Tom Cruise has hung off the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai and dangled from the wing of a plane thousands of feet above the earth. He has ridden a motorcycle off a cliff and held his breath underwater for six and a half minutes. He has even survived starring in “Cocktail” (1988) and jumping on Oprah’s couch (2005). But with the theatrical release of “Top Gun: Maverick,” Cruise accomplishes a feat that could be record-breaking. He’s portraying a character — hotshot fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell — that he first brought to the screen 36 years ago, perhaps the longest delay for a return appearance in Hollywood movie history.
Double plays (and more) are hardly unheard of, especially in a modern Hollywood addicted to franchise properties and characters. More people know Robert Downey Jr. from nine movies — nine! — as Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, than from anything else he has done in his career. But Cruise’s feat is unusual for a number of reasons. The original “Top Gun” (1986) was a massive hit and a pop-culture touchstone (and a pretty terrible movie, but never mind), but it was always a one-and-done experience. When Maverick flew off into the sunset with Kelly McGillis’s Charlie at the end, everyone got up and went home.
Yet here’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” arriving nearly four decades after the original. To be fair, the sequel, which sees the hero put in charge of a cadre of young pilots assigned a dangerous mission against a conveniently anonymous enemy, began production four years ago and was originally scheduled for a July 2019 premiere. Production delays and the arrival of the coronavirus pushed back the release date no less than five times; even Cruise is helpless against the massed forces of delta and omicron. Ironically, the delay has only heightened expectations, and a project that seemed like a punchline when it was announced in 2010 has bowled over preview audiences and early critics in blockbuster-starved 2022.
The delays also gave Cruise the apparent record by lengthening the time between original and sequel. There have been several instances of an actor returning late in life to a character they established earlier, and in almost every case the phenomenon arises from the combination of a star whose career longevity has achieved legendary (or at least near-legendary) proportions and a property that audiences might want to pay to see again. Is the motive always mercenary? I can think of only three examples where the urge for the swallows to return to Capistrano is predicated on genuine creative curiosity or at least random serendipity.
The class act in this category is Paul Newman chalking his pool cue again as “Fast Eddie” Felson in Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money” (1986), a quarter-century after “The Hustler” (1961). Newman’s Oscar win was especially sweet, given that he’d been nominated for best actor six times before — including for “The Hustler” and “Hud” and “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Verdict” — without taking the prize.
Money may have been the deciding factor in Marlon Brando taking on the role of Mafia don Carmine Sabatini in “The Freshman” (1990) 18 years after Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972), but the movie itself, a wonderfully flaky comedy, hardly feels like a cash grab. Does this even count as a return appearance, because Brando’s character isn’t Vito Corleone but (supposedly) the man who inspired him? Feel free to argue, but “The Freshman” wouldn’t exist without “The Godfather,” and that’s that. (Coincidentally, 1990 also saw Brando’s one-time co-star Al Pacino return to his “Godfather” role in the “The Godfather Part III,” a movie that only proved lightning doesn’t strike thrice.)
Were audiences clamoring for Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” (2020) three decades after “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989) charmed teenage stoners everywhere? Not really, which is one reason the movie’s so funny. Usually when actors deign to return to a classic role, they arrive with star wattage weathered but undimmed by time; the chiseled Cruise of “Top Gun: Maverick” makes the flyboy of the first film look like he’s still working off his baby fat. Reeves and Winter just look … older, and the film keeps booting them down the line into various futures to worsening effect. It’s all oddly cheering, as if you or I had been called upon to reprise our high school play at the 30th reunion.
Otherwise, these overdue returns are a form of what we now call fan service, in which a nostalgic blockbuster enterprise is dusted off two or three decades later with the original stars bringing gravitas to the project — or at least audiences wanting to touch a known talisman from their pop culture past. Sylvester Stallone returned to “Rambo” (2008) 20 years after “Rambo III” (1988) and “Rocky Balboa” (2006) 21 years after “Rocky IV” (1985). Leonard Nimoy re-upped as Spock for the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot 20 years after the last Trek movie with the original cast. Sean Connery cried uncle and agreed to play James Bond one more time in the aptly titled “Never Say Never Again” (1983), 12 years after “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971).
Have you noticed anything missing here? Like, maybe, actresses? Aside from Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor in “Terminator: Dark Fate” (2019), 28 years after “Terminator 2,” the delayed return visit seems mostly a male phenomenon, for reasons that don’t reflect well on Hollywood or on audiences. In the classic studio era, Bette Davis played Queen Elizabeth I twice in 16 years (“The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” in 1939 and “The Virgin Queen” in 1955), but only because as far as anyone was concerned she was Queen Elizabeth — regal, peremptory, eternal. Otherwise, it’s the depressing truth that male movie stars are allowed to age in popular culture but not their female counterparts.
If you doubt that, remember the online insults from callow fanboys that greeted the late Carrie Fisher’s General Leia Organa in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” (2015). The actress responded valiantly, tweeting “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings,” but why would anyone want to submit themselves to that? Kelly McGillis, Cruise’s co-star in 1986, is 64 now and wasn’t asked to be in “Top Gun: Maverick,” and that’s fine by her. “I’m old, and I’m fat, and I look age-appropriate for what my age is,” McGillis cheerfully told reporters. (Jennifer Connelly, 51, plays the love interest in the new movie.)
That said, the undisputed king of returning movie warriors has to be Harrison Ford, by dint of his starring in the two franchises that started the ball rolling in the first place. “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” (2015) came out 32 years after Ford’s last appearance as Han Solo, in “Return of the Jedi” (1983), while “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008) appeared 19 years after “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989). And let’s not forget the 35 years between “Blade Runner” (1982) and “Blade Runner 2049” (2017).
If you’re counting from the character’s debut, Ford’s last major appearance in a Star Wars film came out 38 years after the first, which gives him the crown. And the star still isn’t done. There’s a new Indy movie, already shot but as yet untitled, in the can for release in June 2023. It will mark 42 years since Ford first appeared as Indiana Jones.
Take that, Tom Cruise.
Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.substack.com.