In all fairness, Tom Cruise really isn’t the greatest actor around. Hardly anyone would claim that he is. He’s reasonably competent, but he’s not going to make anyone forget Sidney Poitier or Sir Anthony Hopkins.
One big thing in defense of Tom Cruise, though: quality control. He does far better than average in picking his projects. More important really than any fancy personal performance, you can pretty well count on his name meaning that the whole movie will be worth seeing. Rain Man would make a good example of this.
He rarely makes a pure suckfest of a movie. Granted, he sometimes runs a bit to the safe side (The Firm, say), but even the safer movies are generally decently written and thought through. He DOES put out consistently professional quality product. You can generally feel safe in investing time or money in a Cruise movie, confident that it will be worth the bother of watching.
To pick a contemporary of approximately equal professional stature, compare Cruise’s career to Robin Williams. Williams probably has nearly equal stature to Cruise in getting his pick of material, but a BIG percentage of Robin Williams movies just plain goddam suck. By rights, Williams is a better actor, and a far more unique talent. Damn, man, look at One Hour Photo. That’s some good work.
Yet- for whatever reasons- Williams picks out a LOT of crappy movies to attach his name and reputation to. For every one challenging classic One Hour Photo, the poor beleaguered consumer gets to buy several maudlin Patch Adams love-me crapfests. A double fistful of clunkers like that, and your brand name starts getting diluted.
He may not be the most accomplished actor ever, but the consistent quality of Cruise’s work is critical to his high commercial status. Not even his devotion to the Mindfu-, Mindheads…I mean Scientology will cause him to make a Battlefield Earth.