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Mary McNamara: 'Top Gun' casts Tom Cruise as the hero in the film and at the box office

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

In many ways this moment is simply an extension of his career, particularly in the later years: Against all odds and expectations, Tom Cruise comes through to save the day.

It all matches up nicely with the plot of "Top Gun: Maverick," in which Cruise's aging (ha!) title character is enlisted to prepare a group of elite pilots for a dangerous mission, even though everyone involved believes he is washed up. It's hard not to see this as a wink at Cruise himself, who, despite appearing preserved in ice for the last 20 years, is closing in on 60.

Read a different way, every "dinosaur" crack aimed at Maverick (and there are many) could be directed at a film industry struggling to preserve the theatrical experience in the age of prestige TV and streaming wars.

That Maverick's nemesis is played by Jon Hamm, who as "Mad Men's" Don Draper did as much as any single person to put television in the alpha position, makes it even more pointed.

And honestly, who among us won't be thrilled if Cruise triumphs in life as in the movies? Who won't cheer if the absurd and exhilarating "Maverick" gives the movie industry the big win it so desperately needs? If we must briefly genuflect before the enduring charm of Cruise's boyish grin, the power-twitch of his jaw muscles and his frankly eerie ability to still rock a tight T-shirt, well, it seems a small enough price to pay.

But the last real movie star? I don't know. Hollywood has been predicting the extinction of this species for decades but even in, say, the late '90s, when Julia Roberts smiled down from every billboard, Tom Cruise existed in a separate part of the stratosphere.

 

Handsome in a Preppiest Senior way, always giving 200%, he took himself and his career very seriously. Even with the occasional turn in a serious or arty film — "Born on the Fourth of July," "Magnolia" — his film choices seemed to revolve around maintaining a high-octane, leading-man image.

There was, for many years, very little drama about Cruise. No addictions or benders or on-set tantrums, no politics. Though he always looked great on a red carpet, you couldn't imagine him pranking or palling around with his fellow celestials. And as a performer he worked almost exclusively in a genre that is best described as, well, "Tom Cruise."

He could land a one-liner but he wasn't a comedian; he was swoon-worthy but not really sexy. He ran in every movie (he still does) and played a lot of soldiers or ex-soldiers but there was, inevitably, at least one scene in which his eyes would well with tears.

He never played a superhero, but many of his characters had superhuman tendencies, and for years Cruise himself appeared indestructible. He survived two Hollywood divorces, including one from Nicole Kidman, without putting so much as a scratch on his dream-boy-next-door vibe.

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