Reel Streaming: Tom Cruise’s Stratospheric Rise to Hollywood’s Top Gun
Updated: Jun 14
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 87
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
If ever there were a time to review Hollywood veteran Tom Cruise’s 40-year career, it’s now. A breath away from turning 60 (on July 3), Cruise has now appeared in 42 films as a lead, beginning with Risky Business in 1983. His movies have grossed over $10 billion domestically, with 10 of them reaching $200 million or more, according to industry site IndieWire.
Following its record-setting $156 million domestic gross over the four-day Memorial Day Weekend, Cruise’s new film, Top Gun: Maverick, rang up $86 million at the domestic box office during its second weekend in release, bringing its total North American gross to just under $300 million.
The Joseph Kosinski-directed Maverick is the strongest domestic box office launch Cruise has ever seen, now standing at $550 million worldwide. And the way it’s looking, the film is poised to top the $792 million mark set by 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout and become Cruise’s top-grossing movie ever around the globe.
Cruise’s rise in the industry began at about the same time that Hollywood began developing big-budget, large-scale franchises—the second installments in George Lucas’s Star Wars and Indiana Jones series and Cruise’s Risky Business were all products of the early ’80s. Cruise had a couple of misfires immediately after his Risky Business breakout (1983’s All the Right Moves and Ridley Scott’s 1985 fantasy Legend), but then came Top Gun, his fourth feature as a leading man, and Cruise was a certified star.
By that time, in the mid-’80s, a handful of sequels and franchises began to firmly take hold, including entries in the Rocky, Rambo, Karate Kid and Star Trek cycles. Top Gun could have been one of those projects in the late ’80 as well, but Cruise waited 36 years to make its follow-up. Indeed, it took nearly 15 years and more than a dozen films before Cruise made his first-ever sequel, 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, the follow-up to his 1996 original, which also happened to be the first film he produced. Generally regarded as the weakest film in the series, M:I-2 was still a huge global hit. It’s at this point, when Cruise the actor added “Cruise the producer” to his filmography, that he began to take a more steadfast, guiding hand in plotting out his career.
Of course, Cruise does have his Mission: Impossible franchise of six films (with two more slated for the summers of 2023 and 2024), which have generated more than $1.6 billion in domestic box office to date. But the bulk of his box office success comes from stand-alone films. Cruise’s other attempts at franchise-building later in his career—2012’s Jack Reacher and 2016’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; and 2017’s The Mummy—didn’t generate enough heat and business to spawn extended cycles.)
Cruise’s general avoidance of franchises and deftness at a broader spectrum of genres and styles definitely sets him apart from a younger generation of stars. While we’ve seen Cruise in dramatic, romantic, action, thriller and comedic roles, the younger actors have established their marketability in the comic book, fantasy and sci-fi franchises that have thrived over the past two decades. (Hollywood’s current constellation of stars named Chris—Pratt, Pine and Evans—are a good example of this.)
Though often regarded as a control freak about his project choices, producing and press efforts, Cruise never appeared to back down from collaborating with a host of talented filmmakers. This was particularly the case during the first half of career, where he worked with boldfaced names ranging from Francis Ford Coppola (The Outsiders, 1983), Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money, 1986), Barry Levinson (Rain Man, 1988) and Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July, 1989) to Sidney Pollack (The Firm, 1993), Brian De Palma (Mission: Impossible, 1996) and Steven Spielberg (2002’s Minority Report and 2004’s War of the Worlds).
Cruise also crashed a masked orgy in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), knocked off a dozen shady Los Angelenos as a brutal hitman in Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) and collaborated with Hollywood’s most successful filmmaking sibs, the Scott brothers (Ridley in Legend and Tony in Top Gun and 1989’s Days of Thunder). He even gave actor/director Ben Stiller a spin as hairy-forearmed record executive Les Grossman in 2008’s Tropic Thunder, Cruise’s funniest role since he lip-synced in his underwear in Risky Business.
It’s also worth noting that during the actor’s younger years, there was more of a focus on pairing up rising stars with veteran performers. Cruise held his own alongside such titans as Paul Newman (The Color of Money), Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), Jack Nicholson (A Few Good Men, 1992) and Gene Hackman (The Firm). And a little later on, in the lesser-seen 2007 war drama Lions for Lambs, he was one part of a triumvirate with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. But that was then and looking at those years now, it feels like that they were an extended drumroll for Cruise’s solo act as a high-flying superstar for the past two decades.
He is also a superstar who hearkens back to a time when A-list players were a bit more reticent about cranking up the volume on their personal lives, worried about overexposure. Even with a pair of high-profile marriages behind him and his association with the controversial Scientology movement, Cruise has never been one to offer himself to the public via extended interviews or regular talk show appearances, let alone the ubiquitous Instagram, Twitter and TikTok presence that is de rigueur for so many of today’s media personalities.
Cruise is primarily out there when he’s promoting his latest films, like the John Waynes and Cary Grants and Henry Fondas and Paul Newmans of years past. The only contemporary star who appears to have a comparable blackout on that kind of media saturation might be Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been outspoken about his politics, while Cruise says nary a word.
And so, here we are, with Tom Cruise on the brink of his most successful film ever. The latest word is that Cruise is set to collaborate once again with filmmaker Doug Liman, whom he last worked with on the sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and the underseen action-crime comedy American Made (2017). Reportedly, the two, both pilots, are planning an action-adventure film that will be shot in outer space and include the involvement of both NASA and Elon Musk’s Space X.
Leave it to Tom Cruise to attempt to fly ever higher.
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.