Top Gun has a complicated legacy. On the one hand, it showed Hollywood what a blockbuster could be expected to deliver - or what it was possible to deliver. Because as you all remember, Tom Cruise wasn’t Tom Cruise back then. He was the rising star of Risky Business who was preparing to enter the genre of "high concept" cinema (that is the genre of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer).
The term “high concept”, in a nutshell, can be explained as follows: an idea that can be described in 10-12 words max, so that a film studio can grasp right away whether it is marketable or not. At the time, this formula had proven to be successful at least twice; with Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop (clearly promoted by Eddie Murphy’s persona who was also not a leading man at the time).
And it still is today. From Bad Boys, to Armageddon and Pirates of the Caribbean, these are all carefully created products that are perfectly made out of explosive action, flashy names, and technical marvel - elements that do well to distract from the lack of humanity that often resides in them. In the 90s and the 00s, Top Gun, which had some of these elements, wouldn’t look like a risk but in 1986…it sure as hell was.
The risk of Top Gun
Being named Top Cruise didn’t mean much in 1986. Neither was having a film release on May 16th, as it was the case with Top Gun. These days, the summer blockbuster season begins in early May (if not April thanks to the success the Fast and Furious franchise has had in that month in recent years). But in the '80s, the most promising releases came from Memorial Day onwards. Paramount chose to precede Memorial Day by releasing Poltergeist 2 and Cobra - each representative of the time’s trends.
Poltergeist, a Steven Spielberg production, fit into the category of fantasy (...but just about). So family dramas (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and comedies (Ghostbusters) aside, it was the most reliable investment for box office payoff. It would be fair to draw parallels with the dominance of superheroes in today’s box office, with the noticeable and enviable difference of a more versatile movie slate mix. Poltergeist II: The Other Side did really well, by winning an Oscar nomination for Special Effects, and continuing with Poltergeist III. Cobra with Sylvester Stallone was also one of the credible exceptions; you know, these sort of individual-centred action movies starring either him or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cobra premiered at the number #1 spot at the box office and to this date, it still enjoys its cult status.
Top Gun opened with a whopping $8.2 million in its first weekend (that would be about $20 million today), but it also achieved something very difficult, even at a time when it wasn't uncommon for a film to be playing at the cinema for months. It ended the year as the most profitable film of 1986, multiplying the revenue of its debut by 22x times. Like, holy shit Cruise. This was the moment that Hollywood realised that human-focused adventures could make waves again, and acknowledged that the fetishisation of the male body was a different type of "male gaze" which, when it was done on MTV terms, could resonate with the younger generation.
It also formed the foundation for multimedia synergy. It wasn’t the first time of course, with the Planet of the Apes franchise pumping out games and comics since the 1970s. However, this time it was with a soundtrack of unrelated tracks by various artists that would sell 9 million copies in the United States alone. Meanwhile, the music videos of the songs would be played on MTV in rotation.
The day movies died?
Mark Harris, a prominent journalist and writer, wrote an essay in Esquire in 2011 entitled The Day The Movies Died about Hollywood's allergy to original ideas, announcing the time of death at the moment Top Gun was starting to soar. The text is a sweeping and partly unfair generalisation (that he also admits to), but it captures the circumstances that mathematically led the industry to its monoculture today, with the survival of the cinemas solely dependent on tentpole franchises that are too large to fail.
“The [summer movie] label could encompass a science fiction film as hushed and sombre as Alien, a two-and-a-half-hour horror movie like The Shining, a directorial vision as singular as Blade Runner, an adult film noir like Body Heat, a small-scale (yes, it was) movie like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a frankly erotic romantic drama like An Officer and a Gentleman. Sex was okay—so was an R rating. Adults were treated as adults rather than as overgrown children hell-bent on enshrining their own arrested development.”
Speaking of Simpson and Bruckheimer’s productions, he continued to say: “At their most basic, their movies weren't movies; they were pure product—stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities. They were rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.”
Ouch. The description is not far from the original Top Gun, but I have to defend Tony Scott's skills. The director, who tragically took his own life ten years ago, made one of the most iconic opening scenes in action cinema and immersed almost his entire film under a romantic dimming light when, let’s face it, it didn't even have to be there. Didn't he romanticise a militaristic film that shouted "'Fuck yeah,' Murica!"? He totally did.
Nonetheless, you can tell he always had a need to compose a non-linear look because, as the rest of his filmography shows, the technique of his that was once underestimated, it was also the one that is now relentlessly being analysed in film theory work. Scott's unreserved style wanted you to be absorbed in his visual worlds, to serve every story he had in his hands to the best of his ability because frankly, he believed so much in stories. This isn’t something that always worked as well and it is true that his intense editing could be tiring, but Scott wanted to make each scene as stimulating as possible because he cared.
