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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Emma Brockes

In need of light relief? Top Gun: Maverick is a reminder that Tom Cruise has still got it

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick.
‘This film, coming at a dismal moment in history, is close to being the perfect distraction.’ Photograph: AP

Before going to the movies this week to see Top Gun: Maverick, I hadn’t thought about Tom Cruise for a while. Or rather, I hadn’t thought about him in his capacity as a movie star. Cruise’s reputation has ranged over the years from hero to villain to general curiosity. At nearly 60, one might imagine he’s done. Instead, here he is, skin stretched taut by forces greater than G-force, at the helm of a $170m action movie that broke US box office records on its opening weekend. We’ve been through a lot with Cruise, but I’m going to say it: he’s the last great movie star and this film, coming at a dismal moment in history, is close to being the perfect distraction.

The original Top Gun was released in 1986 and the makers of the sequel have shrewdly leaned into the nostalgia, updating the fighter jets and crew, but soaking every other detail in references to the original. It’s all there, from the opening words on-screen, to the jump-jets landing on the carrier, to the flagrant gay-wash of the first film: tight white T-shirts, aviator shades, a dim feeling, much discussed by gay women, that Cruise is basically a lesbian. (More on this another time). Because of all this, and the thrill of watching F-18s fight over unnamed enemy territory, Top Gun: Maverick hit $160m at the US box office on its opening weekend, with the smallest drop ever – 29% – to $90m for the second weekend.

A lot of this has to do with Cruise himself. His persistent strangeness off-screen has made it easy to forget just how good he is on-screen. Cruise has decent acting chops, but it’s not that. It’s the smile, obviously, which he rations so severely every flash of it lights up the scene. It’s the nose. It’s the eyebrows. It’s that weird clenching thing he does with his jaw. It’s the sheer distance between him and his co-stars, in this case Jon Hamm, a prissy creature of the small screen who looks thoroughly out of place in a blockbuster. Only Val Kilmer can hold his own opposite Cruise in this movie.

There are other films, other movie stars, but it’s never quite the same. Bradley Cooper? Too flimsy. Leonardo DiCaprio? Too – I don’t know what, exactly, but something about his general aspect these days makes me think of the underside of a toad.

Brad Pitt – look, we all loved him back in the day, but he’s become incrementally seedier and less appealing over the years, and not just for his behaviour towards Angelina Jolie. He has a new movie out, Bullet Train, in which he bops about in his favourite sub-Kurt Cobain guise, exuding gusts of light irony because don’t you know he’s too fancy for an action movie? A good use for Pitt would be to put him in a movie where he defeats the bad guys by sitting them down and forcing them to listen to his thoughts about architecture.

George Clooney? Too urbane. There’s not enough mystery about Clooney and that charm of his has curdled over the years into a self-regard so solid it’s practically Clintonian. I recall seeing him at a press launch years ago, surrounded by acolytes, radiating what can only be called yes-I’d-be-excited-to-meet-me-too energy.

There are younger contenders, too, all hobbled by various limitations. Chris Hemsworth, like Jason Momoa, looks like a boulder person from Frozen 2, who one imagines being broken by any question larger than “tea or coffee?”.

So, to Cruise. I know, the Scientology. I used to fuss about that, but these days couldn’t care less. At this distance, it almost aids his appeal. Cruise is so consistently odd, so thoroughly unknowable, he’s practically Greta Garbo. Alone among actors he has resisted coming down to earth from the Thetan Arena. He rarely posts on socials. He won’t do a TV show. He fought to have the release of Top Gun: Maverick limited to cinemas rather than, as per industry standards, shared with a streaming giant.

The movie’s one downside is the absence of Kelly McGillis, who, though only five years older than Cruise, is still a woman, so as per Hollywood bylaws isn’t permitted within 100 feet of a romantic role in a blockbuster (Jennifer Connelly plays the love interest). In an interview with Entertainment Tonight recently, McGillis said: “I’m old and I’m fat and I look age-appropriate for what my age is, and that is not what that whole scene is about.” Quite.

Still, I loved it. Here was the excitement America has for itself in its most innocent form. Killjoys will say it fetishises the military, and you can do that, if that’s what you do. It is also joyous, and silly, and thrilling, and triumphant, a movie you have to submit to on its own terms or go home. “Well?” said a friend who I phoned immediately on leaving the cinema. “Greatest country on Earth,” I said.

  • Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at

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