Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Skydance Media/rated PG-13/131 minutes
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie
Story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks
Starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris and Val Kilmer
Cinematography by Claudio Miranda, edited by Eddie Hamilton, score by Lorne Balfe
Opens theatrically on May 27 courtesy of Paramount
Skydance and Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick feels like the culmination of the last 16 years of Tom Cruise’s constant attempts to reassert his stardom. The films Cruise made between 2010, starting with James Mangold’s charming Knight & Day (essentially a 007 movie told from the POV of Cameron Diaz’s Bond Girl), have almost all been single-minded in their determination to convince moviegoers and Hollywood executives that the man who personified stardom in the 1980s and the 1990s is still worthy of the mantle. That Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow, American Made and the last few Mission: Impossible sequels have been relatively great is almost beside the point. Their key function has been to convince us that Cruise himself is still the coolest, sexiest, strongest and most kamikaze-committed actor bad-ass in the industry. Top Gun: Maverick is a polished and visually impressive action drama that has little to offer beyond Cruise asserting his dominance.
Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick arrives, four years after production, not unlike Austin Powers himself awoke from hibernation as the world around him changed. In 2022, as many of his movie star peers have been assimilated into various DC/Marvel franchises and/or joined television or streaming projects to still ply their craft, Cruise stands out almost by default by still headlining huge-scale movies like, well, Top Gun: Maverick. In a world where “on streaming” is the new “in theaters,” star vehicles are an endangered species, big-budget films not based on Marvel or DC comic books are a consistent coin toss, and now Hollywood can’t even rely on China to offer a box office boost. Even Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra Bullock are making Netflix movies. Yet here Tom Cruise remains determined to be the last analog movie star in a digital world. He may indeed be the last action hero.
Do you want great dogfights, ariel action and related spectacle? You most certainly get that in spades, to the point where the film is arguably worth the price of an IMAX or Dolby ticket purely for the visceral value. But, as Roger Ebert correctly said about the original Top Gun, look out for the scenes where the people talk to one another. The 1986 Tony Scott-directed blockbuster was absolutely an artifact of its time, a shameless piece of gung-ho military propaganda that nonetheless avoided explicit jingoism or nationalism. Like the similarly of-the-moment Rocky IV, it’s less a movie than a combination of genre-specific action scenes and music video montages to where it almost qualifies as a musical. Creed pulled off a miracle of using the campy Rocky IV to craft a grounded and compelling passing of the torch story. Maverick falters because Cruise is unwilling to pass that torch.
Some plot: Pete Mitchell has spent the last three decades avoiding advancement for the sake of remaining in the sky. After a good news/bad news test flight finds him on the verge of dismissal, he gets assigned to teach at the so-called Top Gun school, where he will instruct a group of young, idealistic and comparatively diverse fighter pilots for the sake of a seemingly impossible mission (sorry) to take out an Iranian uranium enrichment facility located between two mountains. One of those youngsters is Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), whose father was the doomed “Goose” (Anthony Edwards). Bradley’s resentment toward his dad’s best friend is less about that accidental death and more about how Pete’s guilt over that incident led him to hamstring the kid’s naval career. Oh, and Pete reconnects with an old flame (Jennifer Connelly) who owns the local tavern, but that’s not important.
The opening test flight sequence, whereby Maverick implicitly disobeys orders to pull off an almost-successful flight before a commanding officer (Ed Harris) arrives to officially discontinue the program, is both a terrific curtain-raiser and a fine reminder that Maverick was usually only a rule-breaking hotshot when it came to the greater good or helping others. He’s not unlike Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk decades later. Kirk may be a cocky anti-authoritarian but will only violate the prime directive when innocent lives are in peril. Cruise’s Maverick is still crippled by his unwillingness to forgive himself for Goose’s death and thus unable to take proactive steps to move on from that tragedy. Val Kilmer’s Ice Man does appear at a key emotional juncture imploring Pete to “let him go,” which is moving until you remember that it’s just quoting the original movie. That sums up the sequel.
The film seems frozen in time, unwilling to confront the original Top Gun’s complicated political legacy (which Cruise himself noted in the early 1990s when vowing not to make sequels to what he called an amusement park ride-like portrait of war) or do anything that might challenge fans of the 1986 original. This is a minor annoyance for most of the running time. We didn’t need to have Rooster sitting at a piano playing the same song (“Great Balls of Fire”) that we heard in the first film. At its best, and it’s rarely less than entertaining, Maverick is a metaphor for Cruise himself trying to maintain his top-tier stardom even at the expense of the next generation. But the final act makes that bug into a feature. Without going into details, the film becomes something a lot closer to The Rise of Skywalker than The Force Awakens.
When viewed as a whole, the film’s entire dramatic arc depends on audiences not only being aware of Top Gun but considering its at-the-time throwaway narrative to be an important pop-culture myth. Like Halloween, The Force Awakens and (to a lesser extent) Spider-Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick depends on audiences embracing what was supposed to be just a well-oiled Hollywood machine as a primal piece of indispensable mythmaking, with its story being essentially the only thing of consequence that happened to the characters and the only thing of consequence to the fans. Like Independence Day: Resurgence, The Matrix Resurrections, Terminator: Dark Fate, The Rise of Skywalker and (to a lesser extent) Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Top Gun: Maverick introduces a new crew of young would-be heroes only to let the franchise vet(s) hog the spotlight or determine the narrative. This is excessively apparent in the film’s redundant third act.
If feels like a “me” problem, in terms of these legacy sequels treating what was supposed to be run-of-the-mill studio programmers into unimpeachable pop culture fables of grand social importance, maybe it is. But the extent to which the film acts as an almost desperate reaffirmation of Tom Cruise’s top-tier stardom undercuts even what works, especially as this film just isn’t as good as, say, even Oblivion or Valkyrie. We get another scene of the pilots playing sports on the beach, but sans even a hint of homoeroticism and mostly to show that these newbies all have rockin’ bodies and that Maverick can still tussle among them. There is little of the original film’s 80’s PG edge, and that applies to the otherwise fine Lady Gaga song “Hold My Hand” which plays over the end credits. The song and the movie have a sheen of respectability and wholesomeness.
When viewed sans any broader social context, Top Gun: Maverick is a generally enjoyable and well-directed big-scale, non-fantastical summer blockbuster. The production values are as good as you’d hope, with Connelly yet again offering way more than what’s on the page. Cruise is (as always) giving it his all, even as while film represents a complicated portrait of his stardom. At its best, it’s a hybrid of Kosinski’s Cruise-centric action fare (Oblivion) and grounded, real-world Americana (the spectacular Only the Brave, which also co-starred Jennifer Connelly and Miles Teller). It offers so much geographic clarity for the final mission before that climax that, yes, I would compare that element to Titanic. Part of my disapproval, this is a well-made movie that I didn’t enjoy, is due to the knowledge that all parties are capable of better, sharper and more challenging work. That I never liked Top Gun certainly doesn’t help.