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America’s real hero

Top Gun: Maverick confirms that, like it or not, Tom Cruise is a cultural phenomenon

Tom Cruise as Maverick in the original Top Gun movie. Photo: Paramount Pictures/ Sunset Boulevard

Tom Cruise made his film debut in a bit part as Billy in a 1981 Franco Zeffirelli film called Endless Love. In it, Billy tells the hero that he once tried to burn a bunch of papers when he was a little boy, but got scared. His parents thought he was a hero for not burning down the house.

This seems to me to be a kind of metaphor for Cruise, a strangely family-friendly actor who, most of the time, does daring, non-family-friendly, stuff. Endless Love is a great title for his audience’s relationship to him. Yet, his mega-stardom is complex, maybe the most complex in film history. My own relationship to his films is complex, too.

I have never seen a Cruise film except under these circumstances: a) the ones I went to in order to see another actor, and b), when I am paid to go to a Cruise pic as a critic:

So in a) I saw Rain Man for Dustin Hoffman; The Color Of Money for Paul Newman; The Firm for Gene Hackman. And in b) Eyes Wide Shut is one example.

When being paid to review, I once had a real surprise: I stumbled upon a Cruise performance that I didn’t know was going to be in the film.

I was sent to review Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Magnolia when it was first released, and up pops Cruise as a motivational preacher. I don’t know what I was more stunned by – that I didn’t know he’d been cast in a film by PTA, or that Cruise was playing the son of the great Jason Robards, or that he could do something so deeply complex. At any rate, I couldn’t forget him.

Because Cruise, if anything, is intense, maybe the most intense actor on the American screen since Brando. This guy gives the impression that his life depends on being in THAT part; in THAT movie; Right Now.

Cruise is always both real and a blank slate. Like a kind of Greta Garbo if she really couldn’t act and had played male.

A much younger female friend told me once that she likes Cruise movies because the women in them are usually strong. They win.

What she meant, she explained, is that Cruise somehow does not threaten women. He is not beautiful now; nor does he carry with him any real sense of physical or sexual danger. In other words, he is not the male version of a femme fatale.

You don’t feel, as a girl, she explained to me, that he’s after anything other than the job at hand. Plus he actually allows women to take over; even fight each other and not in some stereotypical ‘girlie’ way. Asses are well and truly kicked by females in Cruise films if this is what is required.

Since my friend is usually right and I depend on her to keep me au courant, I take her word for this. Plus it looks that way from some of the trailers.

Now, as we emerge from two lockdowns, still stalked by a killer virus that has wiped out millions, and discovering that two nations actually feed almost the whole world and these nations are at war, thereby upending the literal food chain, Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to Top Gun, bursts into our lives like redemption.

Top Gun: Maverick was in production for 12 years, its release delayed for about two because of the pandemic. Cruise himself has said that he wanted to make a film about speed; about the end of the dogfight era.

Maybe about The End itself in that this kind of interior/exterior Fighting Man; a man battling his own demons may only credibly exist now in fantasy. And in sports.

The aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes assembled the reviews. These are some of the more sober:

Top Gun: Maverick improves on the original. It’s deeper, it’s not corny, and it has thrilling effects”; “The dogfights, chases, and mid-air sequences are truly remarkable – far clearer and far more intense than anything in the original Top Gun”; “If Top Gun was a fun film because it invented Tom Cruise, Maverick is a great film because it immortalises him.”

The plot is the plot of a classic Western: that staple of Man Alone Against The Odds: “After more than 30 years of service as one of the US Navy’s top aviators, Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is where he belongs, pushing the envelope as a courageous test pilot and dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him. Training a detachment of graduates for a special assignment, Maverick must confront the ghosts of his past and his deepest fears, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who choose to fly it.”

Plus Val Kilmer makes a cameo in it, returning to his role as Iceman, the enemy of Maverick in the original. In real life, Kilmer is a cancer survivor, the disease has taken away his voice. He will, for many, be not only a reminder of the original picture; but a kind of reminder of mortality itself. As Cruise too is in his way.

Cruise is a cultural phenomenon, like it or not.

Like all things basically inexplicable, Cruise carries the unacknowledged; the unspoken. Plus he seems to have a strangely robotic quality with something all too human inside.

That one critic who wrote that he was immortal got it right at one level: he is Everyman pushing himself to the limit. He is Average Man, not even taller than a lot of the women now, but he works to command their attention and in his own strange way, sets them free.

I will continue my Tom Cruise habit and skip Maverick. But the wild reception for this film has to be about much more than Cruise’s obviously canny feel for his market. And his luck. It is also because, even though it will happen soon, you can’t yet watch this picture alone.

You probably can’t lie in your bed in PJs and see it on your laptop. We want to Get Out. Now with Netflix and other streaming services in trouble, Cruise has been right on time with an old-fashioned tentpole movie, the kind of picture that a big studio used to make in order to get people INSIDE of a movie house. The place where you engaged with others; where you lived inside the screen with them. And where the studios could make money: popcorn etc.

Maybe this is really what Cruise can do: make films that mainstream America wants to see.

If you’re in ‘The Business’, you know that this is a kind of genius. And luck.

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