Tom Cruise v. Time
In Top Gun: Maverick, Tom Cruise confronts his ultimate nemesis.
Tom Cruise has been battling MiGs, arms dealers, rogue nations, Hitler, and extraterrestrials for as long as I’ve been alive. Yet it wasn’t until Top Gun: Maverick that Cruise finally confronted his true and ultimate nemesis, an enemy he’ll never defeat, but one that he’s obsessed with staving off for as long as humanly possible: Time.
On May 27, after years of delays, reshoots, the beginning of a global pandemic, the shutdown of the entire movie-going industry — you know, just our wonderful world — Top Gun: Maverick finally arrived.
Directed by arguably the most underrated director in Hollywood today, Joseph Kosinski (Tron, Oblivion, Only the Brave), Maverick doesn’t tell a wholly original or complex story. Cruise is called back to Fighter Weapons School, aka Top Gun, to train the country’s best pilots for an impossible mission to destroy an unnamed enemy’s uranium enrichment plant — or something. One of those pilots is Rooster (Miles Teller), Goose’s son — if you’ve seen the original, you don’t need a reminder of Goose and if you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the story. Penny, the owner of the beachfront bar that the airmen visit for their daily beer fix (how, exactly, one maintains perfectly chiseled abs while drinking that much beer remains a mystery, but all of the pilots have managed to do so in the most impossible mission yet) is an old fling, played by the wonderful Jennifer Connelly, an actually believable romantic interest for Cruise.
And with that, we’re cleared for takeoff.
For all intents and purposes, Maverick probably shouldn’t work. It’s a sequel to a 36-year-old movie that did not require another chapter; the original has an actual ending, one that feels like a period rather than an ellipsis. I personally don’t know anyone my age who reveres the original. It’s led by a movie star entering his 60s. And it came out at a moment in history when people are still uneasy about sitting in a theater with strangers all sucking in the same oxygen supply.
If Maverick didn’t work, both as a commodity designed to make money and as a movie meant to entertain, no one would’ve been surprised. I can already see the “Hollywood Just Can’t Quit Its Past” posts in the wake of a disappointing opening for a redundant movie that has no reason to exist except money and nostalgia (and Cruise’s need for speed).
Yet Maverick is better than its predecessor in practically every possible way, the biggest opening of Cruise’s career, a smashing critical success, one of the best popcorn blockbusters of the past 10 or so years, and Cruise’s best acting performance since he transitioned from an actor who does stunts to a stuntman who acts.
The entire collection of actors is stellar — from Miles Teller to Glen Powell to Jennifer Connelly to Monica Barbaro, they all exude charisma. The direction from Kosinski is impeccable; the storytelling is so tight for a blockbuster of this magnitude. The action sequences — especially considering how difficult it was to film them — are sublime. This is peak blockbuster moviemaking.
But it’s obviously Cruise’s movie.
Maverick is a blockbuster masterpiece because (besides big planes going fast and doing flips and other cool big plane shit) Cruise is willing to address his mortal enemy, drop his defenses, and finally flash a degree of vulnerability that he’s otherwise been so careful to avoid. Maverick is the closest Cruise has come to acting like a normal human being with real insecurities and flaws — right up until the moment he morphs back into a superhuman pilot again for the grand finale. But for the first 90 or so minutes of Maverick, we see a Cruise we haven’t seen before. We see a Cruise who has been passed by, by time, and is forced to reckon with a world in which he no longer fits.
One of the reasons I love Edge of Tomorrow (or whatever they’re calling it these days) is that it’s a rare example of Cruise willing to play the doofus, at least until Emily Blunt trains him into a real soldier. He’s not in on the joke; he is the joke. Cruise almost always plays the hero — besides, a Collateral here and there — so when news of Top Gun’s sequel broke, I figured it’d be much of the same. I’ve seen enough Mission Impossibles (the best active franchise by a wiiiiddee margin, by the way, no hate here) to know that this would be another exercise in Tom Cruise doing extremely impressive dangerous shit — and to be clear, Maverick certainly is about that too and it absolutely works as a pseudo Mission Impossible.
