Movie Review: "Top Gun: Maverick" reclaims blockbuster cinema
Cinema’s favourite ageless fighter-pilot returns with all the nail-biting aeronautics and emotional sucker punches that made the original an 80s-defining hit.
And we’re back. A full 36 years after Tony Scott’s big-screen recruitment advert for US naval aviators became an epoch-defining cinema hit, Tom Cruise returns (again) doing what he does best: flashing his cute/crazy superstar smile and flexing his bizarrely ageless body in an eye-popping blockbuster that, for all its daft macho contrivances, still manages to take your breath away, dammit.
You will be right at home with “Top Gun: Maverick,” director Joseph Kosinski’s witty adrenaline booster that allows its leading producer to be precisely what he is—a star—while upping the emotional and dramatic stakes of its predecessor with a healthy (but not overdone) dose of nostalgia. After a title card that explains what “Top Gun” is—the identical one that introduced us to the world of crème-de-la-crème Navy pilots in 1986—we find Maverick in a role on the fringes of the US Navy, working as an undaunted test pilot against the familiar backdrop of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.” You won’t be surprised that soon enough, he gets called on a one-last-job type of mission as a teacher to a group of recent Top Gun graduates. Their assignment is just as obscure and politically cuckoo as it was in the first movie. There is an unnamed enemy, some targets that need to be destroyed, a flight plan that sounds nuts, and a scheme that will require all successful Top Gun recruits to fly at dangerously low altitudes. Hardly anything in “Top Gun: Maverick” will surprise you, except how well it does nearly all the things audiences want and expect it to do.
The film is directed by Joseph Kosinski, who answers in the affirmative with a confident, aggressive swagger that might look like overcompensation. But there isn’t a hint of insecurity in Cruise’s performance — or in Maverick’s. On the brink of 60, he still projects the nimble, cocky, perennially boyish charm that conquered the box office in the 1980s. Back then — in Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” — Pete was a brash upstart striving to stand out amid the camaraderie and competition of the super-elite Top Gun program. He seduced the instructor Charlie (Kelly McGillis), locked horns with his golden-boy nemesis, Iceman (Val Kilmer), and lost his best friend and radar intercept officer, Goose (Anthony Edwards). Ronald Reagan was president and the Cold War was in its florid final throes, but “Top Gun” wasn’t really a combat picture. It was, at heart, a sports movie decked out in battle gear, about a bunch of guys showboating, trash-talking and trying to outdo one another.
Our fearless and ever-handsome action hero earns both appraisals with a generous side of applause, being one of the precious remnants of movie superstardom, a nostalgic reminder of the they-don’t-make-'em-like-they-used-to films that live in us forever. Indeed, Cruise’s consistent commitment to Hollywood showmanship—along with the insane levels of physical craft he unfailingly puts on the table by insisting to do his own stunts—I would argue, deserves the same level of high-brow respect usually reserved for the fully-method sorts such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Even if you somehow overlook the fact that Tom Cruise is one of our most gifted and versatile dramatic and comedic actors with the likes of “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Magnolia,” “Tropic Thunder,” and “Collateral” under his belt, you will never forget why you show up to a Tom Cruise movie, thanks in large part to his aforesaid enduring dedication. How many other household names and faces can claim to guarantee “a singular movie event” these days and deliver each time, without exceptions?
Hommage to the original
Other reminders of the past include Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Goose, and Iceman himself, who has ascended to the rank of admiral and kept a protective eye on his former rival. Kilmer’s brief appearance has a special poignancy. Apart from the 2021 documentary “Val,” he hasn’t been onscreen much since losing his voice to throat cancer, and seeing him and Cruise in a quiet scene together is as sad and stirring as a scene from the most dramatic film ever made. Here, the cockfight between Maverick and Iceman is echoed in the present rivalrous posturing of Rooster and the arrogant Hangman (an interestingly Kilmeresque Glen Powell). We are treated to a shirtless game of touch football on the beach, which matches the original volleyball game for sweaty camp subtext. There are some memorable supporting performances — notably from Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro and the always solid Jon Hamm, as a by-the-book, stick-in-the-mud admiral. We never see the faces of the enemy pilots once the mission is underway. This only confirms the sense that “Top Gun: Maverick” has nothing to say about geopolitics and everything to do with the defence of old-fashioned movie values in the face of streaming-era nihilism.
I found myself powerless to resist; overawed by the “real flight” aeronautics and nail-biting sky dances, bludgeoned by the sugar-frosted glow of Cruise’s mercilessly engaging facial muscles, and shamefully brought to tears by moments of hate-yourself-for-going-with-it manipulation. In the immortal words of Abba’s Waterloo, “I was defeated, you won the war”. I gave up. Plus, in some sense, what this movie takes most seriously are concepts like friendship, loyalty, romance, and okay, bromance. Everything else that surrounds those notions—like patriotic egotism—feels like playful winks and embellishments towards fashioning an old-school action movie. Still, this buckle-up follow-up also demonstrates why we feel the need for movie stars. It goes beyond Cruise’s raw involvement in what amounts to a glorified U.S. military recruitment commercial. It’s the way we identify with the guy when he’s doing what most of us thought impossible. Turns out we need Maverick now more than ever.