Directed by Joseph Kosinski; Written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie
In the early minutes of Top Gun: Maverick, Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, soars across the sky in a space age airplane pushing to hit Mach 10. It’s a fantastical speed that would count as a touch-the-face-of-God achievement should he get there. When he does, it’s a moment where engineering reaches an outer limit that is only made possible by mankind’s ambition and pursuit of greatness, some kind of perfect summit that requires not only mechanical perfection but someone truly extraordinary behind the stick, someone willing to go beyond what’s safe and expected.
Locked in his cockpit, dripping sweat from every pore and grasping his joystick, Cruise cannot be understood to be a man like you and I as he roars across the stratosphere. He’s no longer one of us but something greater, an icon made absolute by the singular place he, and only he, now occupies, as the fastest man alive.
Tom Cruise is our last great working movie star. Name me one other star whose name on a film poster is an ironclad guarantee for $250 million at the box office. Whose complete otherness is rooted in the fact he became a star in an age before social media made every celebrity “approachable”. Whose weird as fuck off screen antics made it impossible for him to be relatable. Who does his own stunts at 60 years of age, because he’s that committed to not breaking the immersion that every movie chases.
Tom Cruise understands greatness, because he is that same greatness. And a person like that is perhaps the only person who can pick up a film where it left off more than 30 years ago and make something that is that first film’s equal.
Top Gun: Maverick is spectacular. An out-and-out thrill ride, it features guitar solo-worthy action sequences, corny, but not too corny witticisms and dialogue, a true star somehow still at the top of his game, and a self-effacing twinkle in its eye. What’s even better, it’s a film that loves and believes in all the aforementioned elements, which is its saving grace, because if it didn’t believe in these things that have gone slightly out of vogue, then the movie would be as embarrassing as you might have expected it to be.
Any other movie would feel ridiculous in its eye-popping action sequences. Any other movie would ooze small-dick energy in its swaggering. Any other movie would make your eyes dislodge as you rolled them in your head at some of the wisecracks. Any other movie about U.S. fighter pilots would feel like jingoistic pandering, and yet, here we are.
It’s about one fighter pilot, in particular. The best to ever do it, some say about Maverick, and yet when the movie starts we’re told he’s on the outs. Drones are the new fighting future. He’s too reckless for the bookkeepers, too much of a wildcard for the suits. But Iceman, once-foe-then-friend-but-actually-lover from the first film, who’s now the leader of the Pacific Fleet of the U.S. Navy, requests he return to the Top Gun fighter pilot school to teach a squad of graduate aces how to fly a perilous bombing route.
It means a lot of time in the cockpit, a lot of banter between ego-driven sky cowboys, and a lot of fear of the worst that could happen for Maverick, who’s shocked to learn one of the pilots he’ll be training is the son of his former partner Goose. That’s all very good and fraught, but let’s get back in the air, okay?
Because this is where Top Gun: Maverick belongs. Not on the ground, where it’s bound to rote clichés like uninteresting love interests and predictable confrontations with cynical top brass commanders. It belongs in the air, with Cruise in his cockpit, who grunts with every turn of the plane, suddenly looking old and barely holding on, but hellbent on showing everyone how willing he is to put everything he has into whatever he’s doing. Tom Cruise doesn’t 50% something, ever. And neither does Top Gun: Maverick, which guns its engines from start to finish, never a dull moment.
It’s a film in deep conversation with itself. Not only are some passages in the film shot-for-shot remakes of the first, but Maverick even starts talking to himself, reaching out to his deceased flying partner for reassurance. The prayers are answered, however, and the blessings ring down from on high, because while Top Gun: Maverick has the spirit of the 80s flowing through it, it soars now, almost 40 years later.
Because it is lighthearted and frivolous, full of the goofy machismo that so defined the first, making plenty of room for the homoeroticsm that veered from subtext straight into text in the first film. Jennifer Connelly tries to offer a romantic spark to Maverick’s jet engine, but it’s ultimately superfluous and the film’s one tepid (non-)sex scene is perhaps the only disappointment. Thankfully the ribbing and bro hugs between Rooster (Miles Teller) and Hangman (Glen Powell), the new pair of fighting cocks this sequel has to offer, has plenty of juice.
Ultimately, it’s just exhilarating to watch planes go incredibly fast and director Kosinski never strays far from the cockpit, constantly reminding us of the gritted teeth required of Maverick and company to fly them. It’s an important distinction, because what’s the difference between the catastrophic noise that is a Transformers-movie and something thrilling like this? The human element, reminding you simultaneously of the frailty and daredevilry of these men and women.
Top Gun: Maverick goes right into whichever body part that holds your sense of adventure. To watch Maverick twirl his fighter plane around in perfect command, shoot down nondescript bad guys, and rip down an open road on a motorcycle is to escape the doldrums of the everyday and soar along on the sweeping wind of escapism that Cruise provides.