A Guide to Tom Cruise's Genre Movie Acting: The Next Best Thing to Nic Cage

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Tom Cruise is coming back! He's starring in a fourth Mission Impossible movie this weekend, and he's also set to star in two upcoming science fiction films: Joseph Kosinski's Horizons and the movie version of the Japanese alien-fighting novel All You Need Is Kill.

Many people are cringing at the thought of a Cruise comeback — but his genre movies are a major guilty pleasure for us. And a big reason for that is because his performances in many science fiction and fantasy movies are right up there with Nicolas Cage or Arnie. Here's a rundown of Tom Cruise's genre movies, and how he totally triumphed as an actor in all of them.


Legend (1985)
Ridley Scott's one and only foray into epic fantasy. Cruise plays Jack o' the Green, a young fairy lad who's in love with a human girl and teaches her how to speak the language of the birds and stuff. But after he lets her touch a unicorn, it all goes to hell.
Tom's acting challenge: Tom has to say lines like, "Sweeter than bee pollen in a summer wind." He has to leap around in a weird muu muu, covered with a chain-mail wrap, that's basically a never-ending series of upskirts. He has to rescue the magical folk from being baked into pies and stuff. He has to act while covered with glitter and surrounded with bubbles, in several scenes. Most of his costars look like Keebler Elves.
How Tom overcomes: Luckily, Tom has really fantastic hair on his side — that wig, or whatever it is, expresses how Tom feels better than Tom ever could, with the way it flies around. (Unlike a similar 'do in the second Mission Impossible, see below.) Also, it's probably not hard for Cruise to look baffled and overwhelmed as he squats in his little skirt, surrounded by fairies and elves and tries to parse plot points about forbidden unicorns. He looks like he's been hit in the head with a Vorpal two-by-four a lot of the time, and it sort of works with his character.

Top Gun (1986)
Not really science fiction or fantasy, but it is supremely focused on all the military hardware and pew-pew-pew. If the planes were just a bit more high tech, or they were fighting aliens, this could be an Emmerich classic. Cruise plays "Maverick," the most badass pilot in the fighter jet school, mastering a billion dollars worth of airplane with the same brashness that he woos women with.
Tom's acting challenge: He has to emote in his underwear, in a room full of similarly nearly-naked men, and bring the full-on mostly-naked brooding. He has to be a "big stud" in a bomber jacket. He has to learn the value of teamwork and Ultimate Bromance. After playing a boy in several movies, he has to be a Man. He has to — spoiler alert — mourn the death of Goose, his good buddy.
How Tom overcomes: This is the movie that sees the birth of the Tom Cruise Swagger, which serves him so well in so many of his movies afterwards. This is also the first film in which he masters the disturbing trick of making one of his eyes way bigger than the other, making his face look lopsided and deranged. He sort of bugs out one eye and squints the other, and it can convey everything from grief to determination to anger. And he also benefits tremendously from getting to wear giant sunglasses in some of his most intense scenes.

Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)
The adaptation of Anne Rice's classic vampire novel stars Cruise as Lestat, the enigmatic libertine vampire who bonds homoerotically with a newly turned vampire, Louis.
Tom's acting challenge: He has to be foppish and mysterious and sexy and glamorous and dazzling. He has to be kind of a rockstar and kind of a bastard and a total sexy beast. Many people would have said that Tom Cruise was all wrong for Lestat — including Anne Rice herself — and it's up to Tom to prove all the doubters wrong.
How Tom overcomes: Umm... well, he invents a new kind of accent, that's sort of British by way of Pawtucket. Or something. I can't really pin down what accent Cruise is trying to do in this movie. When he gets upset, he sounds sort of like Miss Piggy. In his quest to seem mannered and vampiric, he transforms the Tom Cruise Swagger into something more akin to a case of severe intestinal cramps.

Mission: Impossible (1996)
Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, a cocky sumbitch who deep down only cares about getting the job done. He gets wrongly accused of being a traitor, and spends a lot of the movie freaking out about being falsely accused, doing spectacular wirework, and trying to outwit the real traitor.
Tom's acting challenge: He has to basically be James Bond, with a bit more of an American swagger, and carry the whole movie. He has to pretend to be making out with Kristin Scott Thomas while actually punching the wall next to her with frustration. He has to say fancy dialogue like, "Boot up the disk, and anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes you'll have Virginia farmboys hopping around you like jackrabbits." And "What did they used to call you? The Net Ranger? Phineas Phreak? The only man alive who ever actually hacked NATO ghost com. You don't know what you're missing. This is the Mount Everest of hacks."
How Tom overcomes: He brings the full on mania, letting out the Beast, and doing things with his mismatched eyes that would leave most actors with eyestrain. He actually does carry the movie, putting total conviction into the million different "spy vs. spy" scenes, basically doing his Top Gun character with more suaveness.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)
The John Woo-directed sequel sees Ethan Hunt having to work with a sexy thief (Thandie Newton) to steal a super-virus that will kill everybody on Earth otherwise. Hunt is up against a fellow IMF agent gone bad, who impersonates him and outwits him and stuff.
Tom's acting challenge: For one thing, he's been saddled with this insane hairstyle which keeps flopping over and covering the top half of his face during key action scenes. He's bang-blinded. For another, he has to win the trust of Thandie Newton, with whom he has almost no chemistry whatsoever. And finally, he has to deliver some weirdly stilted dialogue, including shouting at Newton, "You — who have no conscience?!"
How Tom overcomes: As the other IMF agent impersonating Hunt, Cruise ramps up his trademark eye-bulge-and-squint maneuver to a million. He's superdeformed, and super creepy. He just sort of works through the bang problem, using the John Woo school of physical acting. And he doesn't really do much to hide how bored he is with all of the talky scenes.

