Film Review – Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick
There has been a lot of talk lately describing Tom Cruise as “The Last Great Movie Star.” While that distinction can be debated, what’s hard to argue is that Cruise – who will be turning 60 this year – is the ultimate showman. Where other movies rely on CGI to augment miraculous feats of action, Cruise understands the magic that comes with being in the moment. He pushes himself (and his colleagues) to never settle for the easy way out. There’s a tactile sensation when we see the real Cruise jumping out of a plane, or riding a motorcycle, or flying in a fighter jet. This doesn’t mean that every actor needs to put themselves in harm’s way just for the sake of pleasing an audience, but Cruise isn’t like every other actor. He knows he is of a different breed and sets a near impossible standard on himself.
Which makes his return in Top Gun: Maverick (2022) understandable. The original Top Gun (1986) was a product of its time. It was a hyper muscular display of Reagan-era Americanism, headed by a hot-shot up and comer with a chip on his shoulder. This legacy sequel, made over three decades later, is a product of Cruise. It’s not a coincidence that the title contains his character’s callsign: “Maverick.” There is no mistaking that he is the star and is unwilling to relinquish that title. Although Cruise’s face is lined with age and experience, the chip is still there, if not bigger. He slips back into the bomber jacket and aviator sunglasses like they were extensions of his very being. While actors his age are transitioning to mentor roles meant to pass the baton to a younger generation, Cruise remains steadfast as the main attraction.
Fans of the first film will get plenty to smile about with this installment. The writing (Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie) and direction (Joseph Kosinski) include several callbacks and references. Cruise speeding on a motorcycle, pilots singing together at a bar, the fly byes, the training montages, the sweaty bodies playing in the sand – all the familiar trademarks are back. The opening credit sequence mirrors the original beat for beat, including Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic score and Kenny Loggins hit song, “Danger Zone.” The plot is a reworked variation of the first, where Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is sent to the top fighter school in the nation. This time, however, he is the teacher instead of the student. His job: train previous graduates in preparation for a deadly mission. These pilots are not just the best of the best, they are the best of the best of the best. Amongst them are Hangman (Glen Powell), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Bob (Lewis Pullman), Payback (Jay Ellis), and Rooster (Miles Teller). Maverick is most attached to Rooster, whom we learn is the son of his friend Goose (Anthony Edwards) who tragically died in the previous film.
Much will be said about the action scenes, and justifiably so. This is some of the best air combat/dogfighting ever caught on film. Set pieces have characters whizzing up and down and around each other in complex aerial maneuvers. As advertisements and interviews have frequently mentioned, all the actors were placed in the actual cockpits (although they weren’t really flying the jets). What we see are their reactions while in flight. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography has the camera squarely on the performers’ faces, so that we can see their expressions with every spiral and G-force put upon them. The sound design has us hear each breath and grunt – we assume that much of this isn’t acting as opposed to a natural response. The choreography has the jets flying at low altitudes, allowing mountains, trees, and bridges to zoom by. Every time we cut to a close up, my eyes darted toward the jet’s window, where I can see the environments swirling around as though we were in a rollercoaster. At one point, the camera shows Miles Teller bouncing around in his seat, as though his safety harness wasn’t strapped on tight enough. Although computer imagery is used to supplement these scenes, they are not used a crutch. The immediacy of real flight adds tension to the action, amplifying the thrills tenfold.
Besides the spectacle, the nice surprise here is being reminded of how good of an actor Cruise is. In the last decade, each of Cruise’s projects displayed his growing willingness to perform death defying stunts. Audiences wonder what crazy thing he’ll do next. We tend to forget that this is the same person capable of delivering powerful performances, working with distinguished directors such as Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Steven Spielberg. There is just as much energy put into expanding Maverick as a character compared to his skills in the sky. Maverick’s guilt over his involvement with Goose’s death hangs over him like a weight, adding a level of drama every time he interacts with Rooster. His friendship with Iceman (Val Kilmer) is explored, not as fan service but as a legitimate point of emotion. The romance between Maverick and bar owner Penny (Jennifer Connelly) is touching, revealing another side of Maverick’s personality beyond the macho swagger. Sadly, his previous love interest, Charlie (Kelly McGillis) – who played a prominent role in the original – is nowhere to be found here.
In fact, Maverick takes up so much of the spotlight and is so adept at his job, that he becomes somewhat of a detriment to the rest of the cast. Even though Cruise appears to be fighting the sands of time (he’ll probably outlive us all), the idea that a man can outsmart and outwit pilots half his age does stretch the limits of believability. There’s a running theme stating that Maverick belongs to a bygone era. In an age of drones and computer-guided weaponry, the need for expert fighter pilots is not what it once was. Yet here Maverick is, refusing to go quietly into the night, jumping head first into the mayhem. Other characters – such as Penny and Rooster – are established well enough for us to delve into their backstories but are eventually pushed to the wayside in favor of Cruise simply being awesome.
Don’t get me wrong, “Tom Cruise Doing Cool Things” is a successful formula for the megastar. By the looks of things, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Whatever hiccups there maybe, it’s hard not to get swept up in the pure, unabashed exhilaration that is Top Gun: Maverick. It is a “blockbuster” in every sense of the term, tailor-made for the big screen experience. Tom Cruise was put on Earth to entertain by any means necessary, and he does so like no one else.