Whatever you think of the man, you have to give it to Tom Cruise, the movie star. He has competed over a 40-year career banks† motion-soothing TVs† COVID set breaches and the specter of professional aging with a pathological fervor that is practically supernatural, channeling a kind of hotshot American idealism that has become almost endearing, or at least cartoonish enough to be abstract.
He may be the hardest working man in show and movie business, but if the critical buzz surrounding his 36-year-old sequel Top Gun: Maverick is any indication, he’s about to be tasked with his biggest challenge yet. : single-handedly rescue the blockbuster from the clutches of IP-favourite corporations and their superhero cheerleaders.
The movie that made Cruise a superstar, 1986’s Top Gun, is a quintessential artifact of Reaganite multiplex entertainment, a lengthy Air Force recruiting ad whose patriotic moves were offset by the seductiveness of its pitch—the magical hour images, the sleek, Giorgio Moroder-produced soundtrack, the glittering homoeroticism at the heart of director Tony Scott’s irresistible MTV-era formalism.
Top Gun: Maverick opens like it’s still 1986, flooded with Harold Faltermeyer’s hairspray synth metal and Kenny Loggins’ multi-year air show Danger Zonewhich boldly indicates that it intends to play as a beat-for-beat recreation of its predecessor, an unfiltered adrenaline rush.
Somewhere above the Mojave Desert, Cruise’s now middle-aged Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell—aviator, leather jacket, and star-studded grin all intact—clings on like a supersonic test pilot for a spy plane program that’s about to take off. be folded from drone warfare. He’s an antique flying boy in the military ointment at a time when pilots are replaceable; a movie star who still does his own stunts in the age of computer-generated body doubles.
Despite being a decorated pilot and a war hero, Maverick still pisses a stern Rear Admiral (Ed Harris) with his antics, like a frat boy who razes the stuffy college dean – a male child whose reckless need to speed has kept his career grounded.
Nothing ages a character more than donning the costume of their childhood, even one who wears his years as well as Cruise; yesterday’s tower-buzzing bad boy is today’s nostalgia-ridden burnout, it’s yuppie teen pimp the millionaire of tomorrow, sex trafficker.
‘The future is coming,’ growls the rear admiral, ‘and you’re not in it.’
Luckily for Maverick, and for us, he has One Last Shot. At the behest of his longtime wingman and now Navy Admiral Iceman—reprised in a touching and graceful appearance by Val Kilmer—the aging ace is sent back to Top Gun Academy to train the Navy’s best fighter pilots for a mission that requires his specific set of cockpit skills.
The mission bears an unmistakable, perhaps deliberate resemblance to the Death Star bombing mission in the original Star Wars: a team of F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters, chosen for their radar-evading capabilities, must fly low and fast through a mountain. canyon and hit a small target to destroy a uranium factory in an unspecified location. With their shadowy planes, obscured helmets, and made-up insignia, this faceless enemy might as well be Imperial TIE fighters, if not video game bogeymen.
Near the base in San Diego, Maverick reconnects with an old flame, Penny – Jennifer Connelly, in a smart guy Movie icon from 1986 casting – who is ready to tend the bar, provide backstory and reassure him that all his mistakes can be forgiven.
Anyone could slip right into a Cold War blockbuster: the base admirals (Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell) riding Maverick’s ass; the cohort of snooty young fighter jockeys with nicknames like Hangman (Glen Powell), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), and Payback (Jay Ellis), whose towel-breaking banter would feel right at home in a vintage James Cameron movie.
Also on the team: Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s late copilot, Goose (Anthony Edwards, in flashback), with his old man’s mustache and Hawaiian shirts and still sore over death from his father – a moment that also continues to haunt Maverick.
With its thrilling action sequences and go-for-broke energy, Top Gun: Maverick is eager entertainment that harks back to the fist-pumping, star-powered blockbusters of the 80s and 90s Hollywood.
When the movie is on the air, it’s exciting, really exciting stuff. The aerial shots, filmed at Cruise’s insistence, without digital effects and using real aircraft – the actors are trained for g-force conditions, and in many cases operated the cockpit cameras itself – speeding up the heartbeat in ways most contemporary blockbusters could never approach.
Director Joseph Kosinski, who debuted with TRON: Legacy and all over Cruise’s helped self-cloning fantasies in Oblivion, has a knack for finding the sweet center of gravity of the action. Top Gun: Maverick’s dogfights pull you forward in your seat and push you back with the illusion of a flight simulator; the kind of immersive first-person experience that – ironically, for a film obsessed with analog craft – is today only replicated by virtual reality.
Elsewhere, though, the film struggles to produce a sense of emotion or moral reckoning with the passage of time, its superego writing checking that its body can’t — and won’t — cash. Too busy rocking and rolling; the allure of the action too strong, the haze of nostalgia too thick.
It’s also a film that exists in a bubble of retrograde geopolitical fantasy, portraying the US military as underdogs and interventionist heroes, oblivious to the complexities of the current global climate, as any good return should be.
Set on reconciliation between surrogate fathers and sons, Top Gun: Maverick is a film for middle-aged men desperate for confirmation as good fathers; for a nation longing to see themselves restored to the world stage as heroes (it’s no coincidence that Maverick’s P-51 Mustang, the air star of World War II, features prominently and triumphantly in the film’s visual design).
Cruise becomes father and son, wise old vet and eternal youth: posing next to Rooster and Iceman as if time had collapsed in his presence; sit back with Connelly against a vintage Porsche as a perennial-teen bedroom pin-up.
But if the first Top Gun was juvenile catnip for a generation of moviegoers devoid of video games and Star Wars, it also had an eroticism and relative gender complexity that the sequel refuses to touch.
Compare the relationship of the former between Maverick and Kelly McGillis’ older, more experienced (and metatextually strange) flight instructor to the safe and sexless partnership with Connelly, a romance with all the chaste bungling of an amorous teenager (at one point, Cruise even tumbles out of a second-floor bedroom window, like a teenage boy on the run).
The elegant trashiness of the late Tony Scott – his lurid, charged images – is absent; a benign variation on the infamous beach volleyball scene from the original could be a health insurance commercial, while Hans Zimmer’s generic, over-determined score has none of the frenzied lift of Faltermeyer’s LinnDrum-driven, air guitar ready cheese. (Lady Gaga’s bombastic contribution, while fine, isn’t Take My Breath Away; but you already knew that.)
Despite the breathless thrust of Top Gun: Maverick, there’s something unsettling about his reluctance to engage in anything but his feel-good vacuum.
Just like the Russian MiGs in Top Gun were real repainted American F-5s, Top Gun: Maverick leaves the impression that, more than ever, these characters are waging a war against none but themselves – against time and the fading youth; against notions of world power as worn as a Walkman tape.
In this way, Cruise really saved the blockbuster, even if it is less the future of cinema than the past in drag. Still – what a ride.
Top Gun: Maverick is now in theaters.
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