Old things still work.
That appears to be the main message of Top Gun: Maverick, the legacyquel to the 1986 summer blockbuster that’s finally coming out after two years of pandemic-fueled delays.
These days, that’s practically the message of any Tom Cruise movie. The man has been on a mission — no pun intended — to make movies where wisdom, ingenuity, and years of experience are more essential than any newfangled, technologically advanced bullshit that’s out there. (This is true both behind and in front of the camera, as Cruise prides himself on starring in films where CGI effects are usually frowned upon.)
Much like how he turned the Mission: Impossible franchise into a continuous, death-defying spectacle, where he makes sure you see him doing stunts he could’ve easily gotten a stand-in to do, Maverick has him fully immersing himself in authentic action. He steps back into the flight gear of cocksure Navy pilot (now Captain) Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a man whose outlaw, old-school ways his superiors constantly remind him are out-of-date. “The future is coming, and you are not in it,” a rear admiral (a brief but effective Ed Harris) tells him before he’s shipped back to the TOPGUN program. Now, he’s the one teaching a bunch of young, hotshot pilots how to successfully fly into a mission, set off an attack, and come back in one piece.
This Top Gun is far less powered by hunky, high-speed hubris than the last Top Gun. The original was all dick-swinging swagger, as superproducers Don Simpson (R.I.P.) and Jerry Bruckheimer recruited director Tony Scott (R.I.P. again) to make a jingoistic recruitment ad posing as a slick-ass, brotastic popcorn flick, complete with a homoerotic subtext that Quentin Tarantino famously called out while ad-libbing in a ‘90s indie film. (Tarantino wasn’t the first to recognize it; Pauline Kael called the movie a “shiny homoerotic commercial” in her review.)
With Maverick, both Cruise and his character are working towards the same goal: to atone for past mistakes by rounding up some fresh faces and leading them in putting on one helluva show in the sky. This time around, the “best of the best” is a more inclusive, multicultural crew, including spunky bombshell Monica Barbaro, Insecure castmate Jay Ellis, and Lewis Pullman (yes, Bill’s kid!). We also have Miles Teller, sporting a mustache and a chip on his shoulder as the son of Maverick’s late co-pilot buddy Goose.
With a script assembled by a team of scribes (including summer-movie vet Ehren Kruger and frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie) and a director (Joseph Kosinski, who directed Cruise in Oblivion) that’s basically there to make sure no one dies, Maverick is another Cruise production that keeps you riveted in a practical, pragmatic manner. You can see Cruise and the cast literally flying the friendly skies, captured (mostly by IMAX cameras) in all its awe-inspiring glory. There’s none of that green-screen shit popping off here.
Thankfully, the story is just as engrossing on the ground as it is in the air, and Cruise gets the chance to do some vulnerable acting when he’s on land. The screenwriters lean into how Cruise’s lone-wolf pilot has become one lonely sumabitch; his friends are either dead or on the verge of dying, and that includes one-time rival Iceman (Val Kilmer), now an admiral with health issues. (There is something poignant about watching former matinee idols — and Cher exes — Cruise and Kilmer, who has battled throat cancer, meet up for a brief heart-to-heart in their one scene together.) His days of having steamy dalliances — like the one he had with Kelly McGillis’s older instructor in the last movie (which gets absolutely no mention here) — are also long gone. The closest he gets to romance is an on-again, off-again thing with Jennifer Connelly’s age-appropriate, single-mom bar owner, who is also around to throw a lot of exposition out there.
Ultimately, both Cruise’s cowboy flyboy and his pupils realize that — if I may be clichéd as hell for a brief moment — team work does, in fact, make the dream work, especially when things get complicated in the charged but surprisingly comical third act. In its own energetic, entertaining way, Top Gun: Maverick reminds audiences, both young and old, how much shit we can knock out if we stop dismissing each other and just get together.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is in theaters Friday.