Tom Cruise: The Last Movie Star Who Gets Better with Age

Tom Cruise returns to the skies for Top Gun: Maverick, but his movie star persona has never touched the ground since 1986. In fact, it’s flying higher than ever.

Tom Cruise by plane in Top Gun Maverick
Photo: Paramount Pictures

It’s not exactly subtle. Appearing in even the first teaser of Top Gun: Maverick—released an astonishing three years ago!—Tom Cruise’s fighter pilot is getting an epic dressing down from the boss. His superior, Radam. Chester “the Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris), is sick and tired of Maverick’s hot shot ways and insubordination. And he’s here to put the younger man in his place. It’s a scene we’ve witnessed many times, including to iconic effect in the original Top Gun from 1986, and yet the Hammer’s critique of his fiftysomething naval officer is sharper here. More pointed. He is getting at something existential about the trajectory of a man’s life.

“You can’t get a promotion,” Harris’ rear admiral sneers, “you won’t retire, and despite your best efforts, you refuse to die. You should be at least a two-star admiral by now… or a senator. Yet here you are, captain. Why is that?” We then cut to Cruise’s slightly more weathered yet remarkably still boyish face, and he simply teases the outline of a familiar smirk.

The sequence, which comes early in the finished Top Gun: Maverick, is obviously meant to clue us into what its title character has been up to for the past 36 years. But it also works as an admission that Maverick and Cruise’s biographies are entwined. Despite the actor once being weary of doing a Top Gun sequel, and dismissing the idea out of hand in a 1990 Playboy interview, Cruise is back in one of his most beloved roles and doing what he’s always done best: fly really fast planes, drive really fast motorcycles, and look quite cool while doing both.

In many respects, this makes Maverick a rarity: a character study on the life of a movie star who for four decades has operated at the very height of American pop culture and entertainment, and who instead of choosing the path that so many other gifted stars of yesteryear—graduating to the rank of esteemed character actor and a cinematic statesman, becoming a Paul Newman or Robert Redford, who were no strangers to playing senators—he remained the guy in the cockpit, doing it better than anyone his junior. In fact, he’s doing it better than when he was in his junior years.

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In this way, it’s interesting that his superiors in Maverick include Harris. The older actor is only 12 years Cruise’s senior and once played globally renowned fighter pilot John Glenn in The Right Stuff (1983). As the years passed, Glenn became a real-life senator, and Harris is now playing an admiral. Similarly, in Cruise’s signature action movie franchise, Mission: Impossible, the star is often reprimanded by IMF Director Alan Hunley, a character played by Alec Baldwin. Also like Cruise, Baldwin came up in the 1980s and starred in his own classic spy thriller, The Hunt for Red October (1990).

Harris and Baldwin both were “promoted” to the role of the proverbial senator. But Cruise? He’s the last and perhaps only living proof that movie star charisma can endure. It can even get better with age.

Once a Different Type of Movie Star

Before Top Gun was released in 1986, the idea of Tom Cruise as the grinning action star did not exist. After Top Gun, Cruise still at least somewhat resisted being placed only in that box. To be sure, he’d already achieved a certain level celebrity before then by appearing in 1983’s surprise hit Risky Business. But while largely remembered today for the innocuous image of Cruise playing a teenager eager to dance to Bob Seger in his underwear, that picture actually remains a moody and surreal thriller about a young kid who is out of his depth when he’s seduced by a call girl into turning the family home into a brothel.

It brought Cruise attention, but it didn’t make him a household name, nor did the similar romantic teen dramas (and one bizarre Ridley Scott fantasy) he made immediately afterward. Top Gun was the inflection point; the picture where Cruise starred in the highest concept Jerry Bruckeheimer and Don Simpson’s hard-partying offices ever came up with in the ‘80s. This blend of fighter jets, postcard sunsets, and well-tanned male bodies went on to become the biggest movie of 1986 too, not to mention the greatest recruitment video the Navy ever had.

As a result, Cruise was a brand, and one as reliable as Coca-Cola. When it came to the biggest hits of his early career—Top Gun, Cocktail (1988), Days of Thunder (1990)—they all followed a pretty familiar formula as outlined by standup comic Rich Hall. Whether he was a fighter pilot or a yuppie mixologist, he was still the same hotshot who needed to be slightly humbled (but never defeated) by the love of a good woman.

Cruise and his agents obviously agreed to all these lucrative box office hits, but even in those heady Reagan years, there was an initial apprehension by Cruise and his team to let the biggest movie star in the world become only that. As a young man, he made a point to star in those guaranteed moneymakers, as well as passion projects by auteurs. He was Paul Newman’s protégé in the Martin Scorsese-directed The Color of Money (1986), and after Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War reverie, Platoon (1986), won Best Picture, Cruise fought to star in Stone’s next film about that nightmare, Born on the Fourth of July (1989). His unexpected casting as Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, who returned from Southeast Asia paralyzed and as an anti-war activist, still remains the best performance in Cruise’s career.