But it’s also much more than that. It’s Tom Cruise finally willing to look the elephant in the room straight in the eye: What if, in an era of CGI and Marvel, we just don’t need Tom Cruise anymore? What if he’s been rendered obsolete?
So, there’s a reason I’ve been calling him Cruise instead of his character’s name, Pete Mitchell, better known by his callsign Maverick, and it’s not entirely because I think it’d be too confusing to refer to him as Maverick in a post about the movie Maverick. It’s also because Maverick is as much about Cruise as its titular character.
In Maverick, Cruise’s ultimate enemy isn’t unnamed countries with superior jet planes or his own superiors who deride his blatant disregard for orders, despite their presence throughout. No, his enemy is something we all — movie stars and movie goers alike — battle and succumb to, eventually. Time.
It’s a scary enemy for all of us, but for someone like Cruise whose entire existence for the past 20 years has been about pushing his body to the limits known to man, I imagine it’s terrifying. But in Maverick, Cruise is willing to not only face it, but admit that one day it will beat him, all the while kicking its ass in the meantime, staving off defeat for at least one more day.
There’s a scene early on when Cruise, freshly called back to Miramar, sitting alone in a bar full of twenty-somethings, watches a remake of the original Top Gun play out in front of his eyes. The younger pilots meet and exchange callsigns and jabs around the pool table, glass of beer in one hand, cue in the other. It’s 99 percent bravado and 1 percent substance. Thirty-six years ago, Cruise would’ve been there with them, boasting about his exploits and talking a big game about their upcoming assignment, singing Great Balls of Fire at the piano. Today, he’s nursing a beer alone, reckoning with decisions of his past, uncertain of his role today.
Repeatedly, Cruise is told that his time is up. That pilots like him won’t be needed in a future filled with machines. That he’s a relic of the past with no role in modern warfare. That he’s no longer essential. He’s too old to still be a captain in the Navy. He’s too old to be considered for a mission of this magnitude. He’s too old to reignite yet another fling with Penny. The planes he and his pilots fly are too old compared to the enemy’s fifth-generation fighters. And so on.
“The future is coming, and you’re not in it,” someone tells him.
All of which Cruise readily acknowledges to be true.
“The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is heading for extinction,” Admiral Cain tells him in the opening minutes.
“Maybe so, sir,” he admits. “But not today.”
There is, of course, some truth to what he’s being told. Dogfighting is no longer the way we fight wars; drones and surgical strikes are the way of the future. Top Gun pilots like Cruise are no longer essential in modern warfare.
“Time is your greatest adversary,” Cruise tells his trainees.
He’s talking about the mission itself, of course. The pilots don’t have enough time to train for the mission. The mission’s parameters don’t offer the pilots enough time to complete it.
But he may as well be talking about himself.
Cruise was 23 years old when the original Top Gun came out, the epitome of a movie star heartthrob. Today, he’s 60.
Yet, in the later stages of his career, Cruise has, more than any other actor in their 40s and 50s, embraced the physicality of the job. In fact, it feels like he only chooses his roles today based on the degree of physical difficulty required — from every Mission Impossible installment increasing the impossibility of its one Big Stunt to his upcoming space movie. When’s the last time Cruise has taken a role in an actual drama — a movie that involves more talking than running? The answer might be Valkyrie (2008). It might be Lions for Lambs (2007) or Tropic Thunder (2008). Either way, for the past 20 years, you can count them on one hand.
