How Tom Cruise Rebranded Himself Into Our Most Reliable Action Hero

As always, Tom Cruise is kicking, shooting, and sprinting his way to a local Cineplex near you. This year, his one-man thrill ride takes place in The Mummy, the first of Universal's recently announced Dark Universe that puts Cruise at the crux of another franchise operation, asking him to corral the bad guys, monsters and spirits to save humanity once again. It might sound more exhausting if Cruise looked it. But take a glance at Cruise's recent body of work and you'll realize that this type of heroism is just business as usual. He's built up quite a tolerance.

The inevitability of Cruise becoming a reliable, bankable action star wouldn't have been so clear more than a decade ago. Sure, he had good looks, could play a spy, hold a gun, and fly planes here and there. But he also committed to taking risks, playing vulnerable (Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut), charismatic (Jerry Maguire), and satirical (Tropic Thunder) while working with directors and actors that challenged and reinforced his leading-man status. The rare constant in this diversity was the smile he cheesed early in his career, which spelled out his movie stardom so brightly on each tooth you needed sunglasses. But the glint wore off starting around the fallout from a War of the Worlds press tour, which exposed his occasional maniacal behavior and devotion to Scientology. It turned some studios sour and forced him to play defense. Save the world, save your career.

Cruise hasn't strayed too far from the action genre over the last seven years. From one angle, this is disappointing; from another, it's telling: Cruise wanted his stardom back. What better way to retrieve it than by outrunning, jumping, and passport-stamping the competition? Like a shark, Cruise, even into his 50s, can't slow down; he performs his own stunts, expends total effort and energy, and proves his dedication. It's the only way he knows how. And while his movies during this period have been anything but consistent, you never doubt the authenticity he's giving to each of his relatively similar characters.


Tom Cruise wanted his stardom back. What better way to retrieve it than by out-running, jumping, and passport-stamping the competition?

But these are, indeed, different movies and franchises that require slightly varied performances. So, in this continuing, likely expanding, wave of his career, here's a ranking of his multiple characters—factoring in motivation, bad-assery, and verbal quips—from least to most Tom Cruise-ness.

Oblivion (2013)

Character: Jack Harper

Motivation: After a war between aliens and humans 60 years ago that left the earth mostly uninhabitable, the remaining population is shuttled to an intergalactic life house. Donning a Yankee cap to display his inner New Yorker, Harper is tasked with repairing drones on earth that guard hydro-electric generators for the surviving human colonies.

Analysis: Was that job description boring? In this mostly sleepy sci-fi vehicle, somehow Cruise isn't able to jolt you awake. Which is a shame, considering at one point he gets into a fistfight with a clone of himself. Even at the center of a sterile love triangle between Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko, Cruise isn't allowed to do much more than grimace and shoot artillery. He does have exceptional helicoptering skills that provide a few crescendos of action that is otherwise relegated to running from and gunning down droids. In a movie that takes its cues from a plethora of genre tropes including Planet of the Apes, Cruise has no real Charlton Heston moment. He, like his character, is just a carbon copy.

Memorable Quote: "If we have souls, they are made of the love we share."

Knight and Day (2010)

Character: Roy Miller

Motivation: Described as the "most trusted and capable covert agent in the world," Miller has possession of a perpetual energy battery that the CIA believes he wants to sell on the black market. He uses a run-in with a random woman (Cameron Diaz) to help protect him and his cargo while trying to expose the real rogue agent.

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Analysis: There might be one scene in Knight and Day when Cruise looks just a bit pestered. He's on what he thinks is an untraceable island until a government drone starts firing rockets at him. But never fear: Roy Miller always has an exit plan. In this case, it's on his helicopter that he flies to safety. He's quickly on a train to Austria. Then he's motorcycling his way through Spain being chased by bulls through the streets. This was the early indication that Cruise is at his happiest shredding the competition, without a bead of sweat to show for it. He and Diaz have enough chemistry to make this preposterous duo work. But really, this scatter-brained, silly movie is an exercise in showing that Cruise can captain any kind of vehicle, under any circumstance, and make us root for him despite all the story's evidence suggesting we shouldn't.

Jack Reacher (2012)

Character: Jack Reacher

Motivation: As an ex-military investigative officer, Reacher shows up in Pittsburgh at the behest of a former solider, who is being framed for a sniper attack that has shady motivations. His goal is to find the real killer.

