Everything we know about how franchises are being resurrected at the cinema ought to tell us that this is a bad idea. Especially when the source material is just a blip of self-contained genius, a Tony Scott movie that soars by on vibes and capsulized 1986 blockbuster energies and doesn’t have any material depth. Doubly true when the original film, as starkly appealing as Tony Scott’s audiovisual ambitions were, was a simple propaganda film that already overachieved on the material in front of it. Creating a new one of those sounds like a staggering feat. Top Gun: Maverick is cause for disbelief: this many years after that original film, the singular vitality of Tom Cruise pilots the new film over every reason it should not work. Not only does it work but it works spectacularly as not just one of the great modern action movies but a testament to a performer’s legacy and an audacious way of making movies that arrives without many present parallels. The resulting film is truly special, a work of great integrity and perseverance that moves and thrills in equal measure while also assuring the audience, the future of theatrical cinema is, at this very moment, as necessary as it has ever been.
Tom Cruise has reached an age of maturation. Perhaps realizing there are far fewer years of action ahead of him than behind him, the present phase of Tom Cruise is leaving everything on the table. For Top Gun: Maverick, he returns as the titular Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, who since the last time we met has effectively stalled out in life, holding the very same station, testing aircraft and flying planes, and refusing the normal route of promotion that would lead to more administrative responsibilities. No way, that’s not for him, we still want to see Tom Cruise pilot a plane. And boy, does he. The opening of Top Gun: Maverick, after serenading the audience with prerequisite Kenny Loggins classic “Danger Zone,” finds Maverick pushing a jet to Mach 10 speeds. And then he keeps going. You can pinpoint the second Joseph Kosinski arrives as a formidable action filmmaker (2017’s Only the Brave already showed his terrific promise). It’s at that very second that Maverick hits Mach 10, the director’s future is ensured. This is where everyone belongs. This is everything Tom Cruise is about, what Mission: Impossible has built to, but doesn’t require the material hardware to truly convey. This is IMAX cinema at its largest climax, the most a big screen can do is show a flying jet achieve hypersonic speeds. This is a director ensuring that he’s in a new class of contemporaries. This is cinema. This is everything that makes movies great and a thing only movies can do.
Then the film continues to do these things. Again and again. It does these things not with the same stylish verve of Tony Scott (he is not imitable, and that would be a mistake) but with the own graceful presence of a new voice added to the conversation. Maverick broke the rules by pushing past Mach 10 and breaking the aircraft. It seems like he’s landlocked. He destroyed this terrific aircraft built with tax payer money and must be punished. Then he receives the greatest sort of demotion: moving back to Top Gun flight school and training a new generation of Navy recruits to achieve one of the most difficult aviation missions ever undertaken.
Returning to the fold, Maverick has to navigate the bureaucratic realities of intensive flight school training that requires him to go above and beyond the call of the program, and institute his own regimen of specialized and impractical maneuvers, risks, and challenges that push his new recruits to their breaking point. Maverick’s homecoming also means he has to face down the trauma that has plagued him with guilt since his last mission many years ago. He kept his solitary station as a flight tester, perhaps, out of guilt for what happened with Goose. He held him in the ocean as he died and is now face to face with his grown up son, Rooster (Miles Teller). Maverick, out of a promise to the family, has done everything he could to make sure Rooster would not progress to this moment, and now he has to take him under his wing, and show him how to be the world’s most elite pilot, but also learn something from him, and take back the part of himself that has been missing all of these years.
Incredibly, all of the new recruits are game and the actors have to function just not as their characters but often as their own directors. Situated in actual aircraft, they have to direct themselves from the skies. It rarely feels like our characters are in material danger (perhaps it is an even more efficient bit of propaganda than the original) but the actors seem to have risked everything. Tom Cruise, much like his role in the film, has put each actor through intensive flight training. They started with smaller planes and quickly graduated to these incredible high power jets. It’s an astounding thing, actually, when we are so used to movies green-screening any and all action and not even relying on practical sets, to see the vast commitment not just to the stunt work but larger commitment to the film.