In Maverick, Cruise is still playing Cruise, he’s still the hero, and he still gives us all the stunts and intense reaction shots from within the cockpit — don’t you worry — but he also delivers an emotionally driven performance. This is as much a character movie as it is an action movie. He’s vulnerable, reflective, and more than willing to admit that he might not have all the answers, all the while being the most charismatic and best fighter pilot west of the Mississippi. Nobody is saying that Cruise should be nominated for Best Actor, but this is movie star acting at its finest. Plenty of actors (not named Chris Pratt) can coast on pure charisma, but not every actor can combine charisma with emotional depth. That’s the difference between your Chris Pines and Tom Cruises. I honestly wasn’t sure Cruise, at this stage in his career, had that extra gear in him — until Maverick. In addition to cocky smiles and fearless eyes, he also gives us real breathing emotions: of pain and regret over past mistakes, and of fear for the mistakes that may come tomorrow, which could cost Rooster and the rest of his trainees their lives. It’s important on more than one level; for one, his performance makes the movie work as well as it does and two, it points the way forward for Cruise when time finally does begin to defeat him, when he can no longer stunt his way to success.
It wasn’t too long ago that nobody really liked Tom Cruise — the crazy scientology guy. It’s not particularly strange that he’s won his way back into our hearts; after all, actors are always rising and falling in America. What’s strange is how he did it — by embracing his insanity, by leaning into it.
We all know about the stunts. The time he climbed the tallest building in the world. The time he caught an airplane, literally. The time he held his breath for six-and-a-half minutes. The time he executed a HALO jump over Paris. The time he broke his ankle jumping across London’s skyline, but still managed to complete the scene by scaling the wall of a building, standing up, and running on that broken ankle. He showed up at Cannes for Maverick’s premiere flying a damn helicopter. On his 60th birthday, this picture surfaced.
When he was asked during the press tour for Maverick why he insists on performing his own stunts, he countered with “No one asked Gene Kelly, ‘Why do you dance?'”
When jet fuel leaked into Miles Teller’s blood during filming, it did more than send Teller to the hospital — it also produced the most Tom Cruise moment ever.
“I was like, ‘Well, Tom, it turns out I have jet fuel in my blood,’” Teller said. “And without even skipping a beat, Tom goes, ‘Yeah, I was born with it, kid.’”
The stunts have helped, no doubt. Whether it’s justified or not, there’s something appealing about an actor who does it all him or herself. It feels more genuine. More authentic, without the pretentiousness of someone like Jared Leto. If this guy is willing to go through all of this just to make a movie, then he must really care. More simply, it can be fun to watch an insane person push himself to the brink, succeed, and then tilt his head up in search of new heights. Isn’t that why we’re fascinated by all-time great athletes? We want to watch greatness — people at the pinnacle of their craft achieving things that have never been done before.
There’s a scene early on when Cruise is testing an advance hypersonic plane over the Mojave Desert. Before taking off, a colleague tells him that the Mach 10 is the mission goal — no less and crucially, no more. Do not push it past Mach 10, he’s told.
Cruise can’t wipe the smirk off his face.
“I don’t like that look,” the man says.
“It’s the only one I’ve got,” Cruise says.
Of course, Cruise pushes beyond Mach 10.
But I think it goes beyond the stunts. It’s not just that Cruise is insane. It’s also that he’s channeling his insanity into a cause that may need an insane person to save it: the movies.
If you’ve seen Maverick in theaters, you might know that before the film starts, a short video plays. Sitting alone in an empty theater, Cruise thanks the audience for coming out to the theater. Think of it as a less cinematic version of THAT Nicole Kidman ad, which in AMC theaters awkwardly precedes Cruise’s video (there’s something ironic about Kidman talking about why we come to the movies when in this instance that why is her ex-husband). If it were any other actor, I would’ve rolled my eyes. You don’t need to sell us on the theater experience, Tom, we’re already here — and your ex-wife just did it better.
But when Cruise talks about the importance of leaving your home to come to the movies, it doesn’t feel like something the studio forced him to do. It doesn’t feel like it was something he was paid to do. It feels like something he wanted to do. It feels natural.
