One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 86
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
As he readied himself for the carefully choreographed Memorial Day Weekend opening of his new film in North America, Tom Cruise was gearing up for what many film industry experts considered “Mission: Impossible.” His challenge? Convincing moviegoers to leave the comfort and pandemic-safety of their streaming platforms and head to the theaters to pay to watch a sequel to a 36-year-old movie.
Though it was a sequel to a very popular older movie, times had clearly changed. Now the question was whether or not an audience would elevate a big-budget Hollywood film to blockbuster status without the requisite comic book superheroes, CGI-infused visual effects technology, intergalactic encounters or genetically enhanced dinosaurs audiences have been regularly bombarded with for more than two decades.
The answer was a resounding YESSSSSS!
Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to 1988’s Top Gun, launched into orbit on Memorial Day weekend—much higher than any fighter jet has ever flown. The film grossed $156 million domestically over the course of its four-day holiday opening, making it Cruise’s biggest opening at the box office in his 40-year career. It also marked his first-ever $100 million opening.
That broke the record for biggest opening for the Memorial Day holiday weekend previously held by Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which rang up $153 million in 2007. Maverick is the third biggest debut of the year, behind—not surprisingly—a pair of superhero movies, Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Warner Bros.’ The Batman.
Call me a box-office watcher, but I’m loving seeing all the excitement Maverick is generating in audiences, theater owners, movie pundits and–I’m assuming–the always-grinning Mr. Cruise himself. Like it or loathe it, “Hollywood excitement” largely translates into box office receipts.
Top Gun: Maverick picks up the story of Cruise’s Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a U.S. Navy test pilot who has avoided a promotion over the three-plus decades that have elapsed since Top Gun so that he can continue flying. On the brink of being grounded for recklessness, Maverick is instead ordered to a naval base on San Diego Bay’s Coronado peninsula to train an elite group of young pilots for a bombing mission of a target that is deemed a threat to the United States.
In other words, the new film is an update of Cruise’s character that puts him back in the cockpit and teaching a “Top Gun” training program similar to the one he graduated from back in the 1986 film of the same name.
Clearly, the alchemy is just right for the out-of-the-gate success of Top Gun: Maverick. It’s all come together with a formula that mixes a sense of nostalgia, outstanding reviews (as of this writing, it has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes), high-profile buzz on the film’s fighter jet engagements being executed by a highly trained cast (led by licensed pilot Cruise) without any significant CGI, and outrageously strong word of mouth. The result is a behemoth that’s sure to carry it to the No. 1 spot for at least a couple of weeks—or until the next summer blockbuster rears its head. (That will probably be Jurassic Park Dominion, which opens on June 10.)
Top Gun: Maverick was originally scheduled to be released in July 2019 but was rescheduled for the spring of the following year in order to shoot and reshoot several complex action scenes. It was then hit hard with two more years of delays due to–what else?– the Covid outbreak.
It was star and co-producer Cruise who insisted that he would never allow Top Gun: Maverick to debut on a streaming platform, which was a much-practiced studio trend only a year ago.
“I make movies for the big screen,” Cruise has said more than once over the past two years as the film’s theatrical release date was endlessly rescheduled. Clearly, the man in the cockpit knew what he was talking about.
The month-long lead-up to Maverick’s smashing rollout on Memorial Day weekend to 4,736 screens in North America (a theatrical booking record, according in American media measurement and analytics company Comscore) was its own miniseries of gala media events.
On May 4, Paramount unveiled Top Gun: Maverick on the USS Midway, the iconic Navy aircraft carrier docked in San Diego, where much of the film was shot. Cruise “dropped” into the premiere by piloting and landing a helicopter on the carrier, stepping out and sauntering over to the foot of the red carpet to kick off the film’s world premiere, and joking that “an Uber entrance was just too simple.” Following a four-hour red carpet, Cruise and co-stars Jon Hamm, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller and others made their way to San Diego’s Civic Center Theater for another red carpet and the debut screening.
Two weeks later, it was off to the Cannes Film Festival, where the film had its Cannes premiere on Wednesday, May 18. The show kicked off with Cruise’s stroll down the red carpet with his castmates, director and producer and the thunderous appearance of eight soaring fighter jets flying overhead and leaving streaks of red, white and blue smoke behind them (the colors of both the American and French flags).
Taking the stage at Cannes’ Palais des Festivals et des Congrès to introduce the film, Cruise received a five-minute standing ovation, followed by his being presented with a “surprise” honorary Palme d’Or Award by the festival’s president, Pierre Lescure. Cruise was visibly moved by the accolade of receiving what is considered to be the the most prestigious award of the iconic annual fest. (The honorary Palme d’Or Award has only been given to 15 people since it was introduced in 1955.)
“Thank you for being here. We’re here for you. I make these movies for all of you. I’m of you in every meeting, in every moment,” Cruise said to the standing crowd. “Especially in Cannes, you love movies.”
Cruise and company have been on hand in various international cities for red carpet and other opening festivities. And that all happened before the triumphant opening of the film in North America and around the world, where it’s also racking up some outstanding numbers.
Examining the worldwide dominance and phenomenon of Maverick, one must consider the remarkable career of Tom Cruise. To remain such an indomitable force in the film industry for the past four decades requires more than just a magnetic screen presence and sizzling smile—careful planning, deliberate timing and smart decisions are all part of the game play, and Cruise seems to have that all down.
Next week, I’ll take a look at the indefatigable Cruise and his indomitable career, from his launch as underwear dancing suburbanite Joel Goodson in 1982’s Risky Business to his reign as the intellectual property overlord of the Mission: Impossible franchise, the seventh installment which is due to hit screens in July, 2023
Until then, happy flying!
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.