TOP GUN: MAVERICK (Movie Review)

Tom Cruise remains the “best of the best” with this thrilling, meaningful sequel to the classic summer blockbuster.

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of intense action and some brief strong language)
Released: May 27, 2022
Runtime: 131 minutes
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Charles Parnell, Monica Barbaro, Jay Ellis, Lewis Pullman, Greg Tarzan Davis, Danny Ramirez, Bashir Salahuddin, Lyliana Wray, Val Kilmer, Ed Harris

It would’ve been enough for this movie to satisfy the need for speed, but Top Gun: Maverick goes a step further: it works as a metaphor to Tom Cruise’s daredevil action hero identity, in a way that makes this arguably the most personal film of his career.

That’s just one of the benefits of waiting over 35 years for a sequel to Top Gun, the biggest hit of 1986 and the movie that solidified Tom Cruise as a global A-list star. 

Maverick delivers exactly the kind of homage references and callbacks you’d hope for – rekindling the cocky spirit, sincere patriotism (not jingoism, as haters snidely suggest) and glossy visual sheen that defined the original – in a way that elicits the kind of spontaneous cheers and applause usually reserved for only the biggest, most consequential Marvel and Star Wars entries, but it’s not content in simply carbon-copying iconic moments. 

In the midst of all its formulaic trappings – from a covert “mission: impossible” to a crew of best-of-the-best fighter pilots who play beefcake beach sports in their spare time (complete with Glen Powell’s Hangman who’s half-Maverick, half-Iceman, and all A-hole), to the hard-ass by-the-book admiral (Jon Hamm) that Maverick has to navigate and the son (Miles Teller) of his former wingman who holds Maverick responsible for his father’s death  – Tom Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Cruise’s Oblivion, the underrated Only the Brave) deliver a summer movie that’s truly meaningful, not only in terms of themes and character (wonderfully exemplified in the return of Val Kilmer’s Adm. Tom “Iceman” Kasansky) but also in proving how the most advanced VFX wizardry still has to hold the beer of old school optical blockbuster filmmaking.

Kosinski also embraces the distinct film language that late director Tony Scott created for the original. Familiar visual motifs are replicated throughout but it’s all fluidly slick and stylish, not stilted or routine. This looks like the very specific Top Gun universe.

It’s all powered by Cruise’s star wattage, one that beams brightly in ways we haven’t seen for decades, complete with the appealing swagger that Cruise confidently smirks before flashing those pearly whites. After years of playing older, more conflicted characters (even in his action movies), it’s fun to see Tom Cruise get his groove back.

But he adds mature layers to the role of Captain Pete Mitchell, too. 

Yes, Maverick’s going to maverick, and he does so from the very first scene (one that follows a credit sequence that unabashedly embraces nostalgic fan service). Yet this time around, when Pete Mitchell takes risks and bucks protocol, he doesn’t do so for the sake of his own ego or to gain a competitive edge, or even to prove something to himself. Instead, Maverick’s defiance of authority is now done solely in service and sacrifice for others. That’s a perfect expression of character growth, one that still stays true to Maverick’s roots, who he is, and how he is wired.

We also see that maturation in the story’s romance. Jennifer Connelly co-stars as Penny, an old flame of Maverick’s. She’s as smart as she is luminous, matching and challenging Cruise’s considerable screen presence, in a relationship that captures the sophistication of coy flirtation but without the cheeky sexuality that the original infamously (though briefly) indulged in. These are older people with a history; that elevates the narrative’s overall arc, one that’s cleverly plotted in its own right, creating high stakes, palpable suspense, and defining acts of courage that transcend requisite heroism; they’re legitimately inspiring.

Another reward that comes from waiting so long for a second Top Gun movie is advancements in filming technology. As impressive as the fighter jet scenes were in the original (and still are), the aerial spectacle of Top Gun: Maverick is absolutely mind-boggling, especially when considering that it’s all real. Those aren’t green-screen sky comps set against cockpit simulators; those are real actors in real jets doing real flying. 

And on an IMAX screen with premium sound, Top Gun: Maverick offers a thrill ride you can’t replicate anywhere else. Even so, its big budget bona fides are so visceral that they’ll still translate to smaller formats on subsequent future viewings. How it’s all done, exactly, I couldn’t tell you (other than possibly for Cruise, who can actually pilot that aircraft) but it’s never fake.

Which gets us back to how Maverick works as a Tom Cruise metaphor. 

In the film’s setup, it’s stated rather directly that guys like Maverick are becoming relics. As technology advances, pilots are becoming marginalized and, eventually, will likely become extinct. If the Navy can send in a fighter jet guided by a computer drone, why risk human lives in a cockpit? Maverick and his ilk have aged past their prime. Technology will make them obsolete.

But as Maverick says to the commanding officer who makes this point: “But not today.”

That’s the spirit of Cruise’s mid-life career. Instead of winding down into straight dramas, or bending the knee to comic book franchise behemoths that say CGI effects are the best way to feign adventurous peril, Cruise has defied odds and industry trends. Indeed, like a Hollywood dinosaur, he’s actually doubled-down on practical, death-defying stunts and movie-making. 

Even as studios like Marvel make billions off of glitzy digital fakery, Cruise defiantly remains analogue, pushing the limits of what’s physically possible. The results are undeniable and truly breathtaking because they’re literally convincing, in ways that even the most impressive, advanced post-production mastery can’t match. Top Gun: Maverick is an immensely satisfying entertainment, an achievement of populist craft so superior that one has to legitimately question if modern digital effects should be considered cinematic progress or decline.

Originally slated for 2020, Paramount considered sending it to streaming in the wake of COVID-19 but Tom Cruise wouldn’t allow it. Top Gun: Maverick was made and meant for a premium theatrical experience. It delivers on that ambition in spades, making it more than worth the extra two-year wait.

Yes, there will likely come a time when few, if any, actors and studios will be willing to go to the lengths that Tom Cruise refuses to compromise on. But thankfully, for as long as Cruise is around disobeying convention, that day is not today.

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