Review: ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ designed to make you cheer 2
Tom Cruise is back in the highly-anticipated sequel to Top Gun.
Culture

Review: ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is designed to make you cheer—and it’s a tribute to Cruise, man and myth

Tom Cruise has found in Top Gun: Maverick the vehicle that smelts the person and the persona into a satisfying whole.
ANDREW PAREDES | May 23 2022

Let me take you back to December 2020, when audio from the set of the next Mission: Impossible movie leaked to a world in dire need of diversion. In it, star, producer and force of nature Tom Cruise is raining hellfire on crew members who had violated the set’s COVID protocols. He excoriates the crew for not taking the gravity of their endeavor seriously, declaring that their half-hearted apologies are an insult to their fallen, unemployed brethren: “You can tell it to the people who are losing their f—king homes because the industry is shut down. It's not going to put food on their table or pay for their college education. That’s what I sleep with every night—the future of this f—king industry!”

Top Gun
Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Miles Teller as Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, Monica Barbaro as “Phoenix” and Glen Powell as “Hangman”

The press likes to say that Tom Cruise is the Last Movie Star. Anecdotes like this prove that he is more: Tom Cruise is the Last Movie Lifer. He makes movies like his life depended on it. He would rather hang by his fingernails on the side of an ascending cargo plane or break his ankles jumping from one building to another than be relegated to a supporting role in some gentle, Oscar-bait drama. That’s not Who He Is. 

And when you sign on to be part of the Tom Cruise bandwagon, he expects you to take the ride as seriously as he does. How else would you explain the willingness of Tom’s millennial co-stars in Top Gun: Maverick—the sequel to the 1986 testosterone saga that made him a superstar—to learn how to pilot the movie’s F/A-18 jets so the director wouldn’t have to rely on CGI-plastered images of Washington’s Cascade Mountains whizzing by for the cockpit shots?

Top Gun
Top Gun: Maverick offers meta-commentary on Cruise’s status in Hollywood, and in response Cruise leans deeply into the vulnerability of not just his character, but his circumstances. 

But Cruise is a Movie Lifer for another reason: In many ways, he is the roles he plays. Whether it’s death-defying agent Ethan Hunt or inscrutable Jack Reacher, Cruise is always playing a version of himself. It would explain the lack of love from the Academy: When he tries to submerge himself in a role like Rock of Ages’ Stacee Jaxx, the effort of holding his breath is too visible; but when he plays someone like cocky ex-airline pilot/smuggler Barry Seal in 2017’s American Made, there’s not enough effort. He may open his movies at $60 million domestic, but he can never win.

Still, I’ll be damned if Cruise’s latest visit to the character that turned him into a brand, Navy fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, isn’t worthy of at least a sideways glance from Oscar. Top Gun: Maverick offers meta-commentary on Cruise’s status in Hollywood, and in response Cruise leans deeply into the vulnerability of not just his character, but his circumstances. 

Top Gun
Maverick with on-again off-again love interest Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly)

In the opening sequence, Maverick is informed that the program he is test-piloting is getting scrapped in favor of drones, and so he pushes his prototypical stealth jet past its objective of reaching Mach-10 because he's concerned for all the people who’ll be losing their jobs. Later in the movie, after a botched training exercise at Top Gun, Maverick tells his young wards to prepare explanations for the families left behind by their fallen comrades. If this movie wasn’t a rehearsal for that December 2020 outburst, I don’t know what is.

Top Gun: Maverick easily outflies its 1986 predecessor, which isn’t exactly a lofty target. Worshipped as an amber-hued emblem of 1980s American individualism (and as a recruitment poster for the armed forces), Top Gun viewed today, despite the hefty slices of beefcake, is pretty much a nothing burger. It leans so heavily into macho posturing that it tumbles hilariously into unintentional homoeroticism. (Director Tony Scott fetishized his young actors’ looks so much that he couldn’t resist coating them in a sweaty sheen even during the most inactive of briefing scenes, as if the Navy didn’t believe in air-conditioning.) Mostly, the original gets its burnish from the promise of Cruise’s potential, his megawatt charisma illuminating Maverick’s status as a Gifted Child, one that his superior Tom Skerritt or his love interest Kelly McGillis couldn’t help but reprimand with a barely suppressed smile.

