“In case you are wondering who the best is, they are up here on this plaque. Do you think your name will be on that plaque?”
“Yes, sir.” – Viper meets Maverick, Top Gun
I’m always fascinated by where movie stars come from. I’m not just talking about successful actors, but the elite few at the top of the totem pole; those who make everything they touch an instant cinematic event. Even if a movie star reaches that level, they will more than likely burn out after just a few years. I’m not sure there’s an actor on earth who has been as consistent a draw as Tom Cruise has been the last several decades, and with this first installment of the Summer of Cruise we will examine the birth of the megastar. For Cruise, the rise to fame seemed to happen all at once, and no two films better capture the essence of his arrival than Risky Business and Top Gun.
These are not the first two films Cruise appeared in, of course, but they are the two that have endured the longest. Before Risky Business, he had appeared in Endless Love, Taps, The Outsiders and the “teens go to Tijuana to lose their virginity” comedy Losin’ It. However, it was Risky Business that took things to another level. People these days seem to regard this film as a simple teen movie, and the scene that sticks out in everyone’s minds is, of course, Cruise’s character Joel sliding into the living room lip-synching to “Old Time Rock and Roll.” As such, my expectations weren’t particularly high for Risky Business, but I wound up being thoroughly impressed.
There’s a whole lot more going on in Risky Business than its reputation may suggest. In fact, the “Old Time Rock and Roll” scene comes very early, before the film takes a turn into slightly more complex territory. It makes its agenda very clear from the first scene, in which Joel recounts a dream that has him encountering a beautiful woman taking a shower, and then he finds himself arriving three hours late to an exam that will determine his entire future. This is not purely a teen sex comedy, but instead a comedy about all the things going on inside the head of a teenage male. This is familiar cinematic territory, but Risky Business tackles its subject matter with surprising intelligence. Joel’s life is full of pressures: pressure to get good grades, to have sex, and to set a course toward a promising and lucrative future.
It’s all based around a concept familiar to teen movies, as Joel’s parents go out of town and he is left in charge of the house. Instead of jumping right to the raucous party, Risky Business writer/director Paul Brickman takes this conceit and turns it into the story of a teenage kid unexpectedly getting thrust into adulthood over the course of a few days. First, he decides to employ the services of a call girl. The next morning, there is a financial complication. Things snowball from there, until Joel is in such need of money that he is forced to turn his house into a brothel for an evening. As absurd as it all is, Brickman puts it all together beautifully, and of course Cruise is a large part of the film’s success. He was a ridiculously charming performer right from the start, and he glides through Risky Business as though he had been acting for decades.
After Risky Business, Cruise starred in the football drama All the Right Moves and Ridley Scott’s notorious flop Legend. (The latter may be discussed in a later post.) He had become a leading man, but he was still waiting to absolutely explode. That would come in the form of Top Gun, which also turned out to be the breakout film for the late director (and Ridley’s brother) Tony Scott. Produced by ’80s super team Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, Top Gun is every bit the macho pop confection its reputation suggests, but in another way it’s far different than it would probably look like today. Ultimately, this is a film about a bunch of dudes hanging out and trying to prove their superiority. These are characters training to become action heroes. I feel like if it were made today, they would have already graduated, be thrown into a war in which the fate of the world is at stake, and there’d probably be aliens involved. Ultimately, the only real stakes involve the confidence of Cruise’s character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
Top Gun is another movie I was prepared to dislike, just because I typically don’t connect to popular ’80s films of this type. (For instance, I maintain The Breakfast Club is just okay, a sentiment that infuriated my uncle after I published a blog post saying so.) True to form, there are many things about this film that I did not like much at all. The score is incredibly dated, the rampant masculinity comes off silly, and the script is an unwieldy, preposterous thing that mostly has the characters talk about each other’s personalities. Most conversations go like this:
LAME PERSON: Maverick, you’re a wild card up there! You’re dangerous, and one of these days these risks are going to wind up killing somebody, maybe yourself.
MAVERICK: Whatever, I know what I’m doing. Also, I’m awesome.
LAME PERSON: You scare me, Maverick. But damn it if you aren’t a charming and effective pilot. Now let’s take our shirts off and go play volleyball.
If you think I’m kidding, take a look at IMDb’s transcription of an early scene in which Maverick is told he’s getting sent to the school called “Top Gun.” Examine that last paragraph and be impressed that an actor was able to get those words out with a straight face:
Top Gun also becomes rather boring whenever the characters are in the air, since most flight scenes are made up of shots of planes swooping around aimlessly intercut with close-ups of the pilots. Also, the journey of Cruise’s character is so obvious from the start that there’s no real suspense to any of these sequences. Will Maverick suddenly lose his confidence when something goes terribly wrong? Of course. Will be able to get that confidence back? Duh.
As is often the case with Tom Cruise movies, Top Gun becomes a lot of fun when the characters are on the ground and interacting with each other. As dumb as the dialogue is, the actors deliver it naturally and with confidence, and there’s no doubt this film is exactly what Scott, Bruckheimer and Simpson wanted to make. It’s also the film America wanted it to be, since it went on to be the top grossing release of 1986 and a major cultural touchstone for decades to come. Heck, without this movie, the television series Archer would not have one of its most reliable running gags. It also allowed Cruise to go on and star in more ambitious roles in subsequent years. In many ways, the one-two punch of Risky Business and Top Gun showed that Cruise would be able to carry both low-key comedies and over-the-top action films, and any young, handsome actor able to pull off both will probably have a long career. This has certainly been the case with Cruise, and these films paint a picture of a young actor not content with turning in mediocre work. Right from the start, he was determined to become one of the biggest stars in the world, and that does not happen by accident.
Next Week: A look at the only franchise to which Cruise has attached himself: the surprisingly consistent Mission: Impossible films.