Tom Cruise is running out of runway…and he knows it. The man knows how to look cool, ride motorcycles, run like hell and smile for the camera, but that’s not enough to sustain a career in show business anymore. Now you need a computer-generated superpower, a three-picture/nine-cameo franchise deal, and an appearance on Carpool Karaoke (or a controlled TikTok account, either or) to stay relevant in the movie business. It’s almost admirable how the 59-year-old Cruise has refused to do those things and just kept making movies the way he wants. But his million-dollar smile has been cracking recently, almost as if he knows the tight grip he’s always had on Hollywood is loosening faster than he’d like. Maybe the next building he jumps off of or engine he revs or interview he sternly avoids questions about publicly and financially supporting a creepy space cult may be his last? If that’s the case, Cruise is certainly not going out with a whimper. He’s going out with an epic, drama-laden action extravaganza meant to inspire the same awe in audiences that he felt when he first fell in love with movies as a kid.
Unfortunately, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning doesn’t start rolling out until next year. Instead, we have to make do with Top Gun: Maverick – another legacy sequel to an 80s classic that somebody somewhere (maybe Cruise himself) asked for so that moviegoers will stop watching reruns of The Office at home and PLEASE come back to movie theaters. The titular Maverick is, of course, Capt. Pete Mitchell (Cruise) and his stubborn commitment to never be grounded. Now a test pilot and always on the bad side of his commanding officers, Mitchell is called back to the Navy’s best-of-the-best training academy to prep a new crop of fliers for a dangerous (but not Impossible, that’s for next year) bombing run.
He’s got an overconfident pilot (Glen Powell), a flier eager to prove herself (Monica Barbaro), and even an awkward nerd (Lewis Pullman) as an extra tribute to 80s movies. And then there’s Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Mitchell’s best friend/co-pilot Nick “Goose” Bradshaw who was killed during a Top Gun training exercise under Mitchell’s watch. While he rekindles a romance with ex-girlfriend Penny (Jennifer Connelly), Mitchell tries to push the young pilots to be as fast and dangerous as he once was in the air, much to the chagrin of Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm). But while having exhilarating test runs and dog fights at the speed of sound, Mitchell tries to find his place in the new world of aerial warfare and see if he’s got one more shot at flying into that dreaded danger zone he did 35 years ago.
For all its association with 80s Americana, cheesy machismo, and the late great Tony Scott’s love of magic hour, the original Top Gun is actually a fairly patient drama for its time and knew how to balance adrenaline with character. It’s also a one-time-only premise because of the time period it’s from and the type of filmmaking precision needed to make it work. So how do you recapture the magic of a movie that’s out of time, out of place, and much harder than the parameters of today’s modern blockbusters?
For one, you embrace nostalgia. Top Gun: Maverick has plenty of shots that make it look like it was made in the mid-80s by Scott thanks to the gorgeous views of sunrises, sunsets, and crisp blue skies from cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). There’s still plenty of American iconography on display, including Cruise racing his motorcycle against a jet taking off, sailing along the California coastline, pilots shooting pool and playing piano at a seaside bar, and Cruise going full Patton by introducing himself to his students in front of a towering American flag. While too much of that could lead viewers to think this is another massive ego stroke for Cruise, it’s balanced out by some exhausting aerial combat.
Whatever price tag this movie’s budget had was well worth it to get the intense and impressive visuals inside and outside the cockpits of the fighter jets racing through the skies. The audience feels every hard turn, nose dive, roll, takeoff, and landing the pilots endure (especially in an IMAX theater) thanks to the tight editing from Eddie Hamilton (Mission: Impossible – Fallout), the booming sound design that wisely isn’t drowned-out by overbearing music and the assemblage of it all from director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, Only the Brave). Maverick has more energy than its predecessor, which makes its longer runtime (131 minutes compared to the original’s 110 minutes) move faster than the original. So fast in fact that sometimes, it can be disorienting and you wish the movie let off the gas to make more room for character development.
For all its visual flair and technical mastery, Top Gun: Maverick has a story almost too predictable. Yes, it’s easy to see the meta-narrative underneath Maverick’s quest to never stop flying and how the higher-ups just want him to get the next generation ready and then get lost. He may not have a screenwriting credit, but it’s not hard to imagine Cruise had a hand in putting the movie’s main arc together. And if that arc ended with Maverick doing something to help the other pilots do the impossible all on their own while he bears the impossible burden of not being able to do anything with them when the mission comes, that would be fine. It would actually support the subplot of him accepting that the death of Goose was out of his hands and he needs to let go of Rooster if that boy can ever truly succeed.
Alas, this is Cruise’s show and he’ll be damned if he’s not leading those scared youngsters into battle in the third act. And that’s even before the movie keeps going to its ludicrous finale. It’s one thing for Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible to save the world through awe-inspiring feats because those movies have other characters more than qualified to do the other things that help in world-saving and don’t need Hunt’s guidance. Simon Pegg’s Benji doesn’t need Hunt to help diffuse a bomb and Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa can take down bad guys without step-by-step instructions. Ethan Hunt has grown as a character, whereas Maverick is still the Superman of the Navy so he gets the girl, the glory, and the gusto to the things no one else in Hollywood..er, I mean aviation can.
To Cruise’s credit, he doesn’t let the stunts and aviation create all the drama. Not only does he effortlessly slide back into Maverick’s easy charisma, but he shows the weight of responsibility in possibly sending these newcomers to their deaths. As forced as it is to have Goose’s son coincidentally on the Top Gun team right as Maverick is called to teach, it does give Cruise a heavy emotional arc to work with. The true acting highlight is when he comes face-to-face with old rival Iceman given that, even with the limitations he has due to throat cancer, Val Kilmer can say so much with barely any dialogue.
Cruise is lucky he’s still got pull as his supporting cast nearly outshines him in every scene they share. Powell is somehow even more of a dick than Iceman was in the original Top Gun thanks to having a look that’s less Euro-model like Kilmer and more like if Captain America was a douchebag. Hamm turns the stern conviction of his stock superior officer character into such a compelling display, you wish he’d get cast in an off-Broadway stage remake of A Few Good Men. Connelly is a bubbly delight every time she’s on-screen and a welcome bit of levity from all the abrasive showboating of Maverick and his pilots. Even Teller, whose mere face can shift an audience’s perception of him from rootable underdog to punchable brat, brings scrappy energy and teary-eyed hurt to Rooster that carries most of the heart in the movie.
So what do we do with Cruise? Do we add more fuel to the fire of his ego and cheer him on as he keeps trying to be the forever movie star? Or do we tell him it’s time to start taking a backseat in movie culture and reevaluate what kind of films he can do? Because as functional as it is as a summer blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick is only truly interesting as a metaphor for its star. Maybe Cruise will become the new Clint Eastwood, another pillar of movie stardom that refused to pander to the changing times regardless of his age or the movies at the multiplex. Hell, Top Gun: Maverick might as well be Cruise’s Unforgiven if Billy Munny never saw the tragic ends of being a cowboy.
Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in theaters everywhere: Watch the trailer here.