On March 7th, 1987 James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith went 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. James Smith lost the fight, unanimously, but going 12 rounds with Iron Mike is an achievement in itself, especially as Smith shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Smith hadn’t grown up boxing and had turned down the opportunity to turn pro when first approached by managers. When he did eventually go pro (at age 28), he was knocked out on live tv for the world to see. Smith continued to get knocked out to the point that he retired from the sport altogether. When you love something it’s hard to let it go, so Smith returned to the ring.
In 1986, he replaced Tony Tubbs in a title fight against WBA Champion, Tim Witherspoon, the man who had sent Smith into retirement a year earlier. Smith won the fight he shouldn’t have been in, in a sport he never intended to take part in, and his prize was a title unification bout against The Baddest Man on the Planet in 1987. Smith was a 7-1 underdog against the undefeated Tyson who was 10 years younger than him and had knocked out the vast majority of his opponents. Boxing is a young man’s game and Smith was in a fight against time as much as he was in a fight against Tyson. No one expected Smith to win and he had no right to, but that was never his aim. He spent the entire fight clinging to Tyson, simply surviving was good enough.
At the same time, Tom Cruise was fresh off the biggest year in his young career. In 1986 he starred in Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning Color of Money as well as the era-defining Top Gun. He was a young professional who had taken the world by storm and was entering the peak of his career, much like Mike Tyson. In 2022, Tom Cruise is no longer the up-and-coming generational superstar. After a turbulent 2000s both on and off the screen that led to him almost being replaced by Jeremy Renner in the Mission Impossible series, he’s closer to the aging Bonecrusher. Tom Cruise is almost 60 and fighting against father time one stunt at a time. From the opening credits, Top Gun: Maverick is also a fight against time. The new crop of fighter pilots have under 3 minutes to complete their mission, Mav’s new crew must prove they can reach 10 knots before the admiral arrives, and most importantly Mav himself is running out of time.
Early in the film, Mav is informed that his days in the navy are over as war is no longer waged by humans. Not due to the human cost but due to the cost of humans. In both Top Gun movies, the characters and audience are constantly reminded of how expensive the equipment is. So expensive that Tony Scott spent $25,000 of his own money to turn around an aircraft carrier and get the perfect lighting. But unfortunately for the army, the people that fly the planes cost money too. It’s far cheaper to have someone in a room controlling a drone like a shitty plug-and-play knock-off console you get as a kid and play once. Despite his best efforts, Mav knows he can’t win the war against time, but his goal is just to keep the fight going, for himself and for those he works with.
It’s easy to draw a comparison between Maverick and Tom Cruise’s real-life battle to “save” cinema. During the dark days of 2020-21, when studios were in desperate need of money and streamers wanted as much content as possible to pad their services while filming was shut down, Tom Cruise was resolute. Top Gun was a movie made for the big screen, as are all modern Cruise movies. In an era when Marvel has a monopoly on screens and even streaming’s most ardent critics are bending the knee (see Steven Spielberg), Tom Cruise is between rounds without a cornerman by.
Like a boxer whose legs are wobbling early, the smart move would be to throw in the towel, spare yourself more head injuries and fight another day, such as Rian Johnson cashing a gigantic mouse-shaped cheque and parlaying it into Knives Out. But humans aren’t purely rational beings, we are swayed by emotions, egos, and love. That’s why a boxer will risk injury to finish the fight with pride intact, why Tom Cruise will continue to fight for the cinematic experience, and why Maverick will push himself beyond what’s possible for his crewmates. It is this humanity that is evident in every frame of Maverick and devoid in every big-budget green screen monstrosity that solely fills up screen time for Disney or Netflix.
Top Gun: Maverick became the most successful Memorial Weekend movie because it requires a big screen to experience it. Even the flattest of screens and the most surrounding of sound couldn’t recreate what the cinematic experience offers. It seems that every month there is a new ‘tentpole event movie’ that you have to see in cinemas but they’re just a smorgasbord of CGI on par with James Wolfe’s elongated ‘cuckface’ in the Angry Video Game Nerd movie. Marvel may be content to tinker with every minute detail in post (down to Thor’s helmet), regardless of how it looks because it’s cheaper to use non-union artists that have set designers. But this isn’t the case for Top Gun as director Joseph Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda shot over 800 hours of footage to ensure every landscape was lit perfectly.
This is a real movie, with real planes flying over real backgrounds. While Cruise garnered much criticism for scolding Mission Impossible 7 crewmembers for breaking Covid rules, his message was right. He’s creating thousands of jobs and trying to save cinema, one awe-inspiring stunt after another. Every flyover, every sunkissed body, every vista is real. This is a movie that reminds the audience of the beauty of the world. Real colours that can’t be recreated on a green screen. It is a celebration of life, even as the story is steeped in death.