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As Cruise’s star status reached its zenith in the 1990s, he continued to try to be both the brand—hence the first Mission: Impossible movie in 1996—and the leading actor who chased auteurs. Stanley Kubrick; Rob Reiner; Neil Jordan; Paul Thomas Anderson; Michael Mann; Cameron Crowe; Steven Spielberg. He worked with all of them in the most prolific period of his career, sometimes in movies that were intended to be blockbusters, such as the sci-fi one-two punch of Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005) with Spielberg, or the seminal military courtroom drama A Few Good Men (1992) with Reiner. But, generally speaking, he allowed his star status to get weirdly ambitious projects greenlit and marketed like blockbusters due to his participation.

And, frankly, even the interesting failures in that category—like Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Kubrick’s arguably unfinished final film that was released after his sudden death and which starred Cruise and Nicole Kidman at the end of their marriage—are more captivating than a lot of the well-oiled star vehicles he was doing concurrently, such as the only bad Mission: Impossible movie, M:I-2 from 2000.

Yet all careers ebb and flow, and the natural order of thing for stars, no matter how bright, is to fade—infamously so in Cruise’s case after his personal life came under heavy scrutiny due to his outspoken (and presumptuous) views about psychotropic medication, his very public courtship of his third wife Katie Holmes (who was 16 years younger), and his general participation in the Church of Scientology.

One year after Cruise gained national derision for jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch, Mission: Impossible III (2006) underperformed at the box office, and Paramount made no bones about blaming the actor’s off-screen perception. For a time, the studio even seemed ready to terminate Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character.

This was the point an aging movie star would be expected to recline from that status, accept things will never be as they once were, and take on more character roles like Lions for Lambs (2007), the Robert Redford movie in which Cruise played a senator in a supporting role.

The maverick actor, however, would go on to choose a different path.

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A Star Is Reborn

There was a time when Paramount Pictures was entirely done with Cruise as the lead of the Mission: Impossible franchise. After the J.J. Abrams-directed M:I-3 earned substantially less than its predecessor from six years earlier, then-Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone told The Wall Street Journal (via Screen Crush), “We don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot.” Redstone had Paramount terminate their production deal with Cruise and shutter his office behind the studio’s famous gate. They quite literally pushed the biggest star in the world, who led numerous summer blockbusters for the studio, off the lot.

Typically an event such as this marks the tombstone in a Hollywood lead’s status. It’s the moment where they (and their agent) realize celebrity has waned and it is time for reinvention. But Cruise’s idea of reinvention was not to do a lot more movies like Lions for Lambs; it ultimately became to do what he had done before… but far better than anyone ever imagined was possible.

Admittedly, the moment of grace and public rehabilitation came from a smaller supporting role, in-keeping with that time he might’ve played a narcissistic motivational speaker in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), except in Tropic Thunder (2008), Cruise’s ability to completely over-commit to a seedy character role was dialed up to 11 in a mainstream comedy where he personified what has long been speculated to be a parody of then-Hollywood power player Scott Rudin (whom Cruise worked with on 1993’s The Firm). Under pounds of prosthetics and makeup, Cruise looked unrecognizable as Les Grossman, a fictional late 2000s-studio mogul as repugnant as his pun-y name might suggest… and just as entertaining.

The public enthusiasm over Cruise’s Grossman dancing to hip-hop during Tropic Thunder’s end credits may have been the last of two footholds Cruise had to salvage his stardust. The other was a continued friendship with Abrams, who despite helming the only Mission: Impossible movie to take a bath at the box office came out of the experience smelling like roses to the studio. He even became a golden boy when he reinvented Paramount’s Star Trek franchise in 2009 with the movie that turned it seemingly into a long-running action saga in the Star Wars mold.

It was the success of Tropic Thunder, and Abrams’ wingman-ing, that caused the studio to agree to let Cruise return for M:I-4… if Cruise also agreed they could cast a new leading man who would be set up to take over the franchise in the following film(s).

If you go back and study the marketing material for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), it’s now amusing how hard Paramount pushed Jeremy Renner as franchise newcomer William Brandt. On the poster, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is intentionally made to look older and weathered for the first time, adorning a hoodie to hide Cruise’s famous black mane of hair. Meanwhile, over his shoulder, stands a crisp and bespoke Renner: a fresh face at the literal right hand. Similarly, almost every trailer concluded with the moment Cruise’s Ethan Hunt pulls a gun on Brandt, and Renner’s new protagonist is able to disarm him and hold Cruise at gunpoint instead. A supposed heir apparent has emerged, or so went the implication. And this one is an Avenger.

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Yet something that Paramount’s top brass perhaps did not expect was also emerging in the fourth Mission: Impossible: a middle-aged and chastened Cruise deciding that, with his star status diminished, he’d re-commit to the type of big screen spectacle that made him a household name in the first place. He’d obviously been that guy ever since audiences first got a glimpse of Maverick zooming across a military runway on a motorcycle at sunset in Top Gun. But back then, the motorcycle might’ve been real, and the naval jets definitely were, but Cruise was (almost never) flying in them.

