Not quite four years since Mission: Impossible—Fallout and much of Tom Cruise’s purpose remains the same—if it hasn’t exactly grown in religious fervor. In Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to Tony Scott’s 1986 original, Cruise is Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a man trapped in the past, refusing to advance his career as resolutely as he refuses to do much of anything besides continue to prove he’s the greatest pilot in the world—a title the film never forgets to remind the audience that Maverick earned long ago—and mourn his best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died 35 years ago in an accident for which Maverick still feels responsible. Tom Cruise is also, simply, “Tom Cruise,” the only notable show business scion left to throw his body into mind-numbing danger to prove that it can be done, to show a younger generation that this is what movies can be, what superstars can do. Must do. The more modern action films teem with synthetic bodies bursting apart at the synthetic seams, the more Tom Cruise builds his films as alters upon which to splay his beautiful sacrificed flesh.
To that end, Joseph Kosinski is the precisely correct director to steer Cruise’s legacy sequel. As was the case with Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, Maverick seems to exist to justify its existence, to update an IP that seems to only work in the past. For Top Gun this means translating Scott’s vision of sweat-drenched beach volleyball and unmitigated military spectacle into a soberer IMAX adventure, moving from the halcyon days of Reagan’s America to a world with no more need of a man like Maverick. “The future’s coming, and you’re not in it,” he’s told; every one of his superior officers appears to have no patience for him left. One can’t help but imagine that every new Tom Cruise vehicle is a way for him to reckon with that.
Maverick begins as Top Gun did, with the title card briefing the audience on the “Top Gun” flight school, followed breathlessly by Harold Faltermeyer’s near-spiritual theme and then crisp, consuming shots of fighter jets fueling, taking off, landing, the importance of each incomprehensibly expensive piece of machinery dictated by how many faceless expressions in aviators are focused on it—then fade to black. More than striking the right tone, this opening pays its last respects to everything the original film was that’s now gone. It’s an obligatory gesture as much as it feels subtle, even graceful, compared to the bombast to come. Which is maybe the magic Scott’s Top Gun still holds: It balances such disparate tones, between flamboyance and dead-seriousness, between patriotic fervor and detached disinterest, between being corny as hell and cool as fuck, until all is greased-up cinematic goodness splashed beatifically, sincerely before our eyes. Kosinski gets this. He knows there is only one sincere celebrity left who gets it too.
Thus, haunted and Thanatos drive throbbing, Maverick is Ethan Hunt is Tom Cruise. We meet him all this time later as test pilot for an experimental program with the apparent goal of reaching Mach 10, a program suddenly shuttered for budgetary reasons, in the first mention of many regarding military expenditure. If Top Gun portrayed elite pilots as grown men with unhealthy relationships to death (Tom Skerrit’s Commander Viper Metcalf an especially hard man in the wake of Goose’s death), then Maverick constantly weighs the lives of soldiers against the preservation of billion dollar weapons. “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot,” Maverick reminds his Top Gun students until it’s a mantra. Maybe in the ’80s, Maverick, but not anymore.
Inevitably, Maverick’s refusal to follow orders—Ed Harris’s orders, mind you, an actor making a cameo because he is Ed Harris—lands him back at Top Gun, teaching a handpicked class of F-18 Super Hornet pilots to undertake an, cough, impossible mission. Under the auspices of Vice Admiral Psyclone Simpson (Jon Hamm), a no-nonsense thumb-head who hates Maverick immediately—because he’s a maverick, see—the mission is to take out a uranium lab in a conspicuously unnamed “rogue” enemy country, which involves flying F-18s below 200 feet to avoid satellite-guided missiles, into a steep canyon, then out, reaching somewhere close to Mach 10, followed by a protracted dogfight, all in aircrafts pushed well beyond their factory-sanctioned limits. Maverick reminds Psyclone that casualties are guaranteed. Psyclone doesn’t blink.
Complicating Maverick’s guilt is the arrival of Rooster (Miles Teller), one of the F-18 pilots and Goose’s son. A few years before, Maverick asked Iceman (Val Kilmer) to pull Rooster’s papers to attend the naval academy, putting a huge pause on Rooster’s career. Maverick, of course, did it to protect his friend’s son, but Rooster never forgave him. As Maverick must select the team of five to likely send to their deaths, he’s got to learn what really being a dad is all about.
It’s hard to deny how closely this crisis could reflect Cruise’s life, one embroiled in very public scandals regarding his family, especially his children. But if we’re to believe that Cruise’s most important and longest love affair is with the movies, then in Top Gun: Maverick he seems to finally take stock of his mortality in a way that, despite all of the magnificent action, paints the affair in mournful hues. When Maverick reacquaints with a San Diego local, Penny (Jennifer Connelly, effortless but also a laughably archetypal MILF), a bar owner and former flame, he’s reminded constantly that it’s his fault the relationship never lasted. He’s the one who left. He made his choices, picked his priorities. One gets the sense he will likely die before he gets any of this right.
Cruise still looks cut from marble, his body that of a bro half his years, but with age he’s lost that youthful studliness codified in Top Gun, replaced with a kind of sexless implacability. Cruise plays Maverick as a ghost of a machine, realizing he missed some of the most vital years of his life to his pursuit of perfection, which only increases his determination to reach perfection before his body gives out. In turn, Miles Teller must compensate, which is probably why he has a mustache. Unfortunately, Teller’s charisma beams throughout, and he wears that lip strip like he’s touched by god, were there a god, but there isn’t because Miles Teller looks good in a mustache. He’s probably a bad person, and probably so is Cruise, but none of that matters in the air.
In the air. Kosinski’s dogfights are pristine, incredible feats of filmmaking, economical and orbiting around recognizable space, but given to occasional, inexplicable shocks of pure chaos. Then quickly cohering again. If Scott’s action was a melange of motion never meant to fully cohere, keeping the American dream just that, then Kosinski is dedicated to allowing the audience a way into the experience. With his regular cinematographer Claudio Miranda, he revels in symmetry to keep the audience tethered. A wide glimpse of a dogfight in total, resembling a beach scene earlier, so suddenly appeared silently in the vast theater and unlike anything I’d ever really seen before, I gasped.
Because Cruise must not simply act, but do, and inherent to bringing Top Gun to 2022 is platforming Cruise’s approach to teaching the cast how to fly in such incredible conditions, then filming them doing so. There is no other way to get to such visceral stakes than to push your cast to the point of puking. There is no other way to save the world than to bet your life on it.
One assumes that from now on, every Tom Cruise movie will seem like a coda. And perhaps one day he will just disappear, piloting a MiG into the sun or driving his motorcycle over a cliff and then just never landing. Only then will we know that everything will be alright. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, Mr. Cruise sir.
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writer: Ehren Kruger, Aaron Warner Singer, Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jenifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Jon Hamm, Monica Barbaro, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Jay Ellis, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Danny Ramirez, Greg “Tarzan” Davis
Release Date: May 27, 2022
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.