Death is the connective tissue that brings together all humans. Its inescapability is a weight all shoulders bear. Maverick and Rooster carry the burden of Goose’s death but this isn’t a reason to despair. They look to Goose for guidance on how to live. The most touching and human scene of the movie is Maverick’s and Iceman’s reunion. Though the role is iconic, Iceman isn’t much of a character in the original film. His sole purpose is to be a thorn in Tom Cruise’s side until they come together for the greater good.
Val Kilmer is so enthralling that every animalistic bite of gum and venomous word that spews from his mouth captivates the audience. This performance is different though, it is Iceman in name but not in nature. No, in Top Gun: Maverick, Val Kilmer is Val Kilmer. After overcoming cancer, Val has difficulty talking and Iceman is the same. He begins talking to Maverick by typing on a screen but after telling Maverick that ‘it’s time to let go’ Iceman speaks. It’s a moment that is equally heartwarming and heartbreaking due to the reality of the situation. Unlike the use of deepfake technology to use the image of deceased celebrities which feels exploitatory, Val himself commissioned the creation of an artificial voice that is entirely his own. The use of Val and consideration for his illness is both respectful and real. Even Tom Cruise, perhaps the most deepfaked celebrity, feels like the true version of himself in Maverick.
After laying both his marital and fraternal issues bare for all in Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, Tom’s career has settled into scenes of running. While not at the level of Dwayne Johnson making a new jungle adventure every year, primarily thanks to Cruise being willing to put his body on the line again and again (and some help from Spielberg), this isn’t the ideal career for Cruise after his work in the 80s and 90s. He doesn’t have the quiet indie drama like Brad Pitt in Moneyball to satisfy the critics, but he’s unwilling to don spandex tights or turn his back on cinemas for a streamer.
MI7 is one of my favourite movies of recent years mainly thanks to Cruise, but while he may not jump out of a plane in Maverick he gives a far more emotionally grounded and open performance (while still flying planes). Miles Teller and Glenn Powell tower over him in their scenes together. Before he straps in for one last mission, he looks out at the blue sea, frightening and beautiful in its vastness, and the sunlight lays his crow’s feet bare. This isn’t the cocky young buck of Top Gun who does what he wants or the actor standing on a box to portray himself as a star, but it is the real Tom who is willing to go beyond what any other actor will do to put on a show and put butts in seats.
As a human, Tom Cruise is imperfect. Having David Miscavige as the best man at your wedding probably doesn’t point towards a perfect moral compass. And Maverick isn’t the perfect movie. Even though the enemies are nameless and faceless, on some level it is still military propaganda, although not as much as the original. The shot of a smiling Tom Cruise in front of an oversized American flag sums it up nicely. The United States of America as we now know it is an entirely human creation. Obviously, natives populated the lands before, but more humans arrived to do what humans do. They created a human country full of contradictions, a place where anyone can achieve their dreams but most are crushed under the boot of capitalism.
Only in the Home of the Free could Scientology flourish and entangle thousands under its spell. A country that spends billions on technological marvels used to maim and murder. A country that wouldn’t allow non-heteros in its armed forces but made a propaganda movie that has a homoerotic ‘soft porn’ sequence. But people are full of contradictions. I can look past Tom Cruise maybe knowing where bodies are buried and the US Army’s involvement in this movie because it’s human nature. Maverick wobbled in the third act when it seemed like Tom Cruise would do the most human act of all on screen, and die, but as always with Tom, he doesn’t. He survives being shot out of the sky and is rescued by Rooster. For a moment the movie looks ugly, some bad jokes are made, and something that seemed real no longer does. But what could be more human than hoping to escape death? We want happy endings. Just like James Smith clinging to Mike Tyson, maybe it’s time for Cruise and Maverick ‘to let go’ but why would we want them to when they’re all we have left.
It’s a sad state of affairs when a movie that symbolises 80s schlock and the consumption of arthouse movies by studios is heralded as the saviour of cinema in 2022, but that’s where we are. Stepping into a ring with Mike Tyson, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, and turning down millions from streamers during a pandemic to hold on to Maverick may not be the smartest of ideas, but they are human, the type of humanity that Maverick celebrates like no other big-budget movie in 2022. Tom Cruise may not win the fight for cinema but he’s clinging to it until the final bell rings. For both Tom Cruise and Maverick, it’s not ‘time to let go’ just yet.
Top Gun: Maverick is currently playing in Irish cinemas.