We need to make something clear before we talk about bad Tom Cruise movies: We love Tom Cruise. It’s not just that we’ve been watching him for most of our life. It’s that we think he’s a great movie star, as well as a great actor. His name means quality control. When he does a film, it means that he thinks this is a strong, entertaining movie with which his name, his brand should be associated. That doesn’t always mean the films themselves turn out great, but even if you don’t enjoy certain Tom Cruise titles, you have to admit that they were all of them made with the best intentions: He wanted to entertain you.
Then there’s “The Mummy.” It’s getting terrible reviews, and we’d say deservedly. Worst of all, it wastes Tom Cruise. You can still see that Cruise himself had good intentions, though: He wanted to bring back the classic monster movie! And he even plays with his cocksure badass image, by making his hero more of an anti-hero, not always to be liked.
Still, it’s not the nadir of Tom Cruise cinema. It’s close, though. Here are our picks for the worst of Cruise — though even with these, he meant well.
Set in an alternate universe in which people go to bars not to drink but to watch hotshot bartenders take forever to make their cocktail, this ridiculous drama was Cruise’s first dog after “Top Gun” made him a newly-minted super-superstar. It was also the ninth highest-grossing movie of that year, because that’s how big he was in 1988. If Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money,” is the height of all the movies in which an older pro schools the cocksure young Cruise in how to become a better person, this is like the crappy, cheapie Italian ripoff. But you know what? Cruise is very good in it! He believes in the dopey material; he tries to make it better by ignoring its crapulence. He even nails all those inane, time-wasting bartending moves. In any case, six months after “Cocktail,” at least we got “Rain Man.”
‘Days of Thunder’ (1990)
The year after his first Oscar-nomination (for Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July”), Cruise went back into dumb movie star mode for what seemed like a surefire bet: He reunited with “Top Gun” director Tony Scott for a movie that would do for racecar drivers what that film did for cocky military pilots. It did not do that. It was lazy and cynical — except for, again, Cruise’s reliably committed performance. He’s one of the only good things in a movie so bad that even Nicole Kidman, in her Hollywood debut, seems like a bland rent-a-babe. Which we soon found out she most definitely was not.
‘Far and Away’ (1992)
The very early ’90s were not a good time for Cruise. Before “A Few Good Men,” he released two of his worst films back-to-back. At least the second one, “Far and Away,” is a noble failure. It’s a throwback epic spectacular, one of the too few films from the era filmed in 65mm, with Cruise and Kidman playing Irish immigrants who have a hell of a time in late 19th century America. It was also made by Ron Howard, who specializes in the most vanilla dramas possible, and is entirely wrong for a movie meant to peel back the dark sides of the American dream. (Spielberg — who excels at pushing his sentimental streak against grim material, as witness “Schindler’s List,” “The Color Purple” and especially “Empire of the Sun” — would have nailed it.) Cruise learned a valuable lesson, though: Don’t do accents.
‘Mission: Impossible 2’ (2000)
The “Mission: Impossible” franchise is one of the weirdest and unique out there — a series that changes directors and direction with each installment, anchored only by its main star (and sometimes Ving Rhames), plus fuzzy memories of the old show, to which it’s barely faithful. Cruise has roped in filmmakers as diverse as Brian De Palma, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie. But you can’t win ’em all. He made a big mistake hiring John Woo to do the honors on the second, as Woo does balletic violence, not tech precision. Brilliant as Woo is, he’s totally lost in a movie about break-ins and computers and people ripping off masks to reveal they weren’t who they seemed to be. Even Cruise is upstaged by his admittedly excellent long locks.
‘Lions for Lambs’ (2007)
Lest you think him an egomaniac, Cruise will — occasionally! — agree to a supporting turn. Of course, even when he’s not top-billed, he tends to steal the movie anyway. That’s what happened with “Magnolia,” what happened with “Tropic Thunder.” And it’s what happened with arguably the worst movie he’s ever been involved with, if also the one with the most noble intentions. It’s Robert Redford’s response to the Iraq War, consisting of nothing but three groups of people in rooms talking to each other about it. At least Cruise is great in it. He’s an oily Republican Senator lying through a Cheshire grin to a reporter played by Meryl Streep (atypically awful). It’s a one-note role, but he nails it out of the park with the swagger of an actual Republican politician.
Not on this list because we can’t bring ourselves to watch them: “Endless Love,” “The Last Samurai” and “Rock of Ages”
Not on this list because they’re actually good or even great: We have a huge soft spot for Ridley Scott’s ludicrously over-cooked and barely coherent fantasy “Legend,” released in 1985, when Cruise was still the up-and-comer from “Risky Business.” There really is no other movie like it, for good and ill. “Vanilla Sky” is a total shambles — but it’s Cameron Crowe’s total shambles, his own very, very, very personal version of a dumb Hollywood remake (of the Spanish mindfuck “Abre Los Ojos”). And it’s maybe the most interesting movie about Tom Cruise: the one where he’s a cocky playboy who loses his most valuable asset: his face. And do people still hate “Eyes Wide Shut”? Has it finally been reclaimed as yet another Stanley Kubrick masterpiece for which people of the era in which it was released were not ready? Because that’s never happened before.