Larger Than Life Cruise Soars in Top Gun: Maverick, The Quintessential Summer Movie

Top Gun: Maverick is both nostalgia and new, foremost a movie star tribute but equally compelling in both its cross-generational dynamics and sensationally thrilling aerial training and combat sequences.

11 mins read

Hands down, full-stop—Top Gun: Maverick is the quintessential summer movie and a 36-years later sequel that, surprisingly, exceeds its predecessor, that style over substance 1986 classic of Reagan-era jingoism and apex machismo which vaulted twenty-four-year-old Tom Cruise from rising movie star to cultural icon. The preview audience I saw Top Gun: Maverick with cheered early and often; by all accounts the film is headed for major revenues and why not? It’s the best action film this year.

Shelved for two-years over pandemic box office concerns, the new picture arrives as a fleet, deftly entertaining update that somehow manages to be both nostalgia and new, foremost a movie star tribute but equally compelling in both its cross-generational dynamics and sensationally thrilling aerial training and combat sequences. It also packs a wallop of unexpected feeling.

This time out we get Top Gun graduate and pilot Pete Mitchell who still dons his bomber jacket and Ray Ban Aviators but now has more on his mind than seducing a sexy instructor, need-for-speed inversion and playing-with-the-boys beach volleyball (recalibrated this time as decidedly less homoerotic football, still surfside).

Top Gun: Maverick does substantial work reimagining the former flyboy, decades beyond his carefree air jockey days, as an ambivalent mentor nursing unresolved past issues, embodied by Cruise in a vivid star turn offering a throwback to a time when movies, and their mavericks, were larger than life.  

Directed by Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Only the Brave), the new picture begins with a near replay of the original’s set-up, Harold Faltermeyer’s score taking us back to the danger zone (yes, the Giorgio Moroder/Kenny Loggins monster hit is back in Dolby Digital) of an ocean aircraft carrier and cribbing title cards on the Navy’s elite pilot program; many of today’s uninitiated may not have seen the original but Kosinkski quickly brings things up to speed.

It’s a kick to see Cruise back in a signature role, perhaps his most famous, that of U.S. Navy pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who when we last saw him had graduated second in his Top Gun class behind arch-rival Iceman (Val Kilmer) under the tutelage of love Charlie (Kelly McGillis) and a salty instructor (Tom Skerritt), a surrogate for his own deceased fighter pilot dad. Flash forward and Maverick is now a career Navy pilot who, in the slickly gleaming opening sequence, has traded inverted flight horseplay for breaking the Mach 10 airspeed.

And then, a mission—Maverick is summoned to his old San Diego stomping grounds (although in real life Top Gun has been relocated to Fallon, Nevada) where the new class of Miramar’s Top Gun recruits, the most elite Navy fighter pilots, are preparing for a dicey and dangerous mission. This time, there are no Russians in sight (imagine the zeitgeist were the Cold War still raging) but rather a cache of uranium to be dispatched from an underground facility deep within a gorge on a missile protected, undefined nationality (Russia? North Korea? China? Iran? Filming took place around Lake Tahoe; go figure).

Maverick’s job is to prep the team for the exceedingly perilous mission, which involves the usual classroom and dogfight maneuvers, but this time he’s nursing old wounds, namely a lifetime of guilt over the death of wingman Goose (Anthony Edwards), which he has never gotten over (and we haven’t either, as anyone recently revisiting the original can attest).

The new recruits are all likable and well-acted, particularly one Bradley Bradshaw, call sign Rooster, who happens to be the spitting image of his father, Goose, and is played with angry baggage by Miles Teller (whom Kosinski directed to a terrific performance in 2017’s underrated Only the Brave). Rooster has a grudge against Maverick for waylaying his piloting career by deleting his flight school application at the secret request of Rooster’s mother (played by Meg Ryan in the original film; deceased here).

The other Top Gun recruits include cocksure Hangman (well-played by Glen Powell, Hidden Figures‘ John Glenn) and female pilot in training Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), who are both appealing and intelligent with enough charisma to lift them from potential stock. In one of many direct callbacks to the original, Maverick first encounters the group (who are unaware they’ll becomes his proteges) at the local beach bar owned by Penny (a radiant Jennifer Connelly), Maverick’s former fling, turning down his offer of a rematch. There’s even a piano reprise of Great Balls of Fire, originally sung by Goose. Guess who does the honors this time?

One thing that has not changed is Maverick at odds with his higher ups, and given his violations of hard deck altitude protocols during class training he runs afoul of superior officers “Cyclone” Simpson (John Hamm) and “Hammer” Caine (Ed Harris, perfectly used), who trust there’s a method to his madness, begrudgingly admiring his hubris while issuing reprimands.

Meanwhile, Maverick and Penny begin a refreshingly low-key courtship which includes a lovely scene where sailing aficionado Penny takes Maverick across rough seas, and another in which Maverick, sneaking from mom’s bedroom window, is busted by her adolescent daughter. Connelly, at age 51, is so vivaciously engaging here, both warm and cool, and so beautifully shot that we can see why anyone would fall for her sporty, earthy charms (including Koskinski, who gave her a doozy of a dramatic confessional scene in Only the Brave).

The film’s apex dramatic moment comes during a reunion between Maverick and old rival Iceman, now the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (and stricken with a terminal illness) who has kept close to Maverick over the years, presumably as professional counsel and now, in his waning days, personal. Giving the audience exactly what it wants, Kilmer appears for a single scene cameo to deliver a brief and poignant turn that somehow manages to steal focus from the world’s biggest movie star.

The picture’s final third, expectedly, is a mad, thrilling rush of extended action where the mission plays out as initially prepared for but, naturally, with a number of real-time surprises. The gravity-defying cinematography, including cockpit lensing accomplished by the cast members in their tight quarters, is truly spectacular and the most accomplished (in practical, non-CGI shooting) aerial dogfight sequences ever filmed.

Yet beyond such extravagant action, what is special this time is the replacement of gung-ho nationalism with a few notions about bridging generations, Maverick initially derided as an elder statesman but one who becomes integral to the young bucks’ successful mission. In a world where “OK Boomer” has become derogatory, ageist code for generational rifts, the picture suggests a rejoining of trust and interdependence between old and young, particularly in a superb final shootout where–wouldn’t you know it–an 80s’ era F-14 becomes a getaway to safety, a relic decked out in manual era instrumentation minus any digital flight technology. On these terms, guess who holds the key to survival?

While Kosinki and team (including Cruise’s go to screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie) have crafted a near impeccable entertainment, Cruise is the reason all of this works so beautifully. The 2022 Maverick, urging his recruits “Don’t think, just do!” while himself a vessel of contemplation and conscience, is a welcomely grown-up person to spend time with for a couple hours. Gone is the testo-cockiness and one-upmanship of his youth, and while Cruise, with his eternally spry visage, may approximate the look of a much younger man, this Maverick’s gravitas makes clear that he has lived and learned.

Ultimately, Top Gun: Maverick is a testament to the archetype of the movie star. Cruise knows his brand and business better than anyone, and while one might wish he’d sprinkle in a few more dramatic performances (Magnolia, Collateral, Born on the Fourth of July), it is simply impossible to resist his galvanic smile and big screen magnetism. He gives us everything we want out of this picture and reminds us what a Hollywood blockbuster used to–and should–look like in an era of gargantuan, empty and often soulless CGI fantasy and action tentpole pictures.

This is how it’s done, and how it still can be done. Top Gun: Maverick is a sonic boom of a movie, and a salute to its indelible star.

4 stars.

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