Top Gun: Maverick also made me cry. It is not enough that it was exhilarating but it also had to move me to tears. Val Kilmer did it. Our history with Val Kilmer, recently given greater context in the documentary on his work, continues to grow in its legend. He’s no longer able to speak. That is factored into the plot for his return as Iceman. And god damn does it hurt. It feels like the end. Not for Val Kilmer, especially, but the final cap on the kind of characters we know him for. It’s a bit of on-screen closure for everyone. The moment that will invariably end any tributes to his great legacy one day. A moment where he gets to act with his eyes and his face and not any words. He types them out onto a computer so his character and Maverick can have a conversation. And there’s a whole build up, as he initially seems to only be present in a series of terse text conversations with Maverick. We wonder, will we see him, is this on-screen representation enough? Then comes the gut punch. Only Val Kilmer is enough. This moment, separated from the high action, is not what the movie seems to be about on its face, but it’s genuinely everything the movie is. Not just a lovely nostalgia-reaching tribute to the old film but an entirely new recontextualizing of what that film was, finally reinserting the character pieces (which must be the only thing Scott’s film leaves us wanting for, beyond the broader archetypes of those characters, who just seemed to be their call signs back then).
The new film is also an awkwardly cute little romance. Maverick’s return to the watering hole, the bar where the Navy recruits enlist in darts and pool and drink to form a greater bond, also rekindles an old flame. Penny (Jennifer Connelly, such a sweet romantic foil for Cruise) tends the bar. She’s the Admiral’s daughter, breezily mentioned in the first film, and they had an affair way back when. Their romance sweetly plays out across the bar. There are the lightest rom-com touches to the film but they are just enough to ground the film when it is not totally airborne and out of its mind. And it works, to convey both the growth of Maverick’s character in continuity and to create a development, from the kind of person he was, to the kind of person he will become. The bar also plays a nostalgic fixture and natural place to quickly introduce all of the new aviators, but also to tie them back to Maverick’s fond and bitter memories of the past. It all just works in practice.
And the plot? The plot of Top Gun? There was a plot in Top Gun? There wasn’t a plot in Top Gun. There is kind of a main plot in Top Gun: Maverick. It is still agreeably vague. It doesn’t so much set up an enemy so much as a scenario with warring conflict. The enemy is never really shown, never really explained. Like the first film, a dramatic skirmish in the air doesn’t require much further development. You just see it and you know it: that works. That’s good propaganda. Don’t complicate your vastly overproduced recruitment video. Everyone is on board and wishes they were these people. As they careen over mountain passes and sidewind around each other’s planes and dive through the valleys and fly at such magnificent speeds, it is all so breathtaking and wondrous. The Navy, of course, is an institution that requires people to join it. Not all propaganda is inherently bad. No wars are good. But there aren’t really wars in Top Gun. Not real wars, just conflicts, and that still functionally works as one of the few not-totally-problematic military pictures, in that there’s really not enough to cling onto and complain about, beyond the nature of its creation itself, and that doesn’t much seem like a viable target, because it is a function of necessity for the film to happen as it does.
There aren’t down moments. There’s nothing in the film that feels too rosy in its nostalgia or too ugly in its reference-baiting. Oh yeah, you’re going to get returns on everything you care about. Have no doubt about that. Everything you love about Top Gun, you’re going to love again. The only core difference is the method of approach. There is still something to Tony Scott’s drifting aerial fantasia. You’re going to see planes do things you’ve never seen before and it will be astonishing but the intent is different. It’s not a vibe movie. That’s not quite what Top Gun: Maverick is doing. It does everything else, meanwhile, while still ensuring there are gratuitous sweaty scenes on the beach and the most thrilling flight sequences in cinema’s history. What’s here is not a reductive spin on what we already have but it’s own top class action movie. The legend of Tom Cruise is now the legend of the modern blockbuster cinema. The big movies that really count for something are his movies. Top Gun is back and it is damn good. Turn and burn, baby.
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