we forget that there's good reason why. Here, in ascending order, are twelve such reasons.

12.Mission: Impossible II
It was a pretty close contest between these final two films as to which would take the actual wooden spoon for last place, but, much as we loathe “Days of Thunder,” John Woo’s horrible second installment in the otherwise solid-to-inspired “Mission: Impossible” franchise just manages to pip it at the post in terms of pointlessly overblown vacuity. In fact the film is maybe most memorable now for the series of Ben Stiller riffs it inspired at the MTV movie awards where in various sketches he played Tom Crooze, Cruise’s fictional stand-in/stunt double, who keeps on offering not particularly useful advice to the real Cruise. (It’s saying something when an idea that Crooze suggests, whereby Ethan Hunt should pause mid-motorbike stunt, look to camera and say “This mission just got a whole lot more impossibler” seems like it might actually have been a perfectly natural inclusion in retrospect). The plot is silly, of course, something to do with a deadly virus and its antidote falling into the hands of Dougray Scott’s ex-IMF agent gone rogue, but that’s par for the course for the franchise. More detrimental to enjoyment is the terribly self-serious tone and the lack of anything remotely resembling emotional stakes throughout. Thandie Newton gets one good sequence early on as a sexy cat burglar type, but is quickly thereafter reduced to damsel in distress, and even the face-swapping hi-jinks so enjoyable in the first film are used here at puzzling junctures like it’s a narrative device the writers have to include for contractual purposes but can’t think of anything very clever to do with. All could maybe be forgiven if Woo’s direction was a little more measured, a little wittier, a little more ironic, but no, this is 100% Bon Jovi video bombast all the way, with kinetic editing, helicopter shots and swelling music all being used, often simultaneously, to plug the gaps in storytelling or to provide noisy cover for the fact that we’re watching something as inherently boring as, for instance, Newton standing, looking sad and wan, and waiting.
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? If the film has one redeeming sequence, it’s the pre-credits scene where Hunt, doing a little free solo climbing while on holiday in Utah, is contacted by IMF with news of the mission he may choose to accept. Here Woo’s OTT style is reeled in and anchored by some truly impressive physical work from Cruise (who tore a shoulder ligament performing the famous leap from one rock face to another). There’s a simplicity to the sequence, as well as the basic thrill of seeing Cruise do a lot of the work himself, that almost saves the movie from the bottom spot, except that it then highlights just how gimmicky and absurd the whole rest of the film is.

11. “Days of Thunder
In the pantheon of “Top Gun” rip-offs, there’s none so base and cynical as “Days of Thunder” which had the gall to reunite director Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise with 100% of the plot from the original, merely transposing it to the more earth-bound world of Nascar racing in the hopes that we wouldn’t recognize we were being sold exactly the same package all over again. Only this time involved with a sport that no one gives a hoot about anyway. Featuring the number one stupidest character name ever, Cruise’s Cole Trickle is a bad-boy racecar driver who we’re supposed to get invested in despite being given no reason to (his introduction, riding to the track on a motorbike while screechy rock plays is supposedly all the back story we need). Cruise also fails to spark off Nicole Kidman (who gets exactly one good speech) in a romance subplot which is surprisingly chemistry-free, given that they'd, you know, get married thereafter. In fact the film is such a dull rehash of beats and notes hit so much better in “Top Gun” that it’s kind of impossible not to wish you were watching “Top Gun” instead. Brief flares of interest are occasionally thrown up by the reliable Robert Duvall as Trickle’s crusty but thawing head engineer/crew chief Harry, but even he can’t overcome the plodding dullness of the script, while seeing John C. Reilly play one of the pit crew is kinda fun when you consider how, many years later, he’d be sending up this very film in the also-not-very-good “Talladega Nights.” Some of the driving and crash footage is well done, though again, it can’t help but feel less exhilarating than “Top Gun” being as it’s, you know, road-based and therefore missing a whole extra axis of action that we get with planes, and story elements, like the enemy-who-turns-into-a-friend, or the doing-it-for-my-sick/dead buddy, or the gotta-conquer-my-self-doubt arc all feel tired to the point of exhaustion already, just four years after “Top Gun.”
What Does Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? Nothing, sadly, though he does briefly leave the ground while flipping over during a crash. You could also say he launched himself right off the career credibility high point of his Oscar nomination for “Born on the Fourth of July” and plummeted parachute-less to the ground with this leaden retread, but only if you were stretching a point.

10. "Knight & Day" (2010)
The action comedy is a genre that's always tough to get right: perhaps shown by the way that Cruise has tended to be reluctant to get involved with the sub-genre — even on this action-heavy list, there's not a lot of (intentional) laughs to be had. His aversion is probably backed up by James Mangold's "Knight & Day," a bullet-riddled rom-com co-starring Cameron Diaz that, a decade earlier, probably would have been a smash, but circa 2010 massively underperformed after debuting to pretty poor reviews. Diaz plays June, an ordinary woman who encounters a charming stranger (Cruise) on a plane, only for him to be attacked by everyone else on board. It turns out he's a secret agent, on the run from the CIA after allegedly having a break with reality, but who is actually trying to save an inventor (Paul Dano) who's invented a perpetual battery. At least we think that's what's going on. The script famously amassed well over a dozen writers over years in development (and almost as many titles, "Knight & Day" arguably being the worst of them), and it shows, as the plot would be easily dismissed as utter nonsense, except you sense that no one involved actually cares that much about it. It's meant to be the frame for a genre-blending romance, but this sort of thing needs to feel effortless to work, and for the most part, you can sense the flop sweat coming off everyone, from the uninspired, CGI-crippled action sequences to the vacuum of chemistry between the leads. Mangold does do some interesting structural stuff in terms of leaping from location to location, and there's some intrigue on a meta level, given the possibly unhinged nature of Cruise's character, which seems to be a conscious reference to his couch-jumping public persona at the time. He's certainly game (when is he not?), but there's little to recommend of the film beyond his sheer commitment to the role.
What Does Tom Cruise Jump Off And How High Is It? For the most part, Cruise's movement is horizontal rather than vertical here, with action sequences on planes, a freeway, a train and a motorbike. There's some light building-jumping, though, and he leaps onto a couple of moving cars during the freeway chase. Oh, and off a boat, at one point, which might be a first in the Cruise canon.

