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Which Tom Cruise Is the Best Tom Cruise?

Maverick? Jerry Maguire? Ethan Hunt? That delirious couch-jumper on ‘Oprah’? Vote in our bracket to determine the best Cruise that ever Cruised.

You have to start somewhere when building one of these brackets. You can do the NCAA-sanctioned 64. The NIT-style 32. The relatively economical but potentially harder-hitting 16. When Grantland’s editors decided that Tom Cruise Week, beginning today, would include this tournament component, the decision was not as hard as you might think: a field of 16. There would be no early-round throwaways of the less-regarded entries from Cruise’s already tightly curated filmography. We wanted every choice to matter, every vote to hurt, every click of the mouse to be preceded by a frankly embarrassing amount of soul-searching.

Our mantra: All Cruise-killer, no Cruise-filler.

And so the early elimination process commenced as we grabbed our IMDb saws and began hacking down to the bone. You have a soft spot for Stef Djordjevic of All the Right Moves? No mercy. You’re a secret admirer of the powder-faced, ruffled-cuff frippery in Interview With the Vampire’s Lestat? Suck it, in the hungry-creature-of-darkness-trying-to-keep-itself-undead sense. How dare we not recognize a character named Cole Trickle? Gentlemen, stop your engines. There simply wasn’t room for everybody, even if Mitch McDeere was the reason you went to law school or John Anderton inspired you to enroll in the precrime academy.

At great psychic expense, we culled the list of Cruise’s most essential characters down to an initial 16.

And then we discarded four more and replaced them with an entire region of Real Cruises to reflect the offscreen characters that have become as memorable a part of his ongoing legacy as the onscreen ones. Does sacrificing those additional Movie Cruises make us monsters?

It might. But you want us on that bracket. You need us on that bracket. You’re damn right we ordered the Code Tom.

You can click here to get right to the voting, or continue on to spend some time reliving some of the iconic moments of each of the characters that await you. We needed the extra time. We did that embarrassing amount of soul-searching.

Remember, every vote is supposed to hurt. Tom Cruise doesn’t like anything to be easy.

Vote now in our Tom Cruise bracket!


These are the 16 Tom Cruises of our bracket. We’ll never forget any of them.

Cruise in 'Top Gun.'

Paramount Cruise in ‘Top Gun.’

Tom Cruise is pouring himself a Chivas and Coke. Deliberately, because even in his youth, he was deliberate about everything. He is tucking into a self-prepared TV dinner, and, finding the flash-frozen plank of steak within inedible, abandoning his lonely dinner for the stereo. And now he’s sliding into frame on tube-stockinged feet, wearing nothing else but a pair of Ray-Bans and a striped pink Oxford shirt that only occasionally obscures the pristine white briefs — probably bought in department-store bulk by his mother, are they too roomy in the crotch, honey? — beneath its flapping tails. He’s brandishing a candlestick microphone. He is mounting the coffee table, slinging a fireplace poker like a guitar. He is becoming the Bob Seger of his living room, the panty-melting star of his abandoned suburban mansion. He is loving that old-time rock and roll. He is just getting started.

Tom Cruise is checking his watch on a beach volleyball court. He is shirtless, but, curiously, not pantsless. His torso is well-oiled, both with sweat and his cocoa butter of choice, his jeans — he’s wearing jeans — collecting enough sand to open a beach resort back in the barracks. He is jumping and landing, rising and falling, setting and spiking. He is scoring and high-fiving in creative fashion. He is checking his watch again. He is walking off the court. He is ignoring the entreaties of his wingman to stay a little while longer — he has somewhere else to be, somewhere more important than on that court, force-feeding sweaty leather into the face of an iceman. In his free time, he flies fighter jets and nurses the regret of not spending that precious extra time with his best friend in the world, no matter how hot the lady on the other end of his motorcycle ride was for him.

Tom Cruise is circling the pool table. He is a shark in his element, the apex predator of a vast green ocean of felt stocked with unsuspecting fish. He is swimming along the table’s mahogany rails, lining up shots, sinking ball after ball after ball. He is feeding on the applause of the hall, transforming into a ninja twirling his deadly cue, and then a werewolf in London, howling at the moon of his own greatness. He is inviting the disdain of the greater shark watching him nearby. He is wearing a T-shirt with his name on it. His hair is perfect.