Analysis: Even though this film franchise suffocates the thrills from its plotlines, Cruise still manages to draw interest as an almost mythic avenger. He looks annoyed that he must weave around an incompetent and corrupt police system to find justice. The impediments thrown in his way are just that—a heavy sigh accompanies a group of street thugs hired to kill him as he outlines precisely how he will knock each of them out. "Remember, you wanted this," he warns them, and then it's too late. Reacher finds creative ways to kill—using one person's head to knock another's out—but there's little joy in watching him work. It's just a little too calculated. The same could be said for his relationship with Rosamund Pike's defense attorney, who found out too late that Cruise steals all the oxygen from the room. When Reacher gets the job done, you're left thoroughly impressed but equally underwhelmed.


Memorable quote: "I'm here to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot."

The Mummy (2017)

Character: Nick Morton

Motivation: After awakening an ancient princess from her buried sarcophagus during a reconnaissance expedition, Morton is cursed to be a human vessel for the God of Death. He must determine a way to reverse this spell before evil manifests inside his body.

Analysis: It only takes a few minutes for Morton to convince his partner (Jake Johnson) to explore a small Iraqi town filled with insurgents. It's a bad idea, and, naturally, they are met with gunfire. Cruise shows off his endurance, though, by avoiding bullets, jumping over rooftops, and surviving an air strike. This is just an appetizer for the malevolent entrée looming. Soon he's getting tossed like a rag doll in zero gravity as a bomber plane spirals to the earth and is later thrown from an ambulance that rolls perilously off a hill. He follows that up by sprinting, then swimming, away from some determined mummies in London, making sure the movie's title and genre aren't totally forgotten. The laughs are saved for Johnson and the narrative prophesying left for Russell Crowe. That leaves Cruise in a strange middle ground as the central action figure with nothing interesting to do but avoid an evil princess in pursuit of him (and discuss his stamina in bed with co-lead Annabelle Wallis). For the first time in his career, his character's cavalier attitude towards death doesn't avoid it, but unleashes it.

Memorable Quote: "I don't want to hurt you. I never wanted to hurt you."

Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)

Character: Will Cage

Motivation: Cage, a PR man for the military, is thrust into combat and must kill the energy source of an alien life form overtaking Europe without dying. Otherwise, he'll stay stuck in a time loop, waking up on the same day.

Analysis: What an exciting reminder of how much fun Cruise can be when he isn't the smartest, most daring person in the room—at least for a while. When he tells a military general early on, "I'm not a soldier," and that he can't stand the sight of blood, the director Doug Liman is toying with us. But it's also an opportunity to show Cruise struggle for once: lumbering around in his protective armor, figuring out how to turn off his gun's safety. Eventually, after re-living the same day over and over, he reacquires the cockiness we remember, a step ahead of his soldiers in the midst of hail fire. He also has an equal in Emily Blunt, who trades verbal blows with him during training. The soft spots they eventually find for each other feel genuinely earned. But Cruise has to work for it every time Cage is killed and wakes up. It's arguably the most sacrificial he's ever been. He keeps dying—day after day after day—to save us all. What more do you want?

Memorable quote: "What I'm about to tell you sounds crazy. But you have to listen to me. Your very lives depend on it."


Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011) and Rogue Nation (2015)

Character: Ethan Hunt

Motivation: Spy stuff! More specifically, Hunt and his crew are pursuing an ex-Russian government official who has stolen nuclear codes, bombed the Kremlin, and set up the IMF. In the most recent chapter, Hunt must stop a network of trained operatives from establishing a "new world order" using a series of terrorist attacks.

Analysis: Look at him dangling there, climbing up the side of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. One of his special magnetic gloves has malfunctioned, and so Ethan must somehow shimmy his way up to gain access to a security system. This wouldn't be as mesmerizing if we didn't know that Cruise was actually doing all of this himself. Jump forward a few years and another sequel, and there he is again, hanging on for dear life. This time he's clinging to the door of a military-grade jet as it takes off, putting Cruise into equally high altitude without the studio spending a dime on a wind machine. Even though we have known Ethan for three previous movies dating back to 1996, Cruise keeps surprising us, making sure that every new adventure risks his own life just a little more. Sure, it's the adrenaline rush he craves, but it's authenticity he's chasing, a somewhat ironic pursuit considering his entire character is built on deception.

Memorable quote: "Mission accomplished."

This story originally appeared on

* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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