Last month in The L.A. Weekly, Amy Nicholson made a bold yet hard-to-refute claim: The Internet had unfairly killed our biggest movie star. It was 2005 and Tom Cruise had just been named by Premiere magazine the third greatest movie star of all time — of ALL TIME. He was making a hotly anticipated appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. There, in ecstasy to new girlfriend Katie Holmes, he jumped on the host’s couch. Except that isn’t quite what happened. The brief moment was taken out of context and sent viral in the infancy of YouTube.
The suddenly outspoken Scientology and ill-advised rails against psychotherapy that followed — those were fair game. (Well, maybe not a leaked video of him babbling at length about his religion.) But because of this much-debated if erroneous moment, Cruise would no longer be seen as merely a popular and even sometimes respected actor. He was the possibly unhinged guy who belonged to a cult. Any film he made that grossed equal the money of his prime-era work could only look like a comeback — or worse, a fluke.
But what this concentration on his personal life has done has been to detract from what actually matters — not the ephemeral and ultimately distasteful tabloid nonsense, but the quality of his work. Tom Cruise isn’t a hack but a dedicated (in fact, sometimes scarily dedicated) performer. And he’s versatile. Here are some of the kinds of things he does that few do as well:
‘Losin’ It’ (1983)
In his earliest days, Tom Cruise had appeared in the high profile films “The Outsiders” and “Taps.” But it was “Risky Business” that catapulted him to fame. He was an MBA-bound kid with freshly ironed shirts who nonetheless befriends a prostitute (Rebecca De Mornay). It wasn’t a typical teen sex comedy — like, say, “Losin’ It,” which had come out earlier that year and grouped a combed-hair Cruise with fellow horny bros John Stockwell and Jackie Earl Haley. If its bona fides don’t already seem impressive, it was also directed by a very pre-“L.A. Confidential” Curtis Hanson.
‘The Color of Money’ (1987)
Much of the early work of Tom Cruise is filled with a certain type: an over-confident upstart who has to be tamed, usually by an older mentor. He was a hotheaded cadet in Taps (1981), but he softened that into a charismatic firebrand for 1986’s “Top Gun.” Still, it’s his work opposite Paul Newman in Martin Scorsese’s 25-years-later sequel to “The Hustler” that most impresses — not only because this is Scorsese and Newman, but because Cruise’s pool shark is actually very close to being hissably arrogant. Still, it’s hard not to love him as he works a table to “Werewolves of London,” pausing to stroke his close cut for the line “And his hair was perfect.”
‘Rain Man’ (1988)
Cruise has a confidence and focus that can be scary; you can’t picture him drinking too much the night before a shoot or never not being “on.” Taken to his logical extreme, Cruise can be a real a—hole. And so he was in his first real drama — a road trip picture about autism where the actor playing mentally handicapped (Dustin Hoffman) walked off with all the acclaim. But it was always Cruise who owned the movie, giving the real performance as what is a terrible cliche: the workaholic who learns to love. But Cruise plays agitated so intensely and enjoyably that it might be his best work. Dustin who?
Okay, so “Rain Man” isn’t the extreme of Cruise’s jerkitude. That would be his electrifying, Oscar-nominated turn as misogynistic man’s man self-help guru T.J. Mackey in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ensemble epic “Magnolia. Actually, sorry, that isn’t it either: It’s his physically unrecognizable turn as a volcanic, combovered and pot-bellied movie exec in “Tropic Thunder.” He’s not the funniest/scariest profane monster in movies — that would be Peter Capaldi in “In the Loop.” But Cruise is probably the loudest.
It’s de rigueur for any big star to go evil, and Cruise is no different. He’s just better at it than most. As a silver fox hitman taking a cab (driven by Jamie Foxx) from job to job, he gently twists his usual steely, laser-focused style to the point where it’s alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) charismatic and menacing. But he’s not telegraphing his villainy. He’s tightly coiled, and you spend most of the film flailing as you try to locate the depths of his depravity. Usually he seems like an okay guy, as when he eagerly chats up an old jazz musician —and then puts a gun to his cranium and shoots.
‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989)
When Oliver Stone cast the star of “Cocktail” to play Vietnam War activist Ron Kovic, the world scoffed. But they were wrong: Cruise, who refused to be lumped in with the Brat Pack (including some of his “The Outsiders” co-stars), was a pro who was committed to playing a character who goes from moony teen to patriotic soldier to bitter paraplegic to political firebrand. It’s a lot of acting, and he nails every step.
‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996)
It’s weird to think it took till his mid 30s for Cruise to do a proper action film. (As Nicholson notes, “Top Gun” confines him to inside a plane.) And proper he did it: A very loose (some would say unfaithful) take on the spy show, it was directed by true auteur Brian De Palma, and features its star doing balletic wire work and leaping onto a bullet train. Oddly, this is the genre that has dominated his middle age years, though sometimes, as in the periodically delightful “Jack Reacher,” the fighting is sometimes done with words.
‘Jerry Maguire’ (1996)
1996 was Tom Cruise’s year: He did action and down-to-earth dramedy, and both were box office juggernauts. “Jerry Maguire” begins where most of the early Cruise films end: with the brat tamed and apologetic. But then what? As Cruise’s suddenly ethical sports agent flails about, an actor usually seen these days as inhuman was relatably, engagingly human — albeit still Tom Cruise. The guy’s still managing athletes and picking which hottie to bang, after all.
‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999)
One of the great joys in movies is watching someone as cocksure as Tom Cruise under pressure. The acclaim that Stanley Kubrick’s swan song received in its day tended to revolve around his then-wife Nicole Kidman, who’s indeed brilliant. But Cruise, playing a doctor freaked at his wife’s confessions about extramarital lust, has possibly never been funnier as he wanders about New York, visibly shaken yet trying to play it cool, and very badly fumbling at getting some revenge tail. An unpleasant drinking game would involve shots every time he sadly flashes his medical ID to try and prove his worth.
‘Vanilla Sky’ (2001)
Cruise can be bold with his film choices, and that includes films that question what makes a movie star, as well as what makes Tom Cruise, cultural product. Having already done a likeable twist on himself in “Jerry Maguire,” he reunited with its director, Cameron Crowe, to do a not-so-likeable version. A remake of the Spanish mind-bender “Open Your Eyes,” complete with its female lead, Penelope Cruz, it returns Cruise to the brash upstart roles of his youth, only to gruesomely disfigure him at the end of act one. Robbed of his looks and hopped up on drug-alcohol cocktails, he reveals an ugly, desperate, pathetic monster underneath. (“Knight and Day” also played with the idea of Cruise as a possible psychopath-superman.)
‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014)
The promotion has been virtually nonexistent and it’s already been trounced abroad — where Cruise allegedly remains a titan — by the likes of “Maleficent” and the new “X-Men.” But get this: This sci-fi actioner is the most thrilling and funniest film he’s made since “Minority Report,” and will probably wind up the summer’s finest super-sized entertainment. And Cruise is great in it: Nervous at first, then increasingly confident. In short, you watch as his character slowly becomes Tom Cruise.
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