Tom Cruise is standing atop the bar, drawing his fingers into his mouth and whistling for quiet. The crowd, instantly in the thrall of the World’s Last Barman Poet, obliges. He is spitting verses about schnapps made of peach and sex on the beach, about Singapore slings and dingalings. But now he is back behind the bar, shakers and bottles pirouetting over shoulders and under arms, top-shelf glass and steel faeries dancing for the amusement of their cocktailing king. While possibly the world’s greatest show-tender, he is, truth be told, not that dope a wordsmith, even by service-industry standards.

Rain Man

United Artists Dustin Hoffman and Cruise in ‘Rain Man.’

Tom Cruise is walking through the casino. His brother, a card-counting computer in a matching suit, is at his shoulder. He is sitting down at the blackjack table. He is berating the brother for taking his queen, but the storm of annoyance passes as quickly as it came as he’s told there’s more royalty idling in the deck, waiting to be drawn. He’s doubling down, queen, queen. He is stacking chips higher and higher, loving this town, trying to love the brother who still recoils from his touch. Then they are slow-dancing in the high roller’s suite, rocking gently through the awkwardness of human connection, the Strip twinkling its approval from behind floor-to-ceiling windows. There is also a television set for Wapner.

Tom Cruise is sitting in a wheelchair. His hair is long, his mustache ungroomed, his message in danger of being drowned out by the screaming throng of a Nixon reelection rally. He is talking about Vietnam. Then screaming about Vietnam. Then being pummeled for his words about Vietnam. He is your unbroken soldier of truth, your Memorial Day on wheels, your Yankee Doodle Dandy come home.

Tom Cruise is interrupting the colonel on the witness stand. He is seeking clarity on the matter of grave danger. He is offering to have the colonel’s words read back to him, an offer immediately and loudly refused. He is making clear that the colonel’s men follow orders or people die, that the possibility of his charges refusing such an order is absurd on its face. He is a desperate fisherman baiting a hook with his last worm, casting it over the side of his leaky boat, and praying that his prize catch will rise up out of the water to take it. He is raising his voice. He is demanding the answers to which he is entitled. He is demanding the truth. He is getting the truth. He is ignoring the colonel’s offer to remove his eyes from his head and regurgitate that truth into his dead skull. He is setting the colonel up for an Oscar nomination that he will not receive himself.

Tom Cruise is dangling from a pair of thin wires. He is hovering in front of the world’s most baroquely secure computer terminal — motion-sensing, temperature controlled, polished to a gleaming white by a janitorial staff screened for the intensity of its obsessive-compulsive disorders — to download a file. And suddenly he is falling, a 4-foot drop that feels like an uncontrolled tumble into an endless abyss. He is inches from a floor he cannot touch, watching a single drop of sweat streaking across the lens of his glasses, knowing that the entire mission is about to be undone by his very poorly timed perspiration issues. And then he is catching that drop before it can trigger the alarm, because nobody is going to let a $100 million heist movie end because the otherwise extravagantly prepared hero forgot to wear a sweatband.

Tom Cruise in 'Magnolia'

Peter Sorel/New Line Cinema Cruise in ‘Magnolia.’

Tom Cruise is liberating a goldfish from a talent agency aquarium. The cardboard Shawn Kemp — nice to see you, Reign Man — standing sentinel offers no interference. He is clutching the Ziploc bag containing his new firm’s second employee, raising it over his head, and beginning an impromptu recruiting drive. Who is coming with him? Will anyone forsake the security of the known, of the three-months-off pay increase to join him on his crazy march to an uncertain greatness? He is admitting embarrassment — there’s no ignoring the deafening silence of an offer unanswered, one broken only by his greedy enemy’s savaging of an unsuspecting bagel — but not defeat. He is asking again. And this time there is a taker. A mousy single mom with a nerdy kid, she’s in. She’s walking out with him. She’s secretly hoping to one day complete him. He is looking more excited about the fish. The fish joined first.

Tom Cruise is becoming the unwanted center of attention at a high-end orgy. He’s standing before a gold-masked, red-robed figure who requests, with a not-inconsiderable flair for menace, a password. He offers the password. It is the wrong password. There is a second password. He’s claiming to forget the second password, but everybody in the ritualistic fuck-chamber knows that’s a lie, and he’s asked to remove his mask. And then his clothes. He’s taking off the mask but keeping the clothes; he only signed up, however unwittingly, for a dreamlike evening away from his downer wife, floating between writhing tableaus of intertwined limbs and thrusting hips, not for being stripped in front of a bunch of horny faux-Satanists. He is sorry if his modesty resulted in the death of that nice naked lady who saved him from a brief humiliation.

