When news broke that Tom Cruise was starring in another “Top Gun” film — “Top Gun: Maverick” — my eyes involuntarily rolled backward to see what the cerebellum was up to. If you had lived in my house for the past 30 years, where the movie has been replayed approximately 144 times, you would understand.
But having viewed his appearances and ovations over the past few days amid premieres in Cannes and London, I have come to realize that Cruise isn’t just a box-office draw for going on five decades but is essential in the way of heroes. He understands how to be a star when Hollywood seems to have forgotten and heroes are in short supply.
From Johnny Depp’s ongoing defamation battle with his former wife Amber Heard, to Will Smith’s brutish attack on comedian Chris Rock during this year’s Academy Awards, movie stars aren’t what they used to be.
The sordid tales that have emerged from the civil trial between Depp and Heard are both jaw-dropping and impossible not to watch. It is hard to know for whom one should root.
Meanwhile, nothing Smith does in the future can erase from public memory the image of him stalking onto the stage and clocking Rock for a perceived insult toward his wife. That wasn’t chivalry; it was thuggery. And everyone in the audience — around the world — was his victim.
By comparison, Cruise is in a different class, another word one need not dust off much these days. Thanks to many of today’s influencers, celebrities, athletes, stars — and at least one president — class has been replaced with arrogance, flaunted wealth, brutish behavior, boastfulness and gaudy ostentation — traits Americans once found, what’s the word, deplorable.
Except for one gobsmacking display in 2005 when he jumped on Oprah Winfrey’s couch to express his excitement over his then-girlfriend, actress Katie Holmes, Cruise curates a measure of privacy about himself. He knows what his fans want, and he gives it to them — not an ordinary bloke dropping f-bombs on the sidewalk but an uppercase Movie Star. He does his own stunts in most cases. This is an actor. Full stop.
The source of Cruise’s discipline is the subject of much speculation. But the fact of his focus isn’t up for the debate. Amid roaring crowds and airshows in his honor, Cruise expressed quiet gratitude and generosity toward his staff and other stars, including Val Kilmer, who also returns as “Iceman” in the new film.
I can attest to Cruise’s star quality from a brief personal experience. Cruise and Holmes attended the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington that I also attended. Their table was close by, making it necessary for our paths to cross. Holmes, resplendent in white, slipped past as though sidestepping a crowd of dusty peasants, while Cruise, catching my eye, walked straight toward me brandishing his blinding billion-dollar smile.
Taking my hand in his, he hit the high beams on those piercing, blue-green eyes, singeing my eyeballs with — I’m certain of it — the recognition that he had finally found his one true love. I have no idea what he said. Then he was off to charm his next victim, and the next. That’s star power.
In the new movie, Cruise’s character returns to his flight school alma mater as an instructor. He looks much the same, if lightly seasoned. Trailers reveal that Maverick’s infamous intensity has grown even more intense. Epic dogfighting scenes are even more epic. Still unclear is whether the updated dialogue matches the original from 30-some years ago. But I’ll be the first to know, thanks to an all-male household that has, for better or worse, committed every line to memory.
Classics rarely work as remakes. But the return of “Top Gun” when the world is warring, burning and slaughtering amid shortages, inflation and planetary despair, seems poetic if not providential. We need a healthy distraction — but especially this film and this star. Maverick is a textbook character of old-school, testosterone-suffused manhood — full of American virtue and irreverence paired with a cocky, wise-guy attitude toward authority and anyone who challenges his superior game. He’s also a hero who has already served his country for more than 35 years.
What’s more once-upon-America than that?
No wonder my gang of four loves Cruise. But this “Top Gun” is more than a flight of fantasy. Ultimately, it’s about family, friendship and sacrifice — which is to say, about what gives life meaning.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling the need for speed.