Thirty six years later, and Top Gun: Maverick now has a lot to work with. If the original was running on the promise of Tom Cruise, Top Gun: Maverick gets narrative propulsion from his promise fulfilled. Like Cruise, Maverick has resisted the prospect of career “advancements” that would take him from the nitty gritty of doing what he does best: piloting planes (or multimillion-dollar movie projects). Like Cruise, Maverick has suffered the isolation of single-minded focus…although returning to Fightertown USA to train a detachment of elite pilots for a dangerous mission might bring him in romantic contact with an ex-flame, a bar owner named Penny (Jennifer Connelly, radiant as ever and willing a full-blooded woman out of a thinly written role).

Top Gun
A huge part of the satisfaction of Top Gun: Maverick’s heart-in-your-throat action set pieces derives from the fact that you know where each character is at all times…unless it’s in the plot’s best interests to surprise you. 

And like Cruise, Maverick is regarded as a relic (most icily by his new superior, an admiral played by Jon Hamm) when he isn’t being celebrated as a god. “The future is coming, and you’re not in it,” Maverick is growled at by Ed Harris’ granite-faced rear admiral. Only an actor of Harris’ stature can deliver that line convincingly to Cruise (watch out for the scene where he stands impervious to a stealth jet’s backwash, framed by the camera like a totem pole) because only an actor of such elemental sternness can be impregnable to Cruise/Maverick’s larger-than-lifeness. (Even Val Kilmer, the only actor from the original who, I would argue, managed to imbue his frenemy character Iceman with some nuance, isn’t immune to Maverick’s myth. Kilmer makes a poignant cameo about halfway through, allowing Cruise to display some of his most affecting acting.)

Director Joseph Kosinski (who entered the Cruise Cinematic Universe via the sci-fi potboiler Oblivion) takes his cues from his lead actor by cherry-picking the parts of the original that propels the mythology but jettisoning the bits that are a drag. The opening shots of this sequel, for instance, are an almost shot-by-shot copy of the original’s opening, from the golden-sunset tint to the sight of navy carrier personnel scurrying around. Gone is the macho posturing, but there is a stand-in for Maverick’s brash younger self in Jake “Hangman” Seresin, played to cocky perfection by Glenn Powell of Everybody Wants Some!! And while Maverick’s love interest is a tad less accomplished this time around, the sequel drops a female ace pilot (Monica Barbaro’s “Phoenix” Trace) into the mix without blinking an eye.

If the original gifted this sequel with anything, it is the death of Anthony Edwards’ Goose, because from this loss springs the fraught relationship between Maverick and Goose’s son, aviator hopeful Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw. Miles Teller plays the aggrieved Rooster with just the right amount of resentment—even summoning Edwards’ gawky lankiness in his body language—while the architecturally impeccable script by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie (himself a veteran of Cruise’s Mission: Impossible movies) tempers Rooster from being an outright jerk, imbuing him with crippling insecurity.

Top Gun
The prime engine on this well-oiled machine is Cruise himself. 

The script also avoids the original’s bone-headed decision to drop the pilots’ mission on their graduation, instead giving us the shape of the mission early on and then drilling into it at strategic points so we know its contours as well as the pilots: A hostile nation is set to put a uranium-enriching facility online in defiance of NATO, and it is up to Maverick’s Top Gun-trained pilots to destroy it. There is radar coverage to slip under and surface-to-air missiles to evade, but even though the shape of the operation is there, not all the specifics are filled in: Like the original, this sequel takes care not to name the hostile power, or even contemplate the realpolitik ramifications of such an incursion.

Instead, we are briefed on the geography and terrain of the mission to such a painstaking degree so that Kosinski, cinematographer Claudio Miranda and editor Eddie Hamilton can stage aerial dogfights and cockpit rollercoaster rides that are breathtaking yet coherent. A huge part of the satisfaction of Top Gun: Maverick’s heart-in-your-throat action set pieces derives from the fact that you know where each character is at all times…unless it’s in the plot’s best interests to surprise you.

Still, the prime engine on this well-oiled machine is Cruise himself. Top Gun: Maverick is designed to make you cheer, but a lot of those fist-bumps comes not just from the cinematic feats of derring-do you see onscreen (“Oh my God, the actors actually flew those jets!”) but from the story of the years unfolding behind the screen. After scaling the Burj Al Khalifa and learning how to fly in his spare time and sacrificing his personal happiness so he can make movies that make you gasp, Tom Cruise has found in Top Gun: Maverick the vehicle that smelts the person and the persona into a satisfying whole. Cruise is a star because of that seamless blending of man and myth. It’s a big reason why we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Photos from Paramount Pictures