April 19, 2013 at 9:06 AM ET
Maverick, or Jerry Maguire? The toothy "Top Gun" pilot, or the toothy sports agent who wants to show Cuba Gooding Jr. the money?
Tom Cruise has been playing heroes and hunks since the 1980s -- it's as natural to him as the daily commute is to us. He'll tackle another role this week, playing drone repairman Jack Harper in the futuristic world of a shattered Earth in the new movie "Oblivion."
But what's his #1 best role, the iconic character that simply screams Cruise? Let's run through the contenders.
Early roles: Sometimes you just have to say ...
Sometimes, a first encounter never fades. Cruise had roles in "Taps," "The Outsiders," "All the Right Moves" and even "Endless Love" before he hit it big as high-schooler Joel Goodson in "Risky Business." But there's no doubt that it was Joel, with his Ray-Bans and his encounter with Guido the Killer Pimp, who cemented the image of Cruise as a handsome smoothie with charm to spare.
Serious drama, from brothers in arms to a new brother
Cruise didn't just reach for the easy, crowd-pleasing roles -- sometimes he played men who were struggling, internally and externally. In "Rain Man," he played car dealer Charlie Babbitt, who must come to terms with the autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman) he never knew. In "Born on the Fourth of July," he hid his magazine-cover looks to portray Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, confined to a wheelchair and disillusioned by the war he fought. And in "Magnolia," Cruise was nominated for an Oscar for the role of Frank, written especially for him by Paul Thomas Anderson. In his dramatic roles, Cruise found a new path -- the handsome guy who has to fall down before he can get up again stronger and smarter.
Poking fun at himself
Is that Tom Cruise? Really? The star proved he could laugh at himself, and steal every scene he was in, when he played balding, dumpy Les Grossman in "Tropic Thunder." This image will never be the first mental picture we keep of Cruise, but it went a long way towards bringing back some fans who'd been turned off by the actor thanks to his Oprah couch-jumping and other public missteps. (Watch Grossman's famed dance here, note explicit lyrics in background.)
There's no question Cruise looks like an action hero -- all except for his 5-foot-something height. But he measured up when he took on the "Mission: Impossible" franchise and the role of Ethan Hunt. Cruise especially shone in the sequel, "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," which featured some terrifying stunts off the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa. And Cruise acquitted himself admirably as drifter hero "Jack Reacher" in the 2012 film based on Lee Child's books, although his height was an issue to fans of Child's novels, in which Reacher's height is a big part of his character.
Maverick vs. Maguire
Yet when it comes right down to it, two roles rise above the rest.
In 1986's "Top Gun," Cruise's model looks and boyish charm helped him create headstrong Maverick, the naval aviator with the need for speed. A tragedy involving a friend shakes his world, but he battles back, with the help of new love Charlie (Kelly McGillis) and unexpected friendship from an unlikely corner (Val Kilmer's Iceman). In a way, the Maverick role was everything Cruise did best -- he was handsome, daring, reckless, beaten down by tragedy and resurrected by courage under fire. It's hard not to hear Cruise's name and picture the cocky thumbs-up pose from the "Top Gun" poster.
But a full decade later, Cruise took on the title role in "Jerry Maguire," and while he was just as cocky and handsome as ever, something had changed. This was a more adult Cruise, breaking out on his own as a sports agent due to a sudden attack of conscience. Cruise managed not one, not two, but three strong relationships in this film. Cuba Gooding Jr. demanded Cruise "show him the money," Renee Zellweger assured him "you had me at hello," and little Jonathan Lipnicki brought out his fatherly instincts.
Would Maverick have turned into Jerry Maguire 10 years down the line, with a different career under his belt and a little boy in his life? Maybe. Cruise is nothing if not consistent, and his roles, from the self-parodying Les Grossman to the boyish Joel Goodson, always somehow reflect the movie star and the man. Vote and tell us if Maverick, Jerry Maguire, or another role is Cruise's absolute best.
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