Top Gun: Maverick
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller and Jennifer Connelly
Classification PG; 131 minutes
Opens in theatres May 27
PHHOOOOOOOOOOOMMM. That’s not a typo, or you watching me experience a stroke in real-time print media. Instead, it is the overwhelming, transforming, jet-fightin’ sound pounding inside and outside my head as I try to recall exactly how it felt to watch Top Gun: Maverick, one of the best, and loudest, blockbusters that I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.
It is all a bit improbable, isn’t it? While the market for the unkillable Tom Cruise remains strong, the past 36 years haven’t exactly been marked by an unquenchable thirst for a sequel to the original Tony Scott exercise in Reagan-era superpatriotism (it might’ve only been 33 years were it not for the pandemic messing up release plans). Yet here we are with a sequel that soars so above and beyond the cheesy, cringe-y heights of its first film that it requires a hypersonic head-shake. Does the wildly entertaining success of Top Gun: Maverick – which nails every action scene, every emotional beat, every character arc, every musical cue – mean that, essentially, Tom Cruise cannot, will not, be stopped? That he can do anything that he puts his mind to? The only conclusion that I can make: Scientology works, people.
Coming slightly back down to Earth, Maverick works its wonders thanks to the perfect match of star power, source material ripe for retrofitting, and a director who knows how to wring the best out of his leading man and, more importantly, when to get the heck out of his way. The high-sky dogfighting in Top Gun: Maverick is gripping, explosive stuff – the movie is engineered to be a true big-screen, big-sound, big-everything experience, not necessarily pushing the limits of the cinematic form, but embracing its transformative edges. Yet director Joseph Kosinski (who worked with Cruise on 2013′s Oblivion, which I suppose now demands a reassessment) knows that all the pyrotechnics in the world cannot match the alchemic energy of his star.
Which is why the two things that we see most in Top Gun: Maverick are the sleek, multimillion-dollar jets that protect America’s interests at home and abroad (where exactly abroad? Well, that’s a complicated question that I’ll get to in a minute) and Cruise’s perfect teeth, framed by his perfect smile. Kosinski is keenly aware he has been awarded two of Hollywood’s most powerful blockbuster weapons: the shock of war and the awe of movie-star charm. Mission: accomplished.
At once self-aware and blissfully ignorant of its ridiculousness, Top Gun: Maverick picks up three decades after the events of the first film, whose specifics don’t matter in the slightest. Any 1986 plot details that you might want or need to know are swiftly rehashed here. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is one of the best pilots in the world, though still shouldering the decades-old guilt of having his radar intercept officer/BFF Goose (Anthony Edwards) die during a training exercise. Maverick had a rivalry with a fellow ace pilot, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), and a romance with an astrophysicist/instructor (Kelly McGillis) that turned Take My Breath Away into the second-base make-out song of the 1980s. There, you’re all caught up.
After purposefully avoiding any career advancement, Maverick is now busy testing the limits of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s most expensive aircraft. It is all fun and multimillion-dollar mach-10 games until Maverick is enlisted by Iceman, now an admiral, to return to the Top Gun training academy. The reason: A group of hot-shot pilots have been assigned a highly classified, impossibly dangerous mission, and only Maverick has the skills to help them complete it successfully. Oh, and one of the young new pilots is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Goose, who is carrying all manner of grudges.
There are intense training sessions, scenes of beer-soaked but PG-rated ribaldry, at least one needle-drop of Kenny Loggins’s Danger Zone, and a coconut-oil-drenched game of beach football (which never reaches the homoerotic heights of the original film’s beach volleyball scene).
The narrative, which got a pass by Cruise’s regular Mission: Impossible collaborator/enabler Christopher McQuarrie, is dead-simple. But sometimes simple is all you need, especially when the characters are imbued with such genuine emotional verve. Cruise can do this kind of driven-hero shtick in his sleep, but Top Gun: Maverick makes a good case that the man simply never shuts his eyes. Ever. The actor approaches the not-especially-complicated Maverick as an Oscar-worthy meal of a character: every low is crushing, every high intoxicating.
Cruise, ever the detail-stickler, is also careful to surround himself with ace performers. There is Jon Hamm as a skeptical naval commander, Glen Powell as a super-smarmy rival to Rooster, a radiant Jennifer Connelly as Maverick’s new love interest (McGillis’s invitation was seemingly lost in the mail), and a nervy, itchy Teller, who hasn’t been this engaging since his breakthrough role in Whiplash. Cruise even coaxed Kilmer, who has stepped back from the screen after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017, to make a small appearance – an unexpectedly quiet moment amidst the jet-roaring PHHOOOOOOOOOOOMMMs that lands like the best kind of nostalgic gut punch.
Speaking of those PHHOOOOOOOOOOOMMMs: When Maverick, Rooster and the rest take to the skies (admittedly, there are a half-dozen fresh faces whose characteristics never extend beyond their callsigns), the film fulfills the long-held promise of tentpole filmmaking by becoming a true ride. You are strapped in, with the only escape being of the cinematic variety.
There was much tsk-tsk-ing directed at Cruise and Paramount Pictures over the past two years for refusing to sell the film to streamers, or to release it when theatres were stuck in a more grey up-and-down zone. It all seems so obvious now: Top Gun: Maverick represents the height of event moviemaking. I don’t want to think about how it might play on even the highest-resolution television screen, let alone an iPhone.
I’m sure a lot of audiences would also prefer not to think about the film’s politics, but they are so curious as to be unavoidable. Namely: There are none. Never once in the film is America’s enemy named: All we know is that some rogue government, somewhere, is enriching uranium and that they must be stopped. I suppose it could be Iran, North Korea, wherever. Kosinski’s camera never shows a single foreign flag or face. The bad guys could be (and perhaps should have been) extraterrestrials.
This hyperconscious decision to not offend any potential international audience – which follows an earlier scrubbing of the Taiwanese flag from Maverick’s beloved leather jacket in the film’s marketing materials, perhaps due to Chinese giant Tencent being one of Paramount’s investment partners – is both depressingly understandable and unintentionally bizarre.
But Top Gun: Maverick isn’t a film designed for thinking. Turn off your brain, open your heart and embrace the PHHOOOOOOOOOOOMMM.
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