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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Review: The Most Satisfying Summer Action Movie Since ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’

Joseph Kosinksi's long-delayed sequel is a confidently rapturous, emotionally involving, take-your-breath-away great time at the movies.

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount Pictures

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In December 2020, a leaked audio snippet from the set of the next “Mission: Impossible” movie revealed star/producer/most intense man alive Tom Cruise absolutely losing his mind at some unnamed crew members who had, he felt, violated the COVID protocols that were allowing the massive studio production to roll cameras during the height of the pandemic. “We are the gold standard,” you might remember him shouting. “They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us… We are creating thousands of jobs, you motherfuckers!”

Cruise went on to note that he wasn’t interested in apologies: “You can tell it to the people who are losing their fucking homes because the industry is shut down. It’s not going to put food on their table or pay for their college education. That’s what I sleep with every night — the future of this fucking industry!”

In hindsight, that furious speech was an uncanny echo of several things that Cruise had said “in character” the previous year — months before the first documented COVID-19 case — while shooting “Top Gun: Maverick.”

In one scene, legendary Navy fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell fires back at a class of arrogant young hotshots after they fail a high-stakes training exercise, the aging veteran telling his students to save their sorries for the families of the wingmen they might leave for dead if they don’t learn to fly right. In another, Captain Pete screams above the American West at the controls of an experimental Navy fighter jet as it strains to hit Mach10 in defiance of the hard-ass admiral (obviously Ed Harris) who wants to shut the whole program down. Ordered to return to base, our hero grits his teeth, reflects on all the people who will lose their jobs if the government diverts funding towards drones at the expense of human pilots, and pushes the aircraft so fast that it breaks apart at the seams. “The future is coming,” the admiral growls when he finally confronts Pete face-to-face. “And you’re not in it.”

It’s become an increasingly self-evident truth that Cruise is the last Hollywood movie star of his kind — short as ever but still larger-than-life in an age where most famous actors are only as big as their action figures — and the new “Top Gun” isn’t exactly subtle about the self-commentary it offers on that situation. From new recruits to grizzled vets, every character in this film regards Maverick as both a relic and a god (sometimes in the same breath). Even the guy’s on-again off-again love interest, a thinly written bar owner who Jennifer Connelly wills into a flesh-and-blood woman, thinks of him as an old flame whose light has never gone out.

Watching Cruise pilot a fighter jet 200 feet above the floor of Death Valley, corkscrew another one through Washington’s Cascade Mountains, and give one of the most vulnerable performances of his career while sustaining so many G-forces that you can practically see him going Clear in real-time, you realize — more lucidly than ever before — that this wild-eyed lunatic makes movies like his life depends on it. Because it does, and not for the first time.

But if “Maverick” can’t quite match “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” for sheer kineticism and well-orchestrated awe, this long-delayed sequel does more to clarify what that means than anything Cruise has ever made. And the reason for that is simple: Tom Cruise is Maverick, and Maverick is Tom Cruise.

And while that may have been true since the moment Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” first hit theaters in 1986, the movie that minted the baby-faced kid from “Risky Business” as a bonafide icon rings so hollow for the same reason: Back then, being Tom Cruise didn’t mean anything. Joseph Kosinski’s “Maverick,” on the other hand, is such a confidently rapturous, emotionally involving, take-your-breath away great time at the movies because it shares its star’s bone-deep awareness that being Tom Cruise now means everything. If “Top Gun” was a fun film because it invented Tom Cruise, “Maverick” is a great film because it immortalizes him. It’s not a Tom Cruise movie so much as it’s “Tom Cruise: The Movie,” and by the time it’s over, even his fiercest critics might have to admit that they’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount Pictures

Of course, “Top Gun” was more than just a watershed moment for the toothy mogul-in-the-making who piloted it to box office success (effectively cementing it as one of modern history’s greatest military recruitment campaigns along the way). Crystallizing a vibe that was already fading into the afterburner-orange sunset behind it, the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer mega-hit was and remains a veritable coke orgy of Reagan-era expansionism, comically unexamined homoeroticism (courtesy of Hollywood’s sweatiest rising stars), and synth-driven needle drops that target your brain’s pleasure centers with the frightening power of a MiG-28.

Composed like a symphony and plotted like a ham sandwich, “Top Gun” is a surface-to-air missile of Hollywood spectacle that balances the thrust of high-flying aerial footage with the drag of low-stakes storytelling. It endures, despite its general soullessness, because of how vividly it captures a moment in time when American men felt like they would live forever — which is why the film’s most indelible moment comes when one of them dies.

“Maverick” flips the script on “Top Gun” in almost every way that matters, despite — or perhaps because — it remains so faithful to its structure and “nothing to see here!” political outlook. Stainless where the original was musty, neutered where the original was soft-core (there isn’t a single gratuitous shower scene in this sequel, let alone three of them), and structured like an immaculate pop song where the original moved like freeform jazz, “Maverick” sounds like a major regression from an age where summer movies didn’t always play safe.