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23 Comments

  • betty rose | July 10, 2014 5:21 AMReply

    i really enjoy going on single holidays. I have great fun and i have met so many new and nice friends. we all have the same interests and we all do what we want when on vacation but it's also nice to meet up.

  • Jimbo | June 17, 2014 2:31 PMReply

    Without 'Collateral' this list has no credibility. Not to mention 'Last Samurai' was in the top half over 'Oblivion'. Smh.

  • todd | June 14, 2014 7:11 PMReply

    The best part of Minority Report is the story, but the whole movie is easy to love. And Top Gun at # 1 made me LOL.

  • Stephen M | June 13, 2014 3:16 AMReply

    I miss the days when guys could have a bromance or play volleyball shirtless without it being called "homoerotic". Has it occurred to anyone that those scenes might just have been for the ladies?

  • Sagi | June 5, 2014 8:09 AMReply

    'Collateral' is the best thing Cruise ever did.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 4, 2014 9:52 PMReply

    "Days of Thunder" is my SHIT. How dare you! lol Seriously, though, I've had it on DVD since college. It just speaks to me.

  • David | June 12, 2014 2:54 AM

    "It speaks to me." I love that! Ha! It's unintentionally hilarious, but the car racing scenes are pretty awesome. Even though the whole film is ridiculous, it's hard to hate on it. It's a blast. lol

  • Emperor Zerg Rush | June 4, 2014 6:07 PMReply

    Too much appreciation for War of the Worlds. I would've shifted it lower, wedged between Days of Thunder and Knight & Day. Leaving out at least one film in the Mission: Impossible series from the list would've been a better choice. The second film is such an unsightly pockmark on an otherwise entertaining series that it would be best forgotten entirely.

  • JK1193 | June 4, 2014 5:32 PMReply

    Favorites:
    Legend (not much stuntwork, but one of the first ones that Cruise did a lot of his own stunts, even the underwater work where he's looking for the ring)
    Minority Report
    The Last Samurai
    War of the Worlds
    Mission III/IV (loved the first two, but nothing compared to the awesomeness of the recent ones)
    Oblivion (one of the most underrated films from last year, in my opinion)

  • lin | June 4, 2014 5:02 PMReply

    Rock of Ages. He was great. Shows his acting. I don't have any idea how he did it without laughing. Amazing

  • Steve Glansberg | June 4, 2014 4:19 PMReply

    Whichever Playlist writer is in the dungeon has my sympathy. Top Gun is goofy as all get out. Nostalgia must be blinding the rest of Playlist office.

  • Steve Glansberg | June 4, 2014 4:19 PMReply

    Whichever Playlist writer is in the dungeon has my sympathy. Top Gun is goofy as all get out. Nostalgia must be blinding the rest of Playlist office.

  • cirkusfolk | June 4, 2014 4:07 PMReply

    Where would Edge of Tomorrow fit in? Why not add grades to each film? Should've chosen running as the gag instead of jumping...runs in every film almost. My rank:
    1. Top Gun (no question)
    2. Mission Impossible
    3. Days of Thunder
    4. Last Samurai
    5. Oblivion
    6. Minority Report
    7. MI4
    8. MI3
    9. MI2
    10. Jack Reacher
    11. War of Worlds
    12. Knight and Day (no question)

    Tom Cruise is my favorite actor but sadly most of these films suck. I only own the top five of my list and 9 out of 12 of these films come from 2000 on instead of his prime 80s and 90s films.

  • Peter | June 4, 2014 3:36 PMReply

    Too bad Vanilla Sky isn't an action movie, seeing as how he jumps off of a building into another reality.

    Classic Cruise.

  • Ignacio | June 4, 2014 2:30 PMReply

    Knight and Day is AWESOME, top notch comedic timing, great chemistry between the leads. It just works, is non-stop action, and lots of laughs.

  • james | June 4, 2014 2:24 PMReply

    how is collateral is not an action film?

  • Ignacio | June 4, 2014 2:36 PM

    Maybe it can be considered a crime thriller more than an action film. Except for the nightclub scene where cruise goes on terminator mode. That's the bomb.

  • Flop Gun | June 4, 2014 1:50 PMReply

    Top Gun is seriously bad movie. I don't understand why it's considered some kind of classic. Maybe it was a hit in the 80's but have you recently watched it?

  • Pig Bodine | June 4, 2014 1:01 PMReply

    If the headline is "best to worst" and the intro touts the films run "in descending order," shouldn't this list run from favorite to least favorite?

  • Pig Bodine | June 6, 2014 2:15 PM

    Dear ZZZZ: Agreed it sounds weird but it was confusing to see "best to worst" when the list started with Mission Impossible 2. And apparently they agreed because they changed it. Also die.

  • ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ | June 4, 2014 2:46 PM

    Worst to Best sounds weird. Have a Diet Tab and relax.

  • Rod | June 4, 2014 1:53 PM

    stop it. you're just going to give the writers here a headache with your logic.

  • DUDDi | June 4, 2014 12:44 PMReply

    Minority Report is the best movie on this list, followed by MI: Ghost Protocol...Top Gun should be like nr. 6 or 7. If the article was about an iconic movie then yes, Top Gun should have had this spot.

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