The Last Movie Star Standing: Unpacking Tom Cruise’s Impossible Mission of a Career

“Top Gun: Maverick” is poised for a $100 million opening. When’s the last time a movie star made THAT happen?

top gun: maverick
“Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount)

Every so often, over the course of human history, mankind erects mind-bending marvels of immortal splendor, great enigmatic edifices that defy all reason or explanation. The Stonehenge of Salisbury Plain. The Sphinx of Giza. The temple of Angkor Wat. 

Tom Cruise’s career.

The 59-year-old star is about to release his 43rd feature film, “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sequel to his 1986 action thriller about a bunch of elite Navy jet pilots who play topless beach volleyball between missions. If the tracking is anywhere on target, it should open, on May 27, with at least $100 million over the four-day holiday weekend. That’s not supposed to happen anymore, at least not for films that don’t involve web-spurting superheroes from the Metaverse.

Indeed, the era of the star-driven tentpole was supposed to have ended around the time Julia Roberts married a cameraman and Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor. Pretty much all the members of the old $100 million club of the 1990s and early 2000s have disbanded and moved on to lesser roles. 

Brad Pitt is now doing glorified cameos in Sandra Bullock movies (or at least he was, until Bullock announced her semi-retirement from acting in March). Jim Carrey barely makes pictures anymore, either (unless you count those trippy watercolors of Donald Trump he keeps exhibiting at art galleries). Even Tom Hanks, once among cinema’s most bankable leading man, seems to be downsizing to second-fiddle parts; his next role is Colonel Parker in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis Presley biopic.

And let’s not forget Will Smith and Johnny Depp. It looks like they’ll be taking extended leaves of absence from the big screen, too.

But not Cruise. Flouting the natural laws of Hollywood, disregarding every box office trend, he remains as big today as he’s ever been, the last old-fashioned action figure still standing. 

That status was all but made official in Cannes last week, where even Cruise seemed gobsmacked when he won an honorary Palm d’Or, and even more surprised by the five-minute ovation the usually jaded festival crowd gave “Top Gun: Maverick” before even a second of the film had played at its May 18 premiere. “This is an incredible evening and an incredible time,” he gushed from the stage. “You all have made my life.”

Tom Cruise in a video for the Church of Scientology that leaked in 2008

Of course, like every actor, Cruise’s career has suffered its share of dings. His wacky meltdown on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2005, when he declared his love for Katie Holmes by jumping up and down on Oprah’s sofa like a maniac, was an appalling PR catastrophe. His association with the Church of Scientology has also caused problems, like in 2008 when that nine-minute promotional video got leaked on the internet showing Cruise in a black turtleneck rambling incoherently about “SPs” and “KSW” as the “M.I.” theme song droned on (and on and on) in the background. 

“The Mummy” in 2017, “Rock of Ages” in 2012, “Lions for Lambs” in 2007 — he’s dropped a few bombs along the way, as well. And let’s not even get into those fairy tights he wore in 1985’s “Legend.”

And yet, here we are in 2022, 36 years since the original “Top Gun” was released, and Cruise is still flashing the same 500-watt choppers that made him famous back when Ronald Reagan was president. 

Part of his durability, it has to be said, is due to the fact that, unlike some other aging ’90s actors, he continues to look like a movie star. Pushing 60, he’s still got the same hairline, the same chiseled face and hard-to-miss schnozola, even the same abs (spoiler alert: he removes his shirt so many times in “Top Gun: Maverick” he should probably get checked for melanomas).  

But when you begin poking around Cruise’s 40-year résumé, you can see that his extreme survival skills aren’t just skin deep. You start noticing patterns, career choices that laid the track for long-haul stardom. For starters, almost from the beginning, when he made 1984’s “The Outsiders” with Francis Ford Coppola, he’s picked his directors as if assembling an auteur fantasy league of dream collaborators. Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, Neil Jordan, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Stanley freaking Kubrick — for an actor who has never won an Academy Award, who’s best known for clinically insane action stunts, he’s sure kept some pretty distinguished company.

Of course, nowadays all Hollywood really cares about are franchises. But even here Cruise has outsmarted his former cohorts. A few stars of his generation tried dabbling in the genre, like Cruise’s “Top Gun” co-star Val Kilmer (the Iceman gets promoted to Commander of the Pacific Fleet in “Maverick”), who gave the Caped Crusader a go in 1995’s “Batman Forever.” But Kilmer never quite filled the cowl. He was one-and-done with the DC Comics role. Ditto George Clooney with 1997’s “Batman & Robin.” Both actors, huge stars at the time, got chewed up and spat out by a pop culture icon that turned out to be even bigger than they were.

Cruise, though, came up with a clever workaround. He found a pop culture artifact much smaller than himself — a dusty old spy TV show from the 1960s— and turned it into his own $3.5 billion, six-film franchise (soon to be a seven- and eight-film franchise, with two more “Mission: Impossible” sequels, filmed back-to-back, coming out in 2023 and 2024). And — here’s the really savvy part — he made sure to make himself as indispensable to the series as its rubber masks and zippy theme music. 

Cruise in 1996’s “Mission: Impossible” (Paramount Pictures)

There was talk back in the mid-2000s, around the time Cruise was hopping all over Oprah’s furniture, that Paramount was considering dumping him from “Mission: Impossible” and recasting his part. But it was never going to happen. Unlike the James Bond franchise (now searching for its seventh actor) or the Spider-Man films (three actors, occasionally all in the same movie) or the Batman movies (Robert Pattinson makes six, not including Adam West’s 1966 big screen turn), it’s all but impossible to imagine anybody but Cruise playing Ethan Hunt. Or at least it’s hard to imagine anybody else playing him and the film still opening at $100 million.

Of course, even Cruise has his limitations. After “M.I.” took off, he attempted to kick-start another action franchise. But his Jack Reacher series ran out of gas pretty quickly. Cruise only did two films, in 2012 and 2016, before turning over the ex-Army cop character to some gorilla named Alan Ritchson for an Amazon Prime show. Still, big whoop. Carrying one super-successful franchise through 26 years (and counting) is impressive enough, especially for a guy this close to retirement age.

Which raises the obvious question — how long can he keep this up? The answer is, probably quite a while. Harrison Ford, who’s been pretty indispensable to the Indiana Jones series — almost as indispensable as Spielberg — is nearly 80 and still cracking a whip, with a fifth Indy sequel arriving in theaters next year. One can easily imagine Cruise doing cliff jumps in souped-up mobility chairs well into his own 80s.

The more interesting question, though, is whether it’s possible for young actors today to replicate what Cruise has accomplished with his career. Will any of the under-40 stars working in 2022 — Timothée Chalamet or Michael B. Jordan or Taron Egerton — still even be famous 36 years from now, let alone at the top of their game?

It’s hard to imagine. But if they survive to 2058, they’ll likely be sharing the screen with a 95-year-old jet-flying speed freak with perfect abs and a 500-watt grin.