The Maverick who became Tom Cruise

The true success of the mega star lies in a Top Gun character that was introduced to the world 36 years ago. To understand Cruise, you have to gauge his avatar in the 1986 flick and its 2022 sequel

By Vinay Kamat

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Published: Fri 27 May 2022, 8:56 PM

Last updated: Sat 28 May 2022, 10:26 PM

If you haven’t seen Top Gun or its sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, you may be missing out on the real story. It’s time to watch these two high-octane thrillers and soak in matinee magic. Years before Marvel and Netflix dominated the screens, there was a king. He had figured out how to make the global blockbuster. Now he’s back to reclaim his legacy. Maverick is not just a sequel. It’s a tribute to the matinee. It’s the last gunfight against streaming.

Our story begins on May 16, 1986, when Hollywood broke the sound barrier. Top Gun, which was released on that day, has since changed the world of entertainment. Its hero Tom Cruise has dominated the screen for decades, and in the process, kept a key part of Hollywood alive. That key part has a lot to do with oomph, machismo, villainy, suspense, and action. Cruise has delivered on all five. Plus, he has kept the Hollywood ethos intact for people who have grown up on Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Clint Eastwood. People who love great acting, great storylines, and sheer entertainment.

Cruise is everyone’s hero. His pop appeal straddles generations and sub-generations. You can deconstruct the pop appeal into three parts: style, skill, and signature smile. Compare that with Clint Eastwood’s: style, skill, and signature scowl. For Cruise, smile is the colour of money. The star has mopped up more than $10 billion across the world so far. That’s Hollywood’s one man standing.

He has slipped in and out of three key personas: Maverick (Top Gun), Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) and Jack Reacher. His closest competitors in the multi-persona game: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky and Rambo) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo and Indiana Jones).

The list of Cruise characters is as long as his 50-plus movies: flamboyant rebel, elite spy, drifter, samurai warrior, lawyer, accountant, sports agent, pre-crime cop, bartender, hired gun, war veteran… So enduring is his performance as a spy in the MI series, it equals the very best: Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne.

Renowned critic, the late Roger Ebert, dug deep into the Cruise formula in 1990: “The archetypal Tom Cruise movie is Top Gun, in which the young fighter pilot, a natural, was tutored by a once-great pilot and emotionally nurtured by an older female flight instructor before testing his wings against the hot dogs of his unit, in preparation for a final showdown. In The Color of Money, the young pool player, a natural, was tutored by a once-great pool hustler and emotionally nurtured by an older female who had been around the block a few times, in preparation for a two-part showdown with (a) his hated opponent on the professional pool circuit, and (b) his mentor himself. “

Top Gun has the Cruise signature line, the line that defined him in his blockbuster roles: “It’s classified, I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.” The line has smart-aleckism and casual seriousness that became Cruise hallmarks. With Cruise, irreverence turns cool. Extra conceit is neutralised by a winsome smile. His passion for stunts creates real-world machismo. Cruise has often spoken about his stunt works: “I love working on the story and the characters. The stunts, each time, we keep pushing ourselves harder and harder. And they are stunts, so there’s always a danger in doing them, but fortunately, I have not had a problem.”

Cruise is a package. And nowhere is this more evident than in an anti-hero role that he assayed in Collateral. Director Michael Mann said he saw a Lee Marvin in Cruise. Perhaps, he was talking of grit, style, and attitude that Marvin brought to the 1967 suspense thriller Point Blank. In Collateral, Cruise shows how well prepared he was to play a cold-blooded assassin. Cruise brings in Top Gun lingo and MI pace to a taut thriller that you would rank higher than Equaliser. All Cruise ingredients are in play in his action movies, but he has the rare ability to customise the Big Mac for any occasion.

What is the definitive list of Cruise thrillers? Here’s a list of Cruise craves and Hollywood bests:

  1. A Few Good Men (1992): Truly a legal slugfest between a lawyer and a colonel, the hottest scene is the eyeballing between Cruise and Jack Nicholson. As in Top Gun, the other guy wins, but the Cruise effect lingers.
  2. Minority Report (2002): Although it’s a classic Steven Spielberg show all through, Cruise brings in a deft Harrison Ford-like touch (see Blade Runner) to a riveting sci-fi storyline.
  3. The Last Samurai (2003): With Ken Watanabe, Cruise brings 19th century Japan alive in a story of honour, love, and rebellion. Like Tintin, Cruise seems to slip effortlessly into any country or era.
  4. Mission Impossible (1996): Though Brian De Palma’s first version is a punchy classic, the others that followed are high-quality surprises. Cruise likes to do the stunts himself, creating awe, shock, hype.
  5. Eyes Wide Shut (1999): A must-see for Stanley Kubrick fans, this was the maestro’s last. An erotic noir, the film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 75 per cent. If that’s not enticing enough, Nicole Kidman steals the show.
  6. Top Gun (1986): You can call it a rock show on an aircraft carrier or a locker-room brawl in the skies, but this blockbuster was a true American razzle dazzle of adult might and teenage bravado in an era of Soviet demise. Its iconic song takes your breath away, literally.
  7. Born on the Fourth of July (1989): This Oliver Stone anti-war film should have given Cruise a Best Actor Oscar. His go-for-broke performance and Stone’s empathetic direction, coming three years after Platoon, are worth experiencing.
  8. Collateral (2004): The pick of the lot, since it’s unlike any Hollywood thriller or a Cruise fare. Michael Mann’s film is as tense as his 1995 cult classic Heat. Directed in noir style, the film is dominated by Cruise’s savage performance.

Despite Cruise’s diverse screen guises, he’s genetically Top Gun. You can’t take that away from him. Maverick is the epicentre of the Cruise universe. All Cruise roles are variations of the Top Gun template. Maverick is not just a character. He’s the idea that launched multiple characters and created a formula for the global blockbuster. He’s the mean meme. He’s the Cruise control.

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