Yet alongside Incredibles director Brad Bird, the middle-aged star now engineered some of the most spectacular stunts ever put to screen in Ghost Protocol, and he did them all. When you see Ethan Hunt pull a proverbial Spider-Man and wallcrawl—and run, and skip—alongside the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, that’s really him doing it. Tobey Maguire used CGI, but Cruise is hanging from a rope as he dangles around a manmade colossus.

Similarly, as an actor previously publicized for doing his own stunts, Cruise used this pivot point in his career to better highlight that fact in long, wide, and dazzling shots that bucked the modern trend of relying on rapid editing. Bird let audiences savor that Cruise is the guy up there. And by the time the actor found his collaborative soulmates in stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood and director Christopher McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), the whole marketing likewise shifted toward that aspect. Entire posters for M:I-5 were nothing more than photographic evidence that Cruise was the one actor seemingly crazy enough to hang from the side of a plane that’s taking off. Meanwhile Renner’s Brandt was reduced to a true supporting role in that one before not appearing at all in 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

The Last American Movie Star

So, yes, Cruise was able to wrestle control back over the Mission: Impossible movies and genuinely make them better than ever, with each of the last three installments surpassing what came before. But more than that, when given the choice of “retirement” or “promotion,” Cruise like Maverick defied the odds and stayed in the cockpit, achieving feats never before seen in his field despite his advancing age.

The context of this in the larger industry is striking. With the infamous exception of 2017’s The Mummy reboot, the 2010s saw an older Cruise retain a commitment to what is obviously traditional blockbuster storytelling. But it is also incredibly well-crafted, intelligent storytelling executed at the peak of Hollywood resources.

Ever since reclaiming Mission: Impossible and his status, the actor has eschewed the auteur projects he coveted in his youth, but the blockbusters he’s doubled down on have improved: Jack Reacher (2012), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), American Made (2017), the three aforementioned M:I movies, and now Top Gun: Maverick are all exceedingly well-made spectacles in which filmmaking craft is at the highest bleeding edge. The emphasis on sharp writing, much of it done by Oscar-winner McQuarrie, is arguably even higher too, which is why McQuarrie became the first director to helm more than one Mission: Impossible movie, and seems poised to draw a curtain on the franchise with the upcoming Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning two-parter that continues his novel innovation of actually developing Ethan Hunt into a character instead of an archetype.

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In a vacuum, this is impressive. But in contrast with the rest of the industry that is chasing interconnected shared universes in the Marvel Studios vein, and a style that values spectacle generated in a computer (and storytelling that appears to be going in an endless circle), it feels like a life raft. Sometimes the old ways are the best. And while it’s nice that movie stardom is more prolific than ever before with a greater diversity of voices and faces in front of the screen, the entire next generation of “stars” seem obligated to make a Faustian bargain where their success hangs on their likenesses being encased in the plastic uniform of a comic book character.

Conversely, and against all odds, Cruise has maintained his own name as the true brand. Mission: Impossible is technically based on an intellectual property, but you’d be crazier than Hunt if you think its fandom comes from adulation of a 1960s TV show. It’s Cruise’s insistence on maintaining the quality of the writing, the acting, and the stunts which has kept people coming back. Consider that despite the fact he’s pushing 60, Cruise is beloved more than any Hollywood leading man since the days of Douglas Fairbanks for his daredevil antics. It was even while mimicking one of Fairbanks’ between-rooftops leaps in Fallout that Cruise broke an ankle. Nonetheless, they kept filming (the take with his injury is in the finished film) and ultimately incorporated his limp into the movie’s finale.

That style of movie stardom feels like a revenant from the past in the 21st century. That style of stardom felt like a revenant in the late 20th century when Cruise was in his heyday and not actually flying any planes in Top Gun. And yet, as Jennifer Connelly recently attested to us, that’s really him piloting her in a single engine plane in Top Gun: Maverick.

In 2020, Cruise’s intensity came under scrutiny again during the filming of the first forthcoming Dead Reckoning movie. Shooting during the early days of the pandemic—and at a period before there was a vaccine—he apparently was enraged when he saw crew members not practicing social distancing or properly wearing their masks.

“We want the gold standard,” Cruise bellowed. “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 fucking studio at night, insurance companies, producers, and they’re looking at us [as the example for how] to make their movies.”

Overly harsh? Maybe. Indicative of an inflated hero complex? Most probably. But proof of an ironclad dedication to the art and commerce of moviemaking in the old school Hollywood sense? Absolutely.

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Once, in a different era, Cruise starred opposite another movie star who was at a transition point in his career, Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. In that movie’s classic finale, which was penned by a young Aaron Sorkin, Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee attempts to get Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessep to confess culpability in a crime. It’s most famous now for Cruise finally shouting, “I want the truth,” and Nicolson screaming in response, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Yet there’s another gem of a line in this sequence where Nicholson, justifying his hardline tactics, explains, “We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded… you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”

For about 40 years, Cruise has stood on a wall of his own, and he may very well be the last man up there in 2022. One day, as Harris’ rear admiral suggests in Top Gun 2, he will have to retire and come on down. Moviegoers will be the poorer for it. But not today. Today, the wall looks taller than ever.