In days past, you couldn’t move for Hollywood’s archetypal leading man. Capable of flexing their guns just as well as firing them, the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger littered the schedules with their own brand of action-heavy spectacles. While some – Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson among them – have kept the fire burning bright, that style of movie has burnt out. At least, it had. Enter Tom Cruise, who has managed to reinvent the throwback role as a modern-day leading man – dragging an entire industry forward in the process.
Cruise’s latest, Top Gun: Maverick, is a five-star blockbuster that’s breaking all sorts of box office records. Without Cruise at the center, the movie doesn’t work. That’s not just because the story doesn’t fly without hotshot pilot-turned-overqualified captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. Hell, even with Cruise, Top Gun: Maverick shouldn’t work. It should be a cheesy, money-grab that favors style over substance. But if you’re not sold by the time Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’ kicks in during the opening, you will be – over and over again – by the time Cruise is in control.
Why? Simply put, Cruise remains the total package: a triple threat of charisma, action chops, and an actor who can hit the emotional beats better than pretty much anyone around. That’s best seen in Maverick’s dynamic with Miles Teller’s Rooster, the son of Maverick’s former wingman Goose, who died in tragic circumstances in the 1986 original.
Rooster’s inclusion, by definition, feels hackneyed and shoehorned-in. Cruise and Teller opt against picking the low-hanging fruit, instead aiming for a fresher personal connection that tugs at the heartstrings rather than a lingering look towards the ‘80s classic. The stolen glances, overflowing anger, and – minor spoilers – their final hug all feel earned and drenched with history thanks in large part to Cruise’s Swiss Army Knife performance. That’s because Cruise, much like Maverick, is believable and legitimate in a way no one else really is. He walks the walk and talks the talk, both on camera and off it.
Cruise’s ability to straddle eras and remain relevant is evidence of that. The actor is a bridge between Hollywood’s action heyday and the 21st Century, while possessing the rare ability of an older star who can hit the right nostalgic notes without wallowing in the past. Unlike some, he’s not a cheap act relying on whether you remember when movies seemed bigger, better and more explosive. That’s Tom Cruise in a nutshell: a relic of the past who is constantly pushing boundaries, inventing new solutions, and moving forward. He’s a walking, talking paradox with a Hollywood smile and enough muscle – both physically and behind-the-scenes – to carry a blockbuster on his back.
In an industry where physical in-camera creativity has been dampened by green screens, off-putting CGI, and tired composition, Cruise (with the crew and director Joseph Kosinski behind him, lest we forget) comes as close to a seal of quality as Hollywood gets. That’s all thanks to his mission statement: a relentless desire to go further – and take everyone else with him.
Take Top Gun: Maverick’s cockpit sequences, for example. It’s often said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. While Mav and his flyboys and girls have clearly done that by the time they take to the skies for their death-defying mission in the legacy sequel, Cruise and his cast weren’t exactly far behind.
All told, over 800 hours of footage was shot in the cockpits alone for Top Gun: Maverick. That tactile practicality can be seen and felt on-screen too. Cruise’s work ethic is on full display here; you get the impression that every possible combination of beads of sweat, darting eye movements, and bone-thundering jolts were accounted for. The end result is remarkable, and even more so when you take a peek into the process behind it.
“We had two planes flying – that’s 12 cameras, not including ground to air and exterior mounts, heli to jet, and jet to jet,” Kosinski told IndieWire of the airborne sequences, which involved the actors heading up to the clouds in real jets. “One day we had 26 cameras rolling. When you have two fast-moving objects, when you have moments when the footage is good, you’re going to get one- or two-second pieces worthy of being in the film. In a 14-hour day, 30 seconds was great.”
Even how Top Gun: Maverick was greenlit is something that could have been torn from the pages of a Hollywood script. So it goes, according to director Joseph Kosinski in an interview with Polygon, that his impassioned pitch to Cruise impressed the actor so much that he got the ball rolling immediately.
“He picked up the phone, he called the head of Paramount Pictures and said, ‘We’re making another Top Gun,’” Kosinski recalled. In one fell swoop, Cruise went to bat – as he always does – for the big-budget, auteur-driven blockbuster experience. Outside of perhaps Christopher Nolan, no one is leading the charge like Cruise. Except, in Cruise’s case, he’s involved every step of the way both behind and in front of the camera.
Of course, it’s not just in Top Gun: Maverick where Cruise is head and shoulders above the rest. In a roll call that would make James Bond wince, the actor has put his body on the line in stunt-heavy sequences that make him stand out as a real-life action hero.
Cruise shattered his foot performing a building-to-building leap on Mission: Impossible – Fallout (something that can be seen in the final cut), held onto airplanes for dear life, performed HALO jumps, and rode motorbikes off mountains – all in the name of entertaining us. No one else is doing it like Tom Cruise. Nor should anyone else, not least because of the eye watering insurance premiums.
Speaking of money, Top Gun: Maverick’s laser-focused vision has hit right at the heart of the moviegoing public. It’s not a stretch to suggest Cruise has been the man to revive cinema after a tough period post-COVID. The sheer figures alone are outstanding: this is Tom Cruise’s biggest opening ever at $248m, heading well north of $600m total at the time of writing. Incredibly, it also holds the all-time record for lowest week-on-week drop for a movie grossing $100m domestically in its opening weekend (it dipped to a $90m second weekend following a $160m debut in the United States).
People are sticking around – and coming back for seconds. It’s already the third biggest movie of the year behind Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and The Batman (already outperforming both in the UK). Remember: this isn’t a superhero movie, nor is it a sprawling franchise. Top Gun’s pop culture footprint is large, to be sure, but it’s been over 35 years since the original – simply put: the power of Cruise’s singular box office appeal cannot be underestimated when considering its surprise success.
But is this the end? Sorry to be a spoilsport, but Cruise will be 60 by the time the awkwardly-titled Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out in 2023. Cruise may be as close as it comes to Superman, but he can’t do this forever. His next stretch of movies – from Top Gun: Maverick, Dead Reckoning Parts One and Two, and his upcoming movie in outer space with Doug Liman – feels, then, like a last hurrah. Except, Cruise probably sees it more of a victory lap, a culmination of his decades-long crusade to keep movies feeling fresh, novel, entertaining, awe-inspiring, and all the reasons we keep coming back to cinemas besides that. Appreciate this stretch of movies. Appreciate Tom Cruise. After this, it’s not going to be topped – at least if a certain maverick has anything to say about it.
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