But Harris knew he was unfair: “That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds—the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them—is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-'80s post-adolescence that is shaping moviemaking. Which may be a brutally unfair generalization, but also leads to a legitimate question: Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?”
He doesn’t say so, but from his emphasis on the ability that movies once had in terms of eroticism vs today's sterilisation, my assumption is that Harris had at least appreciated the sexual energy of Top Gun, which, intentionally or not, was fired in every direction (I’m in the camp of it-was-not-intentional-but-it-was-welcomed). However, it can’t be a coincidence that Top Gun was one of the most popular films of the last 50 years without some kind, or any kind of continuation. Its cinematography is deeply embedded in pop culture, but it is also an odd cultural relic, a kitsch gateway to the American subconscious of the 1980s. Today, it is more remarkable for its sweaty homoeroticism, the Ray-Ban memes and the military propaganda rather than its qualities as a film, no matter how astonishing Scott’s aviation scenes and iridiscent skylines were.
Add to that Tom Cruise's refusal to do sequels in general for much of his career. Especially in the case of Top Gun, it wasn’t just that he did not find much challenge in Maverick's character and his environment (unlike Mission: Impossible which excited him due to the complex logistics involved). He was also afraid of the message.
“Some people felt that Top Gun was a right-wing film to promote the Navy. And a lot of kids loved it,” said Cruise in a Playboy interview in 1990. “But I want the kids to know that that’s not the way war is — that Top Gun was just an amusement park ride, a fun film with a PG-13 rating that was not supposed to be reality.”
He added, “That’s why I didn’t go on and make ‘Top Gun II’ and III and IV and V. That would have been irresponsible.”
So why now?
And suddenly, Maverick becomes Tom Cruise’s once-in-a-lifetime role
The Last Movie Star of its kind. Frequent characterisation for Tom Cruise and most likely an accurate one.
Cruise rarely fails at the box office, making movies only for the theatres, making no television shows and nothing remotely streaming-related. He doesn’t spend time advertising coffees, tequilas or the latest cryptocurrency. He will also work his ass off when it comes to the publicity of his films and he will take pictures with every single one of his fans (I’ve seen that first-hand), because he comes from a Hollywood era when stars had to rely on them for box office success. Undoubtedly, this presupposes the devotion of his fans. And Cruise, despite the occasional public boo-ing he has received for climbing couches, attacking Brooke Shields or for his direct involvement with Scientology, he has never actually lost it. The numbers speak for themselves.
Thirsting for recognition and certainly longing for Jesus Christ superstar level of social status, the actor has purposefully collaborated with legendary directors such as Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, while he has tested his intensity range with ecstatic roles such as Frank in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Vincent in Michael Mann's Collateral.
Around that time, we found him enamoured with his first Mission: Impossible production, which prompted him to violate the "no guns, no sequels" rule he had for the first twenty years of his career. And after Tropic Thunder and Rock of Ages, his efforts in self-parody and self-interrogation, even in capturing more human qualities beyond heroism and determination, were somewhat dashed.
These days you’ll find him going for “journeyman” directors: experienced, reliable, with athletic-like discipline, who also share his love for danger and help him orchestrate practical acrobatic stunts for himself. He is a luxury daredevil, a showman who clenches his fists and jaw, runs fast and jumps from wherever he is, while the planet looks at him with its mouth open. For those of us who loved his bizarre magnetism in dramatic roles, we miss this side of Cruise, but he has become very good at what he does. The best.
With the cinematic spectacles that he sets up, with production values that do not skimp on the slightest, outstanding action, suspense and the coveted catharsis in the finale, Cruise’s brand is a guaranteed good time at the cinema. And it does not come without a cost.
The actor exercises obsessive control in the productions he stars in and is intolerant of the word “no”. In a period of despair towards our fellow citizens who did not comply with the measures for Covid-19, audio straight from the Mission: Impossible production leaked with Cruise screaming at his colleagues for not wearing masks: "We are the gold standard. They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us. Because they believe in us and what we’re doing. I’m on the phone with every f—ing 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 motherf—ers. I don’t ever want to see it again. Ever!”
“You can tell it to the people who are losing their f—ing homes because our industry is shut down." he continued. "It’s not going to put food on their table or pay for their college education. That’s what I sleep with every night – the future of this f—ing industry!”
