The actor Tom Cruise has recently released a new film, his first in four years thanks to Covid-induced release delays. You may have heard of it, a low-budget arthouse picture called Top Gun: Maverick.
Ecstatic critics have fallen over themselves to praise Maverick not merely as superior to the original Top Gun (a mere 36 years old now) but as one of the greatest action films ever made. It currently has a hugely impressive 97 per cent 'Fresh' score on the reviews aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. Coincidentally, that’s the same score that Cruise’s previous film, Mission Impossible: Fallout, received there, too. It is proving an enormous box office hit. And the perma-smiling Cruise has done everything that he can to promote it, short of going into space – where he is heading for his next film, apparently.
I sometimes wonder what Scott Fitzgerald would have made of Tom Cruise. At a time when the idea of the actor-as-draw has disappeared from contemporary cinema, the weirdly ageless man remains the last remaining movie star working today. Cruise has dealt with the changing vagaries of the industry through both phenomenal hard work and, on another level, simply ignoring them. He has his own franchise, the Mission Impossible series, and except for an appearance in The Mummy, one of his rare out-and-out flops that’s best forgotten, he does not appear in others.
He has worked with virtually all the leading (male) directors of the past half-century, but now collaborates mainly with the writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who has a credit on virtually every project he takes on. His private life is consistently speculated on, and his public utterances on his religion, Scientology, have attracted as many column inches as his films. He remains both uniquely accessible – insisting on meeting fans for hours at premieres – and entirely opaque. He once jumped on a couch, torpedoing his career for nearly a decade. I cannot remember ever reading an interview with him that offers the slightest insight into who he really is. Which, of course, is the point. There is Brand Tom – Cruise Control, if you will – and everything else is subjugated to it.
It helps that, after a strange and atypically lacklustre run of form between Mission Impossible III in 2006 and Edge of Tomorrow in 2014, Cruise has once again returned to pole position in his commercial instincts. The intriguing but little-seen American Made aside, he has not made a non-blockbuster (or intended blockbuster) since Valkyrie in 2008. The days when he collaborated with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick – Stanley Kubrick! – and Steven Spielberg seem very distant.
One can debate how good an actor he is (I think he’s superb, but a chilly technician rather than a warm, Hanksian everyman) or how unerring his instinct for filmmakers and projects are. But one thing seems clear: we shall not look on his like again.
Movies have changed beyond recognition since he began working four decades again, but Cruise remains one of the few constants, an ever-fixed mark in our multiplexes and streaming services. The former first, naturally: he is an evangelical proponent of the theatrical experience. He made an inordinate deal of attending a public screening of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in 2020, at a time when many were reluctant to do so.
But he is far from reckless. It is telling that, when he flew into an expletive-laden rant at two crew members who had not been observing Covid protocols on a Mission: Impossible set, most observers took his side. When he announced that 'I’m on the phone with every fucking studio at night, insurance companies, producers, and they’re looking at us and using us to make their movies. We are creating thousands of jobs you motherfuckers. …Movies are going because of us. If we shut down it’s going to cost people fucking jobs, their home, their family,' he was applauded for his (sweary) commitment to his industry.
We shall probably never know who the 'real' Tom Cruise is. And that, I suspect, suits him fine. But we do know that this eccentric, physically daring man remains the last leading man who is happy to give his all in the service of entertaining his audience – and we are, of course, his audience. At a time of bland, identikit actors, this dedication is something to applaud. For once, the Top Gun sequel has the right title; its star really is a maverick. Long may his insane, generous individualism last.