‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Is Why We Go to the Theater

He’s old, he’s problematic, but goddammit he’s the only man for the job.

There’s nothing Tom Cruise can’t do at this stage. I’m saying that partly because I don’t wanna goad him any further. Mans got a death wish enough as it is, and god love him. He’s COMMITTED to putting us on the edge of our seats like nobody else in the business, and Top Gun: Maverick might be Cruise’s finest thesis on the cinematic roller coaster front. It’s an adrenaline rush unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in the theater. This thing banks harder than a motherfucker, makes the Star Wars trench run look like a 25¢ kiddie ride, and does laps around the current superhero landscape at 10x the speed of sound. Top Gun: Maverick nods to a bygone era of thrill-seeking action movies and reassures that those good ole glory days haven’t gone bye bye just yet.

Maverick tells the heartwarming story of Tom Cruise passing the baton to, uh, Tom Cruise. Drone warfare signals the end for Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s kind… but not today. He’s ordered back to his naval stomping grounds to train the latest generation’s “best of the best.” They’re pups, essentially, and one of those pups is Rooster, son of the deceased Goose, Maverick’s old wingman. They’re on deck for a combat mission full of gnarly parameters and the very real possibility of not making it back. (An impossible mission, if you will.) Can Mav send these kids in good conscience, or can he step up to be the man, the myth, and the legend one last time?

A new cast of young guns brings a whole new slate of callsigns. Glen Powell is Hangman, a worthy stand-in for Val Kilmer’s Iceman, with charisma in the tank to rival Cruise. Monica Barbaro goes by Phoenix (alternate callsign: Babe) and owns as the only female pilot in the roster; Lewis Pullman is “Bob,” Phoenix’s backseat aviator, along with Jay Ellis and Danny Ramirez as the slick duo, Payback and Fanboy. As for the Navy superiors, Jon Hamm plays Cyclone, Charles Parnell is Warlock, and Bashir Salahuddin is Hondo. Just the raddest names you could have all-around.

Let’s not forget one Rooster, played by an exceptional Miles Teller. He does more than an Anthony Edwards impression, though, with the ‘stache and aviator sunglasses, it’s uncanny. Most movies use Teller’s boyishness to play a douchey frat guy. In Maverick, he embodies the naivete of a serviceman straight outta the academy who thinks he’s hot shit but has a chip on his shoulder. Like Mav, Rooster can’t to let go of the past, and this conflict defines their toe-to-toe drama. Teller, of course, has the height advantage, and Cruise doesn’t seem to mind looking shorter opposite his junior co-stars these days.

Top Gun was famously about butting heads, bumping chests, egos writing checks their bodies can’t cash to the tune of Kenny Loggins. Maverick succeeds as a legacy sequel because this isn’t a greatest hits run. It mirrors its predecessor in clever ways that nudge the characters forward—aided in rhythm by a propulsive and wistful (and profoundly nostalgic) score, keying in on themes of maturity and progression.

Mav was once haunted by his father. Here he’s haunted by Goose, now finding himself in a surrogate-father role for Rooster. There’s a training accident that humbles everybody, and another scenario where Mav breaks the rules and the admirals begrudgingly accept his instincts were right all along, etc. There’s even a romance plot with Jennifer Connelly. (Her callsign? Gorgeous.)

Unlike Mav’s prior flame with Charlie, which rested on silhouetted softcore porn and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” Cruise and Connelly have genuine chemistry. (Or maybe I’m just smitten.) You can trace the beats, the needle drops, the callbacks. Heck at one point, Mav has to fly an F-14 again in a literal old dog scenario, and dogfight the odds against him once more. The difference 36 years later is that it swaps the “dude’s rock!” patriotism of the original for good old-fashioned heart in this generational story—even if it’s not exactly a handoff in the end.

Maverick is Cruise’s latest self-alleyoop. He as lead character needs the help of others, but really, others exist solely to make him look better. He’s the hero, the damsel, the living manifestation of destiny altogether. On the one hand, it’s egotistical; his movies assemble the finest casts only to give himself the best moments. On the other, Cruise seems to be acknowledging the setting sun for once. The trials of old age have come for Val Kilmer (his Iceman gets a moving tribute), and are clearly on the faces of Ed Harris and Jon Hamm.

