When Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol hit theaters, forever changing the way movie titles are punctuated, the prevailing wisdom was that Jeremy Renner had been introduced to the cast so that Tom Cruise, on the cusp of fifty, could pivot to making less physically taxing fare like Jack Reacher. Fast forward just four years and Renner is still playing second fiddle while Cruise is hanging on the outside of plane as it takes off.
Fast forward another three years and Renner is gone from the series entirely while Cruise is doing HALO jumps and helicopter death spins FOR REAL.
The moral of the story is that if you bet against Tom Cruise (or marry him), you will lose. He is the last of a near extinct breed of movie star, whose work ethic is matched only by his undeniable charm, which is matched only by the fact that he’s a complete fucking psycho who, maddeningly strange personal life aside, wants nothing more than to blow every last damn audience member through the back of the the theater. There is no stunt he cannot perform, no person he cannot charm. He has most likely anticipated every word of this review and is waiting to strike with yet another action-packed adventure that heeds every criticism leveled at the last. Tom Cruise is the living manifestation of the Hollywood blockbuster — and he has made the ultimate legacy sequel his next mission.
Top Gun: Maverick is the name, and of all the legacy sequels we’ve been getting as of late, it’s the second best (Creed holds the title, sorry Tom). Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the fighter pilot who, despite regularly breaking all the rules, is so damn good at his job that his superiors reluctantly let him keep flying. Where our story begins, Maverick is prepping to take a flight up to Mach 10. Minutes before taking off, his superior officer, Ed Harris (as himself), sends an order to ground the flight, but since Maverick has a Hollywood smile and a psychotic glint in his eye, he decides, with full support of the team on the ground, to take the flight anyway. It’s a success, but his unwillingness to follow orders gets him sent back to Top Gun school, only this time, instead of being a hot shot student who can’t be controlled, he’ll be a hot shot teacher who can maybe sorta be controlled, but not really.
There’s a mission brewing, you see, and it’s so difficult that the only way to do it without casualties is to train the new pilots to be faster, sharper, and more like Maverick (but not so much like Maverick that they stop taking orders). He’s the only man for the job, but if he can’t pull it off, his new superior officer Jon Hamm (as himself) will ground him permanently. Maverick, much like Tom Cruise, cannot envision a world where he’s not allowed to fly planes, so that’s exactly what he’s going to do. One thing he’s not going to do is refer to his mission as “impossible.” Just as Andrew Garfield’s Spiderman movies worked double time not to repeat the “power/responsibility” maxim, often to hilarious effect, Top Gun: Maverick finds and uses every possible synonym for “impossible.”
No legacy sequel is complete without ties to the existing mythos which, in this case, comes in the form of Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the hot shot progeny of the dearly departed Goose (Anthony Edwards, who isn’t in this movie, but bears mentioning because he’s a low-key GOAT). Naturally, this causes tension for Maverick, and gives Teller a good reason to play ‘Great Balls of Fire” on piano to a packed bar. The owner of the bar is played by Jennifer Connelly, and despite the fact that both Tom Cruise and Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell reproduce asexually, a romance between she and our hero begins. Also, Iceman makes a cameo and it is quite lovely and I cried.
Yes, it’s all pretty typical blockbuster stuff, employed gleefully and skillfully. It’s tempting to poke fun because it’s all so on the nose, but doing so wouldn’t be right since every bit of it works so damn well. It’s effortlessly charming, and ultimately quite moving.
But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here for planes! Big, fast planes doing crazy plane shit!! And boy oh boy does Top Gun: Maverick deliver on planes. In fact, the aerial combat on display is the best that has ever been featured in a movie. Ever. And every bit of it was achieved using real actors in the cockpits of real planes. Surely none of them were controlling the jets — that would be insane — but it makes all the difference in the world to see an actor dealing with actual g-forces while actual vistas spiral into the distance in the background. This, intercut with footage of planes performing butt-clenching maneuvers over a soundscape that, if you go to a proper theater, is percussive in a way that can only be described as magical, all adds up to a film that absolutely demands to be seen as large and loud as can be.
Director Joseph Kosinski is no stranger to the legacy sequel, his kick-ass Tron: Legacy being the most literal interpretation of the form, but what we’re seeing here is closer to his work in Only the Brave, the underseen and quite excellent non-fiction drama about a team of wildfire fighters. The similarities start in the realm of action coverage and clarity, and continue through healthy management of an ensemble cast. Top Gun: Maverick is undoubtedly Tom Cruise’s movie, but the team of pilots under his tutelage are uncommonly well-realized given their numbers, and a lot of fun to be around. In being a group-foil for Maverick’s excesses, they succeed where so many other films fail in establishing a new roster of characters through whom a series can be built. I don’t think that’s the intention here, but I’d be much more inclined to watch a bunch of Top Gun sequels than I would a series based on the newly constructed xXx or Bad Boys For Life squads (but let’s be clear, I’m on the hook for all of them).
(Let’s be double clear, as on the hook as I am, I don’t necessarily want everything to become a franchise).
As society creeps back into feeling comfortable at the movies, there’s nothing quite like Top Gun: Maverick to remind us why the big screen exists. No, it’s not because heartbreak feels good in such spaces, but rather because planes are big and loud and fast and awesome and there’s nothing like cheering on an iconic face as he and his crew do cool shit in planes.
It will – sing it with me – take your breath awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Eric Warren Singer, Ehren Kruger, Justin Marks, Peter Craig, Jack Epps Jr., Jim Cash, and maybe even me? Everyone else is on this list, so why wouldn’t I be?
Starring Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Bashir Salahuddin
Rated PG-13, 131 minutes