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Grownup Filmgoers Make ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ a Historic Hit

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer tells AARP the secrets of Tom Cruise’s blockbuster

Tom Cruise in the cockpit of a jet in a scene from Top Gun Maverick

Paramount Pictures

En español

At 59, Tom Cruise stars in the aerial-combat epic Top Gun: Maverick, his biggest premiere ever and the biggest Memorial Day debut in history — thanks to grownups flocking to theaters at last. “Older audiences are finally returning to the movies,” wrote Indiewire pundit Tom Brueggemann, noting that most Maverick viewers — 55 percent — were over 35, 38 percent were over 45, and 18 percent were over 55. That’s astounding, since action films usually attract a youthful audience, grownups often avoid opening weekend crowds, preferring to attend later, and COVID made many quit going to theaters altogether.

But the reviews are as ecstatic as Cruise has ever earned, the consensus is this film’s better than the 1986 original Top Gun, and Cruise pushing 60 is a bigger star than younger Cruise — or maybe younger anybody. “If anything, he’s more chiseled and iconic than he was in 1986,” said critic Ty Burr. A non-superhero film featuring actual action, not just CGI, and starring the last traditional movie star may have revived the age of the true summer blockbuster movie.

All of which is very good news for Jerry Bruckheimer (78), the producer of both Top Gun films as well as Black Hawk Down and the CSI and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. Bruckheimer shares his insights with AARP about Top Gun’s coming of age.

Tom Cruise stars in Top Gun Maverick

Paramount Pictures

Cruise looks remarkably like he did in 1986. But how is this Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, ace Navy pilot and chronic authority defier, different from the younger Maverick?

He’s the same guy. He’s always looking for the edge. He’s always very competitive. So it’s just a more mature version of the same Maverick that we saw in the first film.

But now, after confronting authorities (this time including Ed Harris, 71, as a sarcastic admiral, and Jon Hamm, 51, as the new Top Gun flight school boss) and taking one too many jet joyrides, he’s busted to captain and stuck teaching flying to new recruits. Now he’s a mentor, and it’s an intergenerational movie.

Exactly. He’s got more experience. He’s more seasoned as an aviator and as a person.

And how about Val Kilmer (62)? In 1986, he played Cruise’s rival pilot Tom “Iceman” Kazansky. This time — speaking with a computer-generated voice because in real life, throat cancer damaged Kilmer’s voice — Iceman isn’t challenging authority. He is authority, right?

He’s an admiral now, a big shot in the Navy.

And Iceman is more of Maverick’s grownup ally as he deals with the young flyboys. But why doesn’t Maverick want a prestigious promotion like Iceman’s?

A lot of aviators know when you become elevated in your stature and your rank, you’re behind a desk. Tom wants to fly. He loves being in the air. His character loves being in the air, I should say.

Was it easier to film the aerial scenes than it was in the first movie?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. The first time, we put the actors in the actual F-14 planes, and every one of them threw up — we couldn’t use any of the footage. The only stuff we could use was some of Tom’s because he’s a pilot [in real life, with his own jet]. But this time, we did it completely differently. We trained all the actors, starting in a simple prop plane, so they could feel the air, and then we put them in more of an acrobatic prop, and then we put them in the F-18. They were real troupers — they had to go through very rigorous water survival training. They were flying for three months before the cameras were rolling. So they were totally in command, and you can feel it.

It must feel empowering to pilot an F-18.

It sure is, and the audience will see what it’s really like to be a naval aviator. We put five or six cameras in the cockpit, and you get the real sense of what it’s like to be making these really sharp turns, and the kind of reaction time you have to deal with another fighter pilot behind you. It’s all there.

Do you think people Tom’s age will relate to his refusal to slow down, let alone retire?

I don’t think any of us want to hang up our spurs — or our wings, as the Navy would say. I think we all want to keep going as long as we possibly can.

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How does Tom do it? Both he and his love interest in the film, Jennifer Connelly (51), are hardly ingenues.

He’s somebody who really takes care of himself. The other pilots trained for three months; he trained for six. They have to be in amazing shape to withstand the g-forces. When they get out of the cockpit, they’re soaking wet. You’ll see how their faces distort. Because that’s all real. None of that is visual effects. Tom and Jennifer really care about nutrition and health and physical activity. And, you know, if you do that right, you can certainly push back Father Time.

Is Top Gun: Maverick a good movie to see if you haven’t been to a theater in years?

It’s a great movie to see coming out of a pandemic in a theater. That’s how you have to see Top Gun. And to see this in an IMAX theater with that big screen and the sound, it’s really breathtaking. Spectacular.

Will it make viewers feel the need for speed?

You’ll walk out feeling a lot better than when you walked in.

Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.