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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 February 2021

Still Maverick at 57: how Tom Cruise maintains leading man status 33 years on

‘Top Gun: Maverick’, the sequel to an ’80s pop-culture one-off, has flown in from nowhere to become the blockbuster to beat next summer

Tom Cruise in Top Gun, in 1986. Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Tom Cruise in Top Gun, in 1986. Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The final scene of the new trailer for Top Gun: Maverick – the talked-about-for-three-decades-and-now-finally-happening sequel to the 1986 pop-culture phenomenon – bears watching more than once. Maybe that’s why, at the time of writing, it has already racked up more that 20 million views on Youtube alone.

In the scene, Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell has seemingly been dragged once again into the office of some moody military type (this time, Ed Harris) for what we can only assume is yet another plane-based indiscretion in a career pretty much made up of plane-based indiscretions.

Has he buzzed the tower again? Taken his own instructor out on another forbidden sunset motorcycle ride to the strains of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away? Has he – because, let’s face it, some things never go out of fashion – gone and got himself into another mid-air rumble with the Russians?

Whatever the reason, the frosty exchange goes like this. “The end is inevitable, Maverick,” says Harris’s irked top brass. “Your kind is headed for extinction.” Maverick pauses, digesting the insult, before spitting it right back. “Maybe so, sir. But not today.”

A screenshot from the 'Top Gun: Maverick' trailer showing Tom Cruise at 57. Courtesy Paramount Pictures
A screenshot from the 'Top Gun: Maverick' trailer showing Tom Cruise at 57. Courtesy Paramount Pictures

You don’t have to be a genius to appreciate the double-meaning. Just like the character that will forever most define him, Cruise isn’t about to go anywhere just yet. Far from it, in fact. With the next two sequels to his mammoth Mission: Impossible series about to shoot back-to-back (a first for the franchise), a follow-up to his 2014 sci-fi smash, Edge of Tomorrow, in development and Top Gun: Maverick, ready for, ahem, take-off next July, he has quite simply never been more at the peak of his box office powers.

The sequel comes 34 years after its predecessor

Last week, when he walked out on stage as a surprise guest at San Diego’s Comic-Con, he pretty much took the roof off the nerd nirvana. As the cheers finally subsided, Cruise surveyed the frenzied crowd. “I’m feeling that lovin’ feeling …” he laughed – a reference, of course, to his karaoke schmoozing of Kelly McGillis in the bar in the original movie.

Cruise is 57 now. When he made Top Gun – the movie that would send him stratospheric – he was 23, coming off the back of the likes of Risky Business and Legend. But even he couldn’t have appreciated just how much the world would fall for its perfect combination of blockbuster charms. The need for speed. The sunglasses. The volleyball. Dastardly Iceman (Val Kilmer, reprising his role in Top Gun: Maverick). Poor old Goose (Anthony Edwards, not reprising his role, obviously). The leather jackets. The dogfights. The sunsets. The silhouettes. The soundtrack. Oh, that soundtrack …

Tom Cruise at the America's in New York City in 1987. Getty Images.
Tom Cruise at the America's in New York City in 1987. Getty Images.

As a kid growing up in the ’80s, Top Gun wasn’t just a movie, it was a daily routine. Top Gun tapes in our Walkmans – the soundtrack went platinum four times – we would swagger to school, imitation Aviators on and ready for another day of our egos writing cheques our bodies couldn’t cash (to paraphrase just one of its many iconic lines), that great mix of Kenny Loggins’s Danger Zone and Harold Faltermeyer’s unmistakable score blaring in our ears. Little wonder that this new trailer, a masterclass of mixing the nostalgic with the new, leans on it so heavily.

“The truth is that you never really know,” Cruise once told me about deciding to play the role. “But sometimes, you’ve just got to go with your gut.” Pure Maverick.

'Tell me you got the rings, man. Tell me you got the rings!'

He’d called me on Friday October 28, 2011. I can be sure on the date because it happened to be my last day in the office before travelling to the venue for my own wedding, and I had just got back from a last-minute dash to pick up the rings. Cruise had repeatedly postponed the interview because he was deep into a breakneck Jack Reacher shoot in Pittsburgh, but the point of no return had finally been reached. It was “Maverick” or “Mrs” time.

The interview had to happen at 4pm, or it couldn’t happen at all. So it was that at 4pm precisely, my mobile phone rang. I picked it up. The voice down the line was utterly unmistakable. “Buddy, it’s Tom,” the voice said, full of concern. “Tell me you got the rings, man. Tell me you got the rings!”

To be clear, I don’t mention this to show off, but to illuminate. You see, I had never even met Tom Cruise before. Rather, he had asked his assistant why this interview was so urgent, and she’d told him all about the wedding and the rings and the stress, and he’d wanted to check in that everything was OK. Movie stars don’t do that. But then, Tom Cruise isn’t your average movie star. Maverick wasn’t just his callsign in Top Gun; it was the callsign for his whole career.

Not only did it provide the perfect distillation of that classic Cruise charisma, it also sparked his love affair with the death-defying stunts he’s synonymous with today. Created by the masters of high-concept action, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and based on the exploits of the real-life US Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (aka Topgun), which turned 50 this March, it was on Top Gun that Tom Cruise first learnt to ride a motorbike. It was also the movie for which, at Bruckheimer’s insistence, he would first take a ride in a fighter jet. “So they [the Navy] take Tom up there, and they do five Gs. They do barrel rolls, they do everything,” the producer remembered later.

“He’s heaving in the plane. He gets back on the tarmac, runs to a pay phone, and he says, ‘I’m in. I’m doing the movie. I love it. This is great’,” Bruckheimer famously said.

This time, of course – directed by Tron: Legacy’s Joseph Kosinski, starring alongside a stunning set of new recruits including Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller and John Hamm, and trained by the Navy itself – Cruise isn’t just pretending to be a flying ace; he’s in the actual cockpit himself. This time, his evolution as an actor and the evolution of movie technology means he gets to do Top Gun authentically. So that we can really feel the need; the need for speed.

As he told that Comic-Con crowd of the astonishing Top Gun: Maverick footage the trailer reveals: “Everything you see in this film, obviously it’s for real.”

Maverick is back, in other words, better and more rebellious than ever. And he can be our wingman any time.

Published: July 25, 2019 07:00 AM

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