Over 35 years ago, in the original Superior gun, Tom Cruise did something that almost never happens anymore: he became a movie star. If he had certainly already made a strong impression on the screen, with hit films like Risky business, there is a difference between being a presence and being a movie star; Julia Roberts was already ready for her first Oscar the same weekend as A pretty woman open, but it was the latter that took her to the next level. Yes, Superior gun was a savvy piece of pro-military gung-ho porn for the Reagan years, but it was also a star vehicle. It wasn’t the plane that mattered; it was the pilot.
This phrase is often used in Top Gun: Maverick, and it’s hard not to see a meta-commentary on how movies have changed since 1986. In a time when franchises have become the stars, it’s decidedly retro to see a summer blockbuster built around real material , and a real movie-star personality. And as easy as it would have been for Top Gun: Maverick to lean entirely on nostalgia for its impact, it’s a movie that works because it reminds you of what it was like when big movies felt physical, rather than just digital. When a hard-nosed admiral (Ed Harris) promotes the value of humanless drone warfare by telling veteran Cruise pilot Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, “The future is coming, and you’re not in it,” it’s hard not to look at the whole narrative that follows as the actor’s response to “Oh, yeah?”
The central narrative certainly has a legacy component, tied to Maverick’s continued guilt over the death in the original film of his pal and wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards). Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller) is part of the all-star team of Top Gun graduates brought back to be considered for a crucial mission involving the bombing of a uranium enrichment facility in a “rogue state”. ” (this is certainly part of Top Gun: Maverickexistence in the film industry’s global present that no one is likely to identify a specific nation as a villain). Maverick is tasked with preparing his young proteges for the unique dangers of this mission, while resentment lingers between him and Rooster over Maverick’s attempts to keep Rooster from his father’s fate.
It’s a bit of a bold gamble that the script – credited to five writers, including Cruise’s frequent Impossible mission Contributor Christopher McQuarrie – looks at new relationships rather than inherited relationships. In addition to the surrogate father stuff with Rooster, Maverick gets a new-for-us/not-new-for-him love connection with an old flame, Penny (Jennifer Connelly), rather than bringing back Kelly McGillis. We get an on-screen reunion between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer), the latter now Maverick’s longtime admiral and defender, and he’s the one who handles Kilmer’s limited health-related physical abilities with dignity. Whereas Top Gun: Maverick is not above some obvious callbacks to its predecessor, including the trading of Superior gunlegendary / infamous shirtless volleyball for a little shirtless football – some of them are more eloquent than designed for enthusiastic audience response. The opening scenes of jet-powered action on an aircraft carrier deck, set in Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” and shot in the burnished oranges of the ending Superior gun director Tony Scott, is slowly fading away rather than becoming a big punch.
Instead, you get that big punch of airborne action, and it’s thrilling in a way that we just don’t have much experience with anymore. Director Joseph Kosinski (Cruise’s Oversight) choreographs every high-speed practice run, dizzying dive, and dangerous dogfight with energy and precision, optimized for the biggest screen possible. It’s easy to forget that even many of the recent hugely successful films feel designed for endless rewatching on streaming services; Top Gun: Maverick feels like a movie that everyone involved was determined to make a gotdam, watch-it-in-a-theater filmrather than just “content”.
It is, of course, also a showcase for Cruise, a little worn by time but still timeless when he dons a bomber jacket and puts on that megawatt smile. He’s certainly become a more capable actor over the years, and even though maverick doesn’t always take advantage of the unique possibilities of a story built around an aging character who still defines himself as a rebel, Cruise is solid at capturing the accumulated weight of some of Maverick’s past decisions. He remembers the past with regret; the completely entertaining movie built around it has a much more enthusiastic feeling about a time when airplanes were real airplanes, and movie stars were real movie stars.