Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Written by Patrick Hao
The original 1986 “Top Gun” has no particular relevance to me. Yet, when the opening notes of Harold Faltemeyer’s anthem from the original “Top Gun” plays, followed by Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” the dumb masculine beauty of this summer blockbuster made me strangely emotional. Two hours later, I felt like Nicole Kidman in the endlessly meme’d AMC ad. A constant running theme that I try to avoid in these reviews is the easy caricature most people have of critics: an old man on his porch shouting to the clouds, “They don’t make movies like they used to.”
But here it is. “Top Gun: Maverick” is the movie that they used to make, but not just because it is a “legacy sequel” to the original film nor is it because it is old-fashioned. Rather, “Top Gun: Maverick” embraces its hokiness of maverick airplane pilots while also being the most earnest form of filmmaking in a long time. There is no tongue-in-cheek ironic detachment. Yet, the film is still light fluff with no delusion of its own importance. It is the perfect mix of tone, one that swims deep in nostalgia while feeling fresh.
Tom Cruise, of course, plays Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who, despite 30 years in the US Navy as a fighter pilot, has not been promoted beyond lieutenant captain because, well, he is a maverick. After another act of defiance, Mitchell is recruited by his adversary from the first film Iceman (in an emotionally resonant performance by Val Kilmer), to train the best pilots in the world on a mission to destroy a uranium plant from an unnamed country. The job requires human ingenuity and defying the odds, something that drones cannot do. Amongst the young crew of pilots is Hangman (Glen Powell), an overly confident wise-ass, Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), a no-nonsense pilot with lots to prove, the nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), and Rooster (Miles Teller) the overly cautious son of Goose from the first film.
While this and the original are overt military propaganda, ultimately, “Top Gun: Maverick” is Tom Cruise propaganda. The meta-commentary Cruise as a movie star, trying to train the next generation of movie stars (although the bloom on the rose of Miles Teller as a movie star may be wilting), when it becomes obvious that the only movie star who can do it is Cruise himself. This is also probably the most engaging Tom Cruise performance in a long time. Ethan Hunt, while being a vehicle for Cruise’s physicality is not exactly a vehicle for Cruise the actor. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” Cruise is afforded the luxury of giving an emotionally resonant performance. He plays to Maverick’s loneliness and own sense of burgeoning irrelevance. Cruise is also helped by the fact that this is seemingly the first time Cruise is allowed to play aged. Crows feet, whites in his hair, and his own short stature are allowed to be ingrained into the movie, which does not diminish Cruise as a movie star – in fact, it enhances it.
Director, Joseph Kosinski, is also at top form, someone who might be the most underrated big blockbuster director today. He is also able to seamlessly blend CGI and practical effects. In the days when fighter pilots are able to stick a Go-Pro onto real flights and post it on YouTube, Kosinski has to be able to top those. And the flight scenes are absolutely thrilling due to their practicality, or at least, their perceived practicality. While he does not have the kinetic style of the original director Tony Scott, Kosinski is able to pay homage to the original with slight visual cues and colorization.
What Kosinski understands is that he is dealing in fantasy. Just as important to the flight sequences is the pastoral beauty of the sun-drenched San Diego flight base and beaches. The sandy bar owned by Penny Benjamin (played by the luminous Jennifer Connelly) and the quaint suburbs away from the base present this beauty of American exceptionalism, not in a gaudy way like a Super Bowl beer ad, but as pure delightful fantasy. This version of America is as real as the Shire or Hogwarts and just as inviting.
“Top Gun: Maverick” embraces its position as an amusement park ride. It embraces its place as a summer blockbuster. It creates a sublime beauty through a canny combination of in-camera and computer-generated imagery. It respects its audience by giving them this beautiful fantasia that can only come with Hollywood filmmaking. More importantly, it left me with the more and more fleeting feeling of leaving the movie theater saying, “God, that was good.”
“Top Gun: Maverick” Trailer
“Top Gun: Maverick” is in wide theatrical release.