But let’s not forget that Cruise is the only guy whose summer movies still vehemently refuse to do that. In most cases, that unwillingness to play it safe translates into Cruise performing some insane stunt that could get him killed. In “Maverick,” a movie in which the actor launches an F/A-18 off the flight-deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt as a mere appetizer for the holy shit, they did this all for real aerial theatrics to come, Cruise’s usual “what if I made a $200 million snuff film?” routine is textured and deepened by an unusually palpable obsession with death. Where “Top Gun” was fueled by a feeling of invincibility, this sequel draws its strength from an awareness of inevitability.

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount Pictures

“Time is your greatest adversary,” Maverick barks at the cocky pilots he’s been ordered to train for a suicide mission three weeks away. And while it’s true that “Fanboy” (Danny Ramirez), “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro, effortlessly adding women into the mix), “Hangman” (Glen Powell, grinning up a storm in his note-perfect turn as Iceman 2.0), and the rest of the new class will only have 150 seconds to zip under “the enemy’s” defenses and bomb a ridiculously well-fortified uranium-enrichment plant before it goes operational, the double-meaning of that dialogue is as unsubtle as everything else in this movie.

Once upon a time, Maverick was an entitled, nepotistic jackass who (figuratively) got away with murder because he was such a special little boy. Now, almost 40 years later, it’s embarrassing to see how little he’s changed. Or, more accurately, how hard he’s tried to keep things from changing. Maverick seems to believe that by staying a captain forever — by refusing promotions or retirement for almost half a century — he could live in his glory days forever. In that light, he should be thrilled by the invitation to return to the same Naval Fighter Weapons School where he trained (and eventually taught) in the original “Top Gun.” What better way to make time stand still?

Alas, you can only fly away from the international dateline for so long before you reach tomorrow, and it’s clear that Maverick is almost there. For one thing, the base’s dick-swinging “air boss” (Jon Hamm in full-on “that’s what the money is for!” mode) takes every chance to remind Maverick that this will be his last assignment. For another, Maverick’s absent wingmen can’t help but remind him that time is always on his tail. Goose is still dead — sad how that works — and Iceman isn’t the perfectly symmetrical Übermensch he used to be. As for “Top Gun” love interest Charlotte Blackwood? Maverick doesn’t even want to know.

If Maverick is desperate to make time stand still, he’s absolutely terrified of allowing it to repeat itself. The look on Cruise’s face when he sees Goose’s resentful son step into his classroom… it’s like he saw a ghost, or at least a Paramount executive who threatened to release one of his movies day-and-date. Played by an uncharacteristically effective Miles Teller — who does an uncanny job of channeling Anthony Edwards, and mines genuine feeling out of begrudging unlikeability — Rooster is still mighty pissed off by Maverick’s involvement in his late father’s death, and the strained relationship between this young hotshot and his stone-faced new flight instructor forms the emotional bedrock of the story. Neither one of them knows how to let go, but that character flaw might just turn out to be an asset in disguise.

Ehren Kruger, Christopher McQuarrie, and Eric Warren Singer’s well-engineered script doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but “Maverick” is all about old-school thrills in defiance of a new world order, and the joy of watching it is anchored in a certain degree of predictability. Much like the original, “Maverick” is a drama steam-baked in so much testosterone and repressed male emotion that it sweats into an action movie. Unlike the original — which, in an historic moment of dumb screenwriting, drops its climactic mission on its hotshots while they were literally still at the Top Gun graduation ceremony — “Maverick” builds up to a particular mission from the start, and drills every detail about it into our heads as if we’ll have to fly it ourselves (those details will have to make room next to the melody of Lady Gaga’s end credits anthem “Hold My Hand,” which is used as score throughout the film to wonderful effect).

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount Pictures

When the action finally starts, not even the wildest aerial maneuvers can disorient us. Factor in Kosinski’s ultra-crisp direction (made possible by Claudio Miranda’s camera-in-the-cockpit cinematography), and you have a series of character-driven, heart-in-your-throat dogfights more vivid than anything in the first previous film. Kosinski may not be able to match Tony Scott’s formalist bravado, but he makes up for it with speed, clarity, and a moral imperative to push the limits of what seems possible. Kosinski feels the need… the need… to remind multiplex audiences of what’s possible when people give their entire bodies to a movie instead of simply lending them to a brand (not as catchy, I’ll admit). So what if America’s top guns “no longer possess the technological advantage”? It’s the pilot, not the plane.

It’s certainly not the country. War hawks and Navy recruiters will naturally have a field day with this film, but misgivings about its (absent) politics are mitigated by a story that plays more like an IMAX-sized character study than it does a plea to funnel money towards the United States’ military budget. It’s a blockbuster about the glory of pyrrhic victories, itself a pyrrhic victory against blockbusters.

But if movie stardom is as obsolete as the kind of movies that stars used to make, “obsolete” isn’t the same as “over.” As Maverick whispers at a crucial moment: “There’s still time.” It’s clear that Cruise and Maverick are on their way out — just as this film makes it clear that neither one of them can find someone worthy to whom they can pass the torch — but it’s never too late to live forever. Not for the last star who’s still willing to put every fiber of his being into the movies he makes. Neither Tom Cruise nor Maverick may be in the future, but that will have to be the future’s loss.

Grade: A-

Paramount Pictures will release “Top Gun: Maverick” in theaters on Friday, May 27.

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