After all, he’s the guy who dedicated an entire PSA to video interpretation, more commonly known as motion smoothing, because he was concerned people weren’t watching movies at home the way the filmmaker intended. He felt the need to document his trip to see Tenet with a real audience as theaters began to reawaken after the pandemic shut them down, tweeting “Big Movie. Big Screen. Loved it.” He refused to let Paramount release Maverick on its new streaming platform during the height of the pandemic, explaining: “They wouldn’t dare.” When someone on the set of the upcoming Mission Impossible sequel breached COVID protocols, at a point in the pandemic when the immediate future of moviemaking was very much uncertain, Cruise ripped into the crew like a Texas high school football coach — not just for putting his movie at stake, but the entire moviemaking industry.
“We are the gold standard. They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us. Because they believe in us and what we’re doing. I’m on the phone with every fucking studio at night, insurance companies, producers. And they’re looking at us and using us to make their movies. We are creating thousands of jobs, you motherfuckers.
“I don’t ever want to see it again. Ever. And if you don’t do it, you’re fired. If I see you doing it again, you’re fucking gone. And if anyone on this crew does it, that’s it.
“Don’t you ever fucking do it again. That’s it. No apologies. You can tell it to the people that are losing their fucking homes because our industry is shut down. It’s not going to put food on their table or pay for their college education.
“That’s what I sleep with every night — the future of this fucking industry.
“So I’m sorry, I am beyond your apologies. … We are not shutting this fucking movie down. Is it understood? If I see it again, you’re fucking gone. And so are you. So you’re gonna cost him his job. If I see it on the set, you’re gone and you’re gone. That’s it. Am I clear? Do you understand what I want? Do you understand the responsibility that you have? Because I will deal with your reason, and if you can’t be reasonable, and I can’t deal with your logic, you’re fired. That’s it.”
Self-righteous? Definitely. Inflated sense of self importance? You bet. Should he have spoken to co-workers like that? Nope. Was there a better way of handling it? Yeah.
But at the same time, following COVID protocols on a movie set, or wherever you are, is important. And Cruise’s response, justified or not, feels genuine. Rightly or not, I think he really does believe he holds this burden — “the future of this fucking industry” — on his shoulders. Movie going, some say, is dying. So, he’s wants to save it. It’s his real mission impossible.
So far, you can’t argue with the results. I saw Maverick the weekend after it came out in IMAX and there wasn’t an empty seat. I saw it again more than a month after its release — no empty seats. During a pandemic, Maverick has crossed the billion-dollar threshold. Even though it’s based on existing IP, it’s not another Marvel flick that requires prior knowledge of the 89 movies that came before; you can go without having seen the original and have almost as good a time. One of the trailers that plays before the movie is for the Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One — that’s the seventh installment if you’re keeping track and as the title indicates, the eighth is coming soon after. The sixth Mission Impossible movie, Fallout, is arguably the best of the franchise and brought in $791,657,398 at the box office in 2018.
So while Cruise is still the scientology weirdo who probably takes his job a bit too seriously and should maybe cool it with the stunts to preserve his own life, his relentlessness is, at least, effective. It serves a purpose. A higher calling. In a time when TV shows release individual episodes with runtimes as long as movies, streaming services that outnumber cable channels spit out high-quality shows at a rate impossible to keep up with, tickets to the movie theater cost more than a meal, and our attention spans have been mushed to bits, he might just be the savior going to the movies needs.
Make no mistake about it, there will be a day when the world no longer needs Tom Cruise — a day when movie theaters are shuttered and replaced entirely by the streaming services that offer audiences the convenience of watching movies from home, where you can stop and start at your leisure, and check Instagram on a second screen; a day when another movie star replaces him as the best action star alive (no, not Chris Pratt); or a day when Tom Cruise himself is no longer physically capable of being Tom Cruise. Time always wins.
But as Maverick tells us, “not today.”
See you at the movies.