Vanilla Sky (2001)
Cruise is portraying a complex mosaic of WTFery, as David, a super-handsome, dickish magazine publisher who mistreats women, and then as a horribly scarred version of David who's wearing a latex mask. And then finally, as the regular David who's freaking out and having quasi-bad acid trip moments.
Tom's acting challenge: He has to integrate all these versions of the character. He has to come up with an appropriate response to Cameron Diaz saying, "I swallowed your cum" while crashing a car. He has to do a Phantom of the Opera in a weird white mime mask, shouting things like "THERE WAS NO MURDER."
How Tom overcomes: Playing the swaggering rich guy is no challenge — but to do the Phantom of the Opera bit, Tom reaches for a bit of his Rain Man co-star's halting cadence, making the whole thing into a bit of a Countdown to Wapner. He also embraces the "Mime" thing, doing lots of acrobatics and zany dance moves in his mask. Most of all, Cruise channels the deep existential dread of fearing that Reality is Broken, by opening his mouth really wide and making his eyes go slightly cross-eyed. He represents the terrified drowning man inside all of us!

Minority Report (2002)
It's a Philip K. Dick adaptation, directed by Stephen Spielberg, so that's a pretty great pedigree right there. Cruise plays Anderton, a member of the Precrime division in a future D.C. where psychics can predict crimes before they happen, and thus murders can be prevented. When Cruise is accused of a future murder, he has to go on the run.
Tom's acting challenge: He's pretty harrowed in this film, especially the second half. He has to wear bandages over his eyes, look like he's had terrible things done to him, and generally seem weirded out and grief-stricken over his missing son. Spielberg demands a lot of heavy lifting out of Tom on this one.
How Tom overcomes: He brings a bit of weight to some of the scenes of Anderton confronting his future guilt and shepherding his stolen precog around. The lopsided Cruise eyes become more of a constant squint (when he isn't wearing bandages) and the shiny black contact lenses make him look more strange and a bit more demented. And somehow, he's found a way to make one vein on his forehead pop out when he's really upset about something. All in all, it's the perfect "paranoid hero" performance, and one of his best.

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)
He has a cameo playing himself playing the famous Austin Powers. Similar to his weird cameo in Tropic Thunder, this is Cruise showing that he can make fun of himself, or at least be kind of zany on occasion.
Tom's acting challenge: Mostly just to be incongruous, as you wonder what on Earth he and all these other A-listers are doing in this film.
How Tom overcomes: To his credit, Cruise totally commits to doing a pastiche of Mike Myers' pastiche of British spy movies, even bringing back his Interview With The Vampire accent... sort of.

War of the Worlds (2005)
A second Spielberg project, this time based on a classic H.G. Wells novel.... with a Spielbergian father-son twist. Cruise plays a man who's estranged from his kids after a messy divorce, but then he has to protect them after aliens invade and start shooting up the place.
Tom's acting challenge: He's playing a character who's kind of a dick, without any of the over-achieverness of his previous dickish characters in movies like Top Gun. He's kind of a bad father, who just wants to get dump his kids on their mother, and he doesn't do communication or whatever all that well. We have to believe in his redemption and stuff.
How Tom overcomes: It's sort of a re-run of his performance from Minority Report, only with more boiling anger and guilt instead of all that grief. He squints a lot — by this point in his career, squinting has pretty much replaced the lopsided eye trick. And he turns out to have decent chemistry with Dakota Fanning, who's so adorable and wise that you can just believe she'll melt his heart the way she does ours. The scene where he sings to her (at left) is actually pretty moving. Meanwhile, he and Goku shout at each other a lot.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)
This time it's personal! Ethan Hunt is back, but now he's got a serious main squeeze, Julia, who's in Permanent Hostage Mode. Plus Ethan has to watch Felicity (from J.J. Abrams' first TV show) die in a slow-mo sequence that's very reminiscent of the opening minutes of Star Trek. And he's apparently helpless to save his girlfriend too, at the hands of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Tom's acting challenge: He has to freak out, a lot. And be helpless, while trying to overcome a series of no-win situations. He has to make us believe in the great love of Ethan Hunt's life, and his horrible conflict between love and duty. He needs to seem agonized and yet still a man of action. He has to impersonate a Catholic priest.
How Tom overcomes: He looks sort of constipated a lot of the time. He bites his lip and does things with his forehead that are hard to describe using words. He's lucky that he gets to act opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman, who automatically applies a +10 multiplier to the acting mojo of anybody you put him in a scene with. Cruise is lit with a lot of bright yellow light, making him look sickly in some key scenes. Mostly, though, Cruise seems like he'd rather just be doing the usual Ethan Hunt swagger.

Knight and Day (2010)
Cruise's first attempt at a comeback, a comedy spy-fi movie co-starring Vanilla Sky's Cameron Diaz. This time, though, she doesn't talk about swallowing his cum. Instead, she plays a car restorer who gets mixed up with Cruise's superspy in some spy shit.
Tom's acting challenge: Do a spy romcom, in which he basically dicks Cameron Diaz around for two hours and condescends to her over and over, without making us want to reach through the screen and throttle him.
How Tom overcomes: Basically, it's like a movie-length version of Cruise's Austin Powers spoof-within-a-spoof, except with more dickery. He oscillates between Robo Cruise, looking totally bored with all this crap, and a kind of Jerry Maguire-y assholishness.