In a scene from Top Gun: Maverick, as the now legendary Navy pilot called to train the best new generation pilots on a life-or-death mission, Pete "Maverick" Mitchell is not going to caress the ears of the arrogant *youngsters* who think they are doing everything right. Tell them to the families of your colleagues who will not survive the mission because you did not learn to fly properly, he clarifies. In one of the introductory scenes, Maverick is informed that the experimental fighter section to which he belongs is to be suspended because the tests have not yet hit the targets. He will ride his plane before Ed Harris visits them in the role of an officer in order to shut them down, grit his teeth and aim for the Mach 10 supersonic record. He receives the order to return to the base, but he stops to think of all the people who will lose their jobs if the government diverts funding at the expense of the drones and at the expense of the pilots. He pushes his plane to the point of extinction to prove that the human factor is still important.
Self-referentiality is not subtle here. Cruise uses CGI only when absolutely necessary, in an industry that, at the blockbuster level, is increasingly relying on algorithms and anti-aging technologies in its creations. It is an oxymoron with flesh and bones that he has refused to succumb to the concept of time, the only real inevitable enemy of man, but at the same time he stubbornly denies "no one is irreplaceable". No, people are not replaceable for Cruise and the stories he wants to tell. It's not the plane, we hear him again and again in the new Top Gun, it's not the technology. It’s the pilot who makes the difference.
Whereas 1986’s Top Gun was possessed by the feeling of invincibility, its sequel draws its strength from the awareness of the inevitable. "Time is your biggest enemy," Maverick admits to his trainees, telling them to listen. Once upon a time, Maverick was a derivative of nepotism who believed the world belonged to him. Now, 40 years later, it's incredible how hard he has tried to stay frozen in time (another non-random, self-referential choice for the actor who plays him). He has refused promotions and retirement options because he believes that by remaining a captain, he will be able to live forever in his golden age. Now that he is being asked to return to Top Gun to teach the next generation of pilots, what better way could he find to stop time?
Newcomers and veterans alike, every character in this film considers Maverick a relic and a god at the same time. On the one hand, Top Gun becomes a Gen X fantasy for a man who proves to the next generation that the old man “still got it”. And that whatever they can do, he can do better. On the other hand, in a bar scene where Jennifer Connelly plays his ex-partner, a weakly written character that the actress manages to turn into a real woman, Maverick looks out of the window at younger men and women having fun without him. They have already created a world in which he will soon be forgotten. "The future is coming," Harris had grumbled earlier. "And you are not in it."
But if Maverick desperately wants to stop time, what scares him the most is to let time repeat itself. One of his trainees is Rooster, Goose's son, played by Miles Teller. Rooster has clear issues with his boss, not only because he blames him for his father's death, but also because Maverick had used his relocation to the Navy to prevent his career from advancing. The last thing Maverick wants is to see his friend's child lose his life in the military. And well…because his mum asked for it without Rooster knowing. The other pilots, mainly Monica Barbaro and Lewis Pullman as Phoenix and Bob, also have their moments. Cruise is accompanied by nostalgic beats in the film: the Great Balls of Fire played at the piano, the air battles, the beach games, the romance with bomber jackets and the sunsets. This is absolutely a Top Gun film.
Just like the first Top Gun, Maverick makes a painstaking effort to ensure that the bad guys faced by the brave American forces are devoid of humanity and nationality. They are simply called "the enemy", their faces are completely hidden behind black helmets, the logos on their fighter jets are phantom-like. We know it is a world power with nuclear weapons that the rest of the world wants to get rid of, but Top Gun, instead of dealing with the moral choices that come with an armed conflict with a foreign country, it focuses on all the fun that’s involved. The focal point is the heroic achievements of the brave soldiers, while the enemy is limited to an anonymous, impersonal threat. The arrival of the mission abroad was so quick and sudden, that during the screening I remember wondering whether they had just flown to…Canada? This would always be, and still remains, the most controversial and worrying aspect of Top Gun as a franchise. That it creates a world where the political implications of its military conflicts simply do not exist.
The film is often thought as the offspring of military propaganda stemming from the heights of the Reagan era. What place could it have in today's world, which already looks so vastly different from the world in which it was filmed only four years ago? But Top Gun is a work of cultural rather than political nostalgia. It is also a better film than the one in 1986 and, more importantly, a friendlier, more tender film. It’s more mature and it’s more generous, as it befits its now mature star. The touching way it addresses Val Kilmer's throat cancer, whose character is now superior to Maverick in terms of ranking, is one example of this.
And Cruise smiles a lot, more than he has smiled for years in a film. He rides his motorcycle (without a helmet, of course), flies his planes, plays football with the younger cast, and oozes lightness without his often binding…intensity. Sometimes he smiles so wide that it seems involuntary, as if he can’t control it. When the credits of the film started to roll, I thought that when he is no longer here, he will be missed even by his harshest critics. Because he's not just the last movie star of his kind. He's also our very own maverick.