During his four-year absence from the silver screen, Tom Cruise has been hard at work fulfilling his actor’s mission: to entertain. Between filming the seventh and eighth outings in the Mission: Impossible franchise and pushing Top Gun: Maverick further and further back until it was safe enough to release in theaters, Cruise would not let anything stop him, global pandemic be damned. And if you don’t believe that, then maybe it’s so that he could fulfill his more obvious mission: to mythologize his own on-screen presence until he is more hero than man.
Judged on the criteria of both, the legacy sequel to 1986’s Top Gun aces every test, flying higher and higher and breaking every rule in the book while also using it as a bible. It lives in the shadow of past achievements and then shines through them, discarding innovation for tradition with a new slap of paint stuck onto it. It’s the movie that proves Cruise may be Hollywood’s last and best blockbuster idol.
Some thirty-odd years after the events of the original film, Maverick’s recklessness places him back as a trainer at Top Gun, a position he only manages to secure thanks to his old friend, Iceman. And so the new adventure begins, one that, by the end of the film, serves as a manifesto for the mythic stature of Tom Cruise: The Movie Star. If the last few Mission: Impossible movies have been about proving Cruise can still do it and is more than willing to do what nobody else will, Maverick is about how he cannot stop doing it, even if he wanted to, and he most certainly does not want to stop.
There is a bevy of new characters, young guns with their own traits and quirks, mostly bestowed upon them by a stellar supporting cast. No matter how endearing they may be in their own right, their true purpose is always to serve the mythos of Maverick, the character that made Cruise a star, and by proxy, Cruise himself. Standouts are Glen Powell in a star-making turn as Hangman, the cocky hotshot of the new crew, and Jon Hamm as the archetypal straight-laced leader, giving a performance that consists mostly of reaction shots and stern talking-tos, all of which are pure gold. The most glaring example of protagonist prop-ups might be Jennifer Connelly’s character, Penny, a replacement love interest for Kelly McGillis, who is not only absent but never even mentioned.
Meg Ryan’s character from the original is acknowledged but killed off-screen as motivation for her and Goose’s son, the co-lead. Connelly‘s sole purpose here as a Midwestern take on the manic pixie dream girl is to bolster Cruise at every chance, to tell him he’s a hero and that he is the best at what he does. All these things are certifiably Not Good, yet the commitment to the sweeping heroism of the picture as a whole will convince you otherwise. And therein lies the magic of the movie, that this is a legacy sequel to an '80s classic that somehow manages to be genuinely good, but more importantly, be so headstrong in its old-fashioned ways that it skyrockets far past the merits of even its own observable qualities.
It goes without saying that Cruise’s commitment to in-camera stunt work is astonishing and the aviation sequences on display in Maverick are some of the most thrilling images put to screen in years. Seeing one of the world’s biggest capital M Movie capital S Stars in the world doing vérité barrel rolls in a fighter jet is genuinely insane and worth the price of admission alone.
Cruise’s co-conspirator here is his former Oblivion helmer, Joseph Kosinski, a man whose filmography I have staunchly defended and for good reason. The guy knows how to make a movie. All four films under his belt at the moment are ambitious epics in their own right, whether they be set in a digital grid or along rocky plains. He knows how to pack a punch on time and with power and that strategy has never been more evident than in Maverick. With a pretty solid script that operates on the same base level as the original with, unfortunately, a bit less homoeroticism, Kosinski elevates it at every turn by treating this like the beast it is while also carrying a nonchalant “This Is How It’s Supposed To Be” attitude about it. The roars of jet engines hit hard and the emotional beats hit harder, and surprisingly so, considering this marks the first time that Cruise has allowed himself to be emotional on-screen in a good few years.
Actually, Maverick is the first time Cruise has allowed himself to do a lot of things on-screen in years. It seems as though he’s finally acknowledging that he’s aging and that he may be one of the dinosaurs of a bygone age (The Age Of The Movie Star). Kosinski and Cruise present a great reckoning of how a hero can exist in the landscape today, both textually and metatextually, as the entire movie revolves around the idea that the pilot, read Movie Star, is no longer necessary and how Maverick, read Cruise, will fight to the very end to prove that this is not the case.
Top Gun: Maverick feels like a final cry for tried and true blockbuster filmmaking in a landscape treating any non-superhero IP as hostile, but in an ideal world, it is just the spark that lights a fire under the asses of studios to make more real movies again (ironically through the vehicle of a legacy sequel). In any case, this trip to the danger zone is one for the ages. If it’s ending an era with a bang, it’s the loudest bang of all.