TEXAS, USA — There are two missions being undertaken in “Top Gun: Maverick,” a high-flying, breath-snatching, summer-sparking blockbuster.
The first concerns the presence of a uranium enrichment plant, and the efforts of a standout team of young U.S. Navy pilots training to neutralize it without getting shot down in enemy territory (think the “Star Wars” trench run as a mountainous rollercoaster). “Maverick” doesn’t worry about what country they’re heading to or the larger context of the conflict they’re participating in, and neither should you.
The second mission belongs to the famed pilot at the helm, Captain Pete Mitchell, a.k.a. Maverick, and the man playing him. It’s been 36 years since Tom Cruise first donned the aviator sunglasses and leather jacket in Tony Scott’s “Top Gun,” the sweaty 1986 action-drama that remains a sturdy test case for examining the line between great blockbusters and iconic ones–36 years since the Tom Cruise as we know him now was born, unable and unwilling to separate himself from the daredevil characters he plays. If it’s easier to see Cruise the actor than Maverick the fictional pilot in the seat of a futuristic jet streaking across the horizon in an early sequence of genuine audio-visual majesty, it’s a testament to how his commitment to reaching the next level has only further entrenched itself over the years. Cruise is a star because he is always reaching for them.
But in the world of “Top Gun,” that ambition has gone largely for naught. Nor does it do much to endear him to the star pilots he’s practically blackmailed into training, lest he be stripped of any further association with the Navy after his movie-opening joyride above the atmosphere. The cohort includes cocksure Hangman (Glen Powell), low-key Bob (Lewis Pullman), upstart Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and – most worryingly for Maverick – Miles Teller’s Rooster. If his counterparts fit neatly into the archetypical building blocks required for a movie shaded with the requisite value of teamwork, Rooster – the son of “Top Gun” ‘86’s doomed Goose, with Teller an uncanny spitting image of Anthony Edwards – is the equation’s emotional keystone, playing across Cruise with formidable investment and uncharacteristic grit.
Cruise, for his part, is just as remarkable a presence when he’s confronting the pains of the past as when he’s showing up his pupils in the sky, another metatextual wrinkle pointing to the 59-year-old actor’s enduring relevance when everyone’s worrying about which Hollywood Chris reigns supreme. He and Teller are the most potent variables in Maverick’s decades-long search for closure, and in “Maverick’s” tender evolution as a supersonic heart-tugger about parents and sons (or, in some cases, daughters). It’s a surprising development for a moviemaking scenario which usually buckles under the weight of franchise legacy, and even as the film deploys a shorthand for a fair number of storytelling beats, this familial poignancy – a testament to the effects of time supercharged by the passing of the years in reality – makes it all the more engaging in scenes when our pulse starts to quicken.
And quicken it will, especially if you see “Maverick” at your local IMAX, where the size of the movie’s budget and decibel levels thoroughly works its magic. The skyward sequences are captivating, propulsive and, when the stakes are most dire, borderline balletic; this is certainly a movie more worthy of the IMAX screen than any recent MCU entry, even if on paper it’s supersonic hijinks don’t seem so exciting in a moviegoing age of multiverses. It’s crisply edited and gorgeously visualized by “Life of Pi” cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who shamelessly concedes that the ‘86 film was onto something when it barely noticed what’s on the color spectrum between sunset-orange and midnight-blue.
But the film is roundly satisfying in other ways, too. The dialogue, though corny, allows for punchy delivery from the actors. The sideshow romance between Cruise and a wonderful Jennifer Connelly, though in need of more air, ends up nicely underscoring the themes. And the movie’s various elements harmonize better than they ever did in the awkwardly segmented original, which only makes the remixing of “Top Gun’s” iconography – the cockiness, the grandeur, the music, the sweltering beachside recreation – all the more respectable.
To put it another way, the pleasures of “Maverick” are simple ones. Loud spectacle. Loud personalities. Loud drama of the life-or-death, beat-the-insurmountable-odds variety. These are simple pleasures, yes, but in the moment they also feel like rarities. There might be no movie star better equipped to revitalize them than Cruise. Perhaps the most valuable thing about “Maverick” is that Cruise is aware of that. He smiles like he hasn’t in 36 years, back when he first felt the need for speed, and the screenplay is practically winking at us when he tells the younger generation of pilots that “time is your greatest enemy.” After all, who knows better than Cruise how to defeat time?
“Maverick” is nothing if not a display of Cruise slaughtering that particular foe, or otherwise an acknowledgement of how much he’s put up with in order for his star not to be snuffed out. When Ed Helms’ rear admiral pops up to poke Maverick in the side about how he simply refuses to die, he may as well be a studio head talking to Cruise in an LA studio. When he says the day will come that planes won’t need pilots at all, he’s speaking in the same decisive tone that reeks of the end of artfulness in movies as grandiose as these. You’ve almost got to applaud the philosophical transparency of this screenplay, a collaboration between Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and, most notably, Christopher McQuarrie, whose “Mission: Impossible” contributions prove he has as strong a grip on Cruise’s legacy as anyone.
That’s important in “Top Gun: Maverick,” a 131-minute cinematic tribute to the irreplaceable impact of the human element, to the rush that comes with watching spectacular practical effects and realizing that just one letter separates altitude from attitude. Maverick never lands when he’s ordered to by his superiors, and Cruise never lands when ordered by the logic of contemporary Hollywood expectations. His cruise control is anybody else’s Mach 10. It’s rarely been more of a pleasure trying to keep up with him.
"Top Gun: Maverick" is now showing in theaters. It's rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some strong language. Runtime: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
Starring Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Val Kilmer.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski; written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie.
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