Cruise’s whole brand was invincibility, and the tension of the Mission: Impossible movies have been about how much further he can push himself to get the job done. In Maverick, the tension lies in the inevitability of winding down—that bittersweet sentiment of “one last ride.” Maverick isn’t THE END for Cruise’s action career since he’s got two more Mission: Impossibles on the way, but it’s certainly a sendoff for the character. (Though, you never know.)

Maverick is fine-tuned in its simplicity. You can look at it as a sports drama, Mav as coach whipping his team into shape. You can also look at it as a heist movie, also the foundation of Mission: Impossible. There’s a crew, crew has to prep for a job, said job doesn’t go according to plan, they gotta improvise, etc. You can even look at this as meta commentary on the action genre, or take it all sincerely as a throwback where the geopolitics won’t unsettle you in the least. The enemy they face is totally anonymous and it’s for the best. Because this isn’t a story about America winning; it’s about these characters bonding and overcoming. The script keeps things bare and recognizable; no bullshit, no hitches, and gets the fuck outta the way so the set-pieces can do their thing.

This is the ride of 2022, guaranteed to blow your hair back: panoramas of jets streaking across the atmosphere, exterior shots of planes swerving and seesawing in either direction, to those white-knuckle POV shots in the cockpit. Bleeding-edge flight cinematography on top of a blaring, immersive soundscape. The thrill isn’t just those axis-tilting maneuvers, it’s each actor front and center of the screen, real G’s wracking their bodies and faces, and nothing but a canopy separating them from the clouds.

The late Tony Scott remains the more stylized director. Successor Joseph Kosinski has a more classical approach, and nonetheless does Scott proud. He’s got the benefit of innovative camera systems and committed performers willing to do these aerial stunts practically. Kosinski, too, knows that the Top Gun wheel doesn’t need reinventing. That all he has to do is layer the iconic theme over montages of Tom Cruising, chop it up into a long-form recruitment ad, and the whole thing will register as big screen spectacle. Top Gun in a nut shell is Tom Cruise x Acceleration = Cinema.

Cruise has endured as an action star because he’s evolved with the changing times. People stopped relating to him as an everyman when he jumped on Oprah’s couch that one time, so he embraced being larger-than-life: becoming a daredevil, a speed freak, a pilot in his own right. (Which comes with the rich lifestyle, to be sure.) Cruise is also a producer. He’s used his clout in the industry to make sure they could do as much of this FOR REAL as possible.

The action hero has all but died out. It’s capes and comic book CGI passing as action movies since the superhero formula comes with 3 or 4 set-pieces. Or never-ending franchises that borrow the same effects-heavy template. Practicality, then, is the only separator. Cruise understood the challenge posed by the superhero monoculture and didn’t back down. Love him or loathe him, his movies rule simply because he refuses to do things the easy way.

Anybody feeling jaded about the current state of movies has no excuse to feel cynical this summer. Marvel and DC might be the only attractions now, everything else relegated to streaming. But every once in a while, a Top Gun: Maverick comes around to remind us that cinema wasn’t so homogenized. Cinema, too, is a mode of transportation, and Maverick is the most immersive one to come along in years. This is why we go to the movies. For the rush, the roller coaster—the free-fall purity of the present moment.

Sure, this is a legacyquel we’re talking, but Kosinski and Cruise breathe new life into a Smithsonian relic. It’s nostalgic in an exhilarating sense, one that remythologizes the era and offers something that post-credits scenes seem to negate nowadays – an ending. If this is the last brazenly old-fashioned blockbuster of its kind, then Maverick squeezes every last breath from its DNA, and does a hearty salute to the fading horizon.

5 circuit breakers out of 5 (idk jet talk) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

One thought on “‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Is Why We Go to the Theater

  1. Gemma says:

    Yes! I’m generally pretty cynical about my theater and it’s many problems this is actually the first movie in years I’ve been willing to go back and see twice!

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