Tom Cruise is demanding that you respect the male genitalia. He is requesting that you tame whatever female reproductive organs are trying to take your soul. He is using pointedly more vulgar language in these exhortations, words designed to energize a conference room full of the frothing betas into opening their wallets, thumbing past the moldering condoms contained therein, and offering up their cash for his Seduce and Destroy system. He is standing in front of a banner bearing a cartoon, lupine representation of himself — tight vest, samurai ponytail, and all — about to feast upon a defenseless cat, you get the metaphor, you’re catching that vibe. He is pinwheeling his arms, swiveling his pelvis, miming the act of depressing fellatio covered in Chapter 12, “Even a Sad Orgasm Lets You Forget You’re a Fraud for a Few Precious Seconds.” He is really hoping you like his leather cuffs, they’re the key to the whole system.

Tom Cruise is wearing a fat suit. He is clicking the remote and bumping Flo Rida. And he is dancing. No, he’s slithering, a latex-swaddled cobra rising up out of his movie-star-tricks basket, considering the Matthew McConaughey–shaped prey he’s about to consume. He’s promising a G5 — that’s right, the private airplane, stay with him here — and a whole lot of money. Does that sound good to you, playa, playa, big-dick playa, swinging past your knees? Does that make you momentarily remember he can have a sense of humor about himself when he wants to, that not everything’s gotta be impossible missions and failed Robert Redford Oscar vehicles all the time? Playa? He’s clicking the remote. And he is dancing some more. No, still slithering, playa.

Matt Lauer and Cruise on 'The Today Show' in 2005.

NBC Matt Lauer and Cruise on ‘The Today Show’ in 2005.

Tom Cruise is suspended in mid-jump. Knees pulling into his chest, arms extending as if about to deploy vein-streaked bat wings that would carry him up into the rafters while the most powerful woman in the world cowered on the couch below, terrified by the sheer force of his uncontainable passion. He is a man of action trapped, perhaps forever, in this freeze-frame burned into our minds. Hit the mental play button and he is moving again, furloughed temporarily from this phantom zone life sentence, leaping and grasping and shaking and bouncing and fist-pumping and theatrically declaring his love for the pinwheel-eyed future ex-wife he would retrieve, at Oprah’s urging, from the greenroom. “She is freaking out,” he’s telling us, in the last moment before we return him to the freeze-frame. “I’m gonna go get her.”

Tom Cruise is having an honest disagreement with Matt Lauer. About who knows more about the history of psychiatry, about the efficacy of Brooke Shields’s course of treatment for postpartum depression, about Lauer’s general demeanor in a back-and-forth that was supposed to be about some simple movie promotion. “Matt, Matt, Matt,” he’s saying, drawing him in, drawing him closer, before sliding his rhetorical shiv between the host’s ribs. “You’re glib.”

Tom Cruise is riding a motorcycle. No, not the kind of motorcycle that he seemingly contractually demands to mount in every movie. It’s a pantomime motorcycle made of his own rhythm and fueled by his desire to delight. He’s revving it up. He’s taking it for a spin around the 106 & Park studio. He’s popping invisible wheelies for Yung Joc. He’s proving that he doesn’t need to hide beneath a layer of latex to unleash his moves upon the world.

Tom Cruise is rocking a turtleneck. He is talking to the camera. He is relaxing — he’s more at ease than you’ve ever seen him in an interview, all credit to the unseen and unheard interviewer on the other side of the lens, no Lauer-style glibness there — and letting it all fly. He is creating new and better realities. He is improving conditions. He is rehabilitating criminals, bringing peace, uniting cultures. He is providing affordable roadside assistance. In a command performance never intended for public consumption, he’s being the most Tom Cruise we can ever expect to see. He looks amazing in that turtleneck. It fits him perfectly. 

Vote now!

Filed Under: Tom Cruise Week, Tom Cruise, Top Gun, A Few Good Men, Movies, Oprah, couches, The Today Show, Magnolia, Rain Man, The Color of money, Cocktail, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, Yung Joc

Mark Lisanti is an editor at Grantland.

Archive @ marklisanti