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Tom Cruise Is the Ultimate Try-Hard—Except in ‘Top Gun’

Our hero has always done The Most, with one rare exception

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2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

Tom Cruise flipping over the table in Magnolia. Tom Cruise screaming, “I want the truth!” in A Few Good Men. Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch. Tom Cruise gyrating in Tropic Thunder. Tom Cruise howling “Wanted Dead or Alive” in Rock of Ages. Tom Cruise asserting that Matt Lauer doesn’t know the history of psychiatry. Anywhere you look amid the transcendent chaos of his four decades of intensely public life, you can find Tom Cruise doing something more physical, more intense, more action-hero-oriented than anything he does in his role as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun.

Listen. I love this movie. You love this movie. Your mom loves this movie. Your kids would love this movie. (Do not show Top Gun to young children; a mid-’80s PG rating is a far different animal than a 2020 PG rating, which is to say that Detective Pikachu does not feature the line “Take me to bed or lose me forever” twice in, like, 90 seconds.) But what is truly impressive, nearly 35 years later, about what Cruise does in Top Gun—the soapy and super-macho dogfighter classic directed by the god Tony Scott and released wide on May 16, 1986—is how little of it he does.

Maverick. What a stud. What a jerkoff. What a phenomenally casual colossus. He is arrogant in his serenity, overpowering in his economy of movement. His ego writes checks no Reagan era body, from Stallone’s to Schwarzenegger’s, could ever hope to cash, and so Cruise’s body, as such, barely tries. The trying—and wow, what a truly fearsome quantity and quality of trying—would come much later.

He carefully fist pumps while riding his motorcycle. He puts on his sunglasses. He removes his sunglasses. He sings a lady a song. He sings another song with his good friend. He gets yelled at; he yells himself, once or twice. (“JESUS CHRIST!”) He models briefs and attends debriefings. (That is the stupidest sentence I will ever write.)

But mostly: He bides his time. He keeps his cool. He withholds. The hallowed Volleyball Scene aside (and that’s more a matter of posing than spiking), Maverick barely lifts a finger outside the cockpit, whether he’s preening or flirting or tough-talking or shaving or mourning or shave-mourning. The famed pantsless sock-slide in 1983’s Risky Business—the movie was his big breakthrough, the scene was history’s first GIF decades before the GIF was invented—is a more impressive athletic feat than any of this, or all of it put together.

In 2020, your boy (who is 57) wants to shoot a movie literally in outer space and is also undoubtedly training to (just spitballing here) skateboard down the Temple of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá for the seventh Mission: Impossible movie. But in 1986, in the OG Top Gun, when Cruise was on the cusp of superstardom with a megawatt smile and a bad reputation and a need for speed and a killer call sign, stillness was the move.

Top Gun is precisely the sort of multiplex-strafing cheeseball blockbuster the COVID-19 crisis has denied us as the Summer Movie Season ostensibly begins, stay-at-home orders having laid waste to the 2020 film slate, including, of course, the long-awaited sequel Top Gun: Maverick, slated for June but since pushed to December. Rewatch the trailer and weep.

“Despite your best efforts, you’ve refused to die,” your boy Maverick (now 57, presumably) is informed by Ed Harris in that trailer, and verily, in the vast gulf between these two films, Cruise’s idea of what constitutes his best efforts has changed drastically. He is working harder than ever; his penchant for death-defying stunts is growing more, not less, intense with time. As his body (presumably) withers, his ego, unfazed, orders yet another box of checks. One possibility is that Top Gun: Maverick will climax with Tom Cruise doing the worm on the wing of an F/A-18 Super Hornet as it buzzes over Dubai.

It’s quite an arc! I had always imagined that as action heroes (and A-listers in general) age, they rely less on pure brawn and show-off-y antics and more on presence, on charisma, on an outlandish tough-guy calm meant to suggest past hyperkinetic glories without trying to top them. Think of Cruise in 2012’s Jack Reacher, playing a (canonically very tall!) ultra-badass, but relying almost entirely on his conservation of strength and shrewd disregard for his various enemies’ self-regard, his nonchalance so total it scans as outright weariness. In lieu of a bombastic catchphrase, we get “It’s getting late.”

This is, historically, the Hollywood norm; in Cruise’s filmography, it is close to the exception. We could argue about this, or we could just agree that he’s delivered his best and/or wildest two action movies, 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow and 2018’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout, while in his 50s. That hilarious 2016 supercut that’s just 18-plus minutes of Tom Cruise running in movies proves that he keeps trying to run faster, or at least harder, as the years roll merrily by. The whole video has an odd Benjamin Button aspect, and it begins with him strolling along an aircraft carrier in Top Gun, a 20-something demigod quite at his leisure, crowing about his need for speed before executing, with his beloved/doomed partner Goose, one of the least athletic-looking high fives you’ll ever see in an action movie. He walks at the same pace; the world speeds up to accommodate him.

“I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.” “Every time you go up there, it’s like you’re flying against a ghost—it makes me nervous.” “Too aggressive.” “Gutsiest move I ever saw, man.” This is how people talk to Maverick in Top Gun: like he’s a time bomb that detonated 20 minutes ago. The telling is so emphatic that it counts, technically, as showing. “When I first met you, you were larger than life,” laments his love interest, Charlie, at a low moment, their love affair being the movie’s most lamentable low point. “Look at you. You’re not gonna be happy unless you’re going Mach 2 with your hair on fire, you know that.”

The trick is to convey that without actually lighting your hair on fire, without a strand of your luscious hair ever falling out of place. (In the upcoming Mission: Impossible — Yowza, Cruise will light his hair on fire while fistfighting a cheetah.) I would pay $50 right now to watch Top Gun: Maverick in my living room, and what I want to watch specifically is a variety of would-be studs variously situated on their personal arcs—from Val Kilmer to Jon Hamm to Miles Teller to Glen Powell—attempt the virile blasé preening of early Tom Cruise. They will undoubtedly try way too hard or not try at all, which when it comes to Looking Cool is indistinguishable from trying the absolute hardest.

And meanwhile Tom Cruise himself will saunter around the frame, so laid-back as to be lying down, so tightly wound as to be utterly carefree. As much as I’d like to see him do the worm under any circumstances, that is not Maverick’s way. He is the wild card whose actual physical wildness is left for everyone around him to describe, to bemoan, to contend with, to aspire to. He is the savvy veteran, and achieved that savviness back when he was a superstar rookie. And then he set that savviness aside and started jumping off buildings.

You know what’s another great 1986 movie starring Tom Cruise? The Color of Money. Martin Scorsese, Paul Newman, Richard Price. Pool halls. Erudite machismo. Unbelievable. Cruise slices his fancy pool stick through the air like a samurai to the strains of “Werewolves of London”—another physical feat more impressive than anything Maverick gets up to. “He’s gotta learn how to be himself, but on purpose,” Newman observes of his young 9-ball protégé, and Cruise remains the master, decades on, of giving you the most but also making the least feel like even more.