Tom Cruise saved cinemas this summer, or so we’ve been told. In many ways, Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, a surprisingly belated, metallically handsome and often enthralling sequel to Cruise’s 1986 flyboy romp Top Gun, is such a throwback item that it feels almost wrong to watch it digitally, (as you can now on premium VOD platforms or free to Paramount+ subscribers from 22 December). You half expect a limited-edition VHS in time for Christmas. And though the film’s flimsy story hangs on Cruise’s navy pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell having grown from young rebel to, er, maverick mentor, it’s primarily an attempt to stall the star’s ageing in the minds of the audience. He’s Peter Pan; he just needs a machine to fly.
But if Cruise’s star quality is undimmed after nearly 40 years, it isn’t unaltered – the evolution of his career has been among the most fascinating in modern Hollywood. He began as a fairly straightforward teen idol, quite literally sliding into stardom in 1983 in that famous pants-clad shot from the horny boys’ daydream Risky Business.
A credible turn the same year in the ensemble cast of Francis Ford Coppola’s angsty youth drama The Outsiders hinted at more ambition to come, but first would there was the charismatic posturing of Top Gun and game dramatic apprenticeships opposite Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman in The Color of Money (1986) and Rain Man (1988) respectively. His elder co-stars both won Oscars: never mind that Cruise actually gave the best performance in Rain Man as a cocksure alpha thrown by Hoffman’s autistic savant.
As the 1990s dawned, Cruise made official his run at serious actor status with a committed performance as disabled Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s slightly inflated biopic Born on the Fourth of July; he entered the Oscars as the favourite, only to be thwarted by superior work from Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. His defeat nonetheless cued the most interesting decade of his career, as he balanced slick, entertaining, playing-to-type efforts – including a brace of callow lawyers under fire in A Few Good Men (1992) and The Firm (1993) – with intriguing attempts to go rogue.
If he never seemed quite at ease playing the queerly sexualised bloodsucker Lestat in 1994’s Interview With the Vampire, Stanley Kubrick brilliantly made that discomfort below the waist the whole joke of Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He was better still as a terrifying men’s rights speaker in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), which wickedly played on the public’s fascination with his shrouded Scientology identity. It’s his greatest work, a palpable risk that should have finally won him that elusive Oscar – a prize he also just missed with Jerry Maguire, effectively the platonic ideal of a Cruise vehicle, calling on both his smooth Waspy showmanship and his edge of masculine anxiety.
Yet it was another part, from the same year as Jerry Maguire, that would turn out to define Cruise’s later career. In 1996, his role as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible seemed a fun throwaway; a quarter-century and a half-dozen sequels later, this physically indomitable but psychologically vague character is emblematic of a star whose lofty dramatic aspirations largely ended, coincidentally or otherwise, with his turn-of-the-century divorce from Nicole Kidman and the Church of Scientology closing ranks around his personal life.
His taste in 21st-century action-man fare has been solid – alongside the robust pleasures of the Mission: Impossible films and Top Gun: Maverick, 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow is ingenious, time-looping sci-fi, while American Made (2017) mashes Top Gun and Goodfellas to rollicking effect – but deviations from that agenda have been few. His cool, terse turn as a silver-haired hitman in Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) and his wacky, bald-pated cameo as a studio exec in the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder jointly mark the last time he permitted himself a middle-aged screen image, while he was surprisingly magnetic and atypically sexual as a louche rock star in the fluffy musical Rock of Ages (2012). Should he choose to lay off the stunt work and retire the Aviator sunglasses, Cruise could surprise us yet.
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Also new on streaming and DVD
Emily the Criminal
Released from her kooky comedy wheelhouse, Aubrey Plaza is terrifically flinty in this tight, socially pointed crime yarn. As a Los Angeles everywoman taking up elaborate credit card fraud to tackle student debt, she makes the underworld all too relatable.
Awash with humid southern gothic atmosphere, Kasi Lemmons’s emotionally acute coming-of-age drama was well received in 1997, but has since been canonised as a classic of modern Black cinema: this beautifully presented Criterion release underlines that status.
The Spine of Night
Connoisseurs of adult animation will swoon over this startlingly violent fantasy in the mould of the 1980s cult favourite Heavy Metal: the swords-and-sorcery story, passing through multiple historical eras, is murky but the style is on point.
Unlucky to share plot points with Netflix’s upcoming The Wonder, this resourceful British indie horror about a single mother reckoning with her daughter’s refusal to eat has virtues of its own, not least Jessica Alexander’s chilling performance as the determined girl.