The Tom Cruise-Led Sequel Aces Its Mission and Then Some.
As at-home viewing services become overloaded and tedious, as Marvel Studios is beginning to feel aimless in its constant output, as Netflix is struggling to manage the weight of expectations placed upon it and falling fast in the process, one thing becomes unmistakably clear: no streamer can handle big-budget, classic tentpole filmmaking at a level which exceeds the need for grand-scale, theatrical spaces. Some streamers have opted into using them for initial openings and preview showings, but few – if any – have truly understood the necessity of movie theaters to envelop viewers within the art they produce. Leave it to the one and only Tom Cruise to remind them all how it’s done. Enter Top Gun: Maverick.
After a multi-year, COVID-fueled delay, as well as a string of refusals from the titular star to sell the film to any streaming service that approached, the sequel to 1986’s Top Gun will finally hit theaters this Friday, and fans of the original film should be overjoyed to learn it’s a smashing success. Not simply an appropriate tribute to or emulation of Tony Scott’s source material, but an elevation of it in nearly every form, Maverick flies high over nearly everything that’s been released in theaters over the past five months. The film, though not brimming with action to the point of bursting, is teeming with top-scale filmmaking the likes of which just doesn’t occur anymore without Cruise and company in the producers chair. What action it does contain is masterful, its aerial sequences may be the best ever put to film, while its performance ooze charisma, charm, its heart beating as loud and as hard as it can. In nearly every possible sense, this is the kind of movie that movie theaters were made for. It’s not that a giant screen and big sound is the only way to enjoy it; there simply is no other answer to the question of what the definitive best way is to experience it, and make no mistake – it is an experience above all else. The final 30 minutes alone is enough to remind viewers of just how thrilling theatrical moviegoing can be under the right circumstances. It leaves one breathless in only the way a Tom Cruise-led action movie can.
Top Gun: Maverick pushes its title character to his absolute limit, not simply in terms of where his career has gone over the past 36 years, but where he aims to drive himself, physically and psychologically. He has actively refused to move ranks despite every chance to do so, consistently testing the boundaries of his own importance and those of his superiors in dangerous fashion. With every flight he takes, with every aircraft he flies, with every moment he spends in the air or on the ground, he inches himself closer and closer to the point where he may not come back from wherever he goes, partly due to his concern over whomever he’s worried may not come back from the mission this time around. There’s a beating undercurrent to this film which hinges on how Maverick reacts to and engages with Rooster (Miles Teller), whom the film tells us right away is Goose’s son (something the trailer also told us a month ago). Expectedly, Goose’s death in the original film informs a lot of what occurs between the two characters, but what’s more surprising is just how much it informs what occurs between Maverick and everyone else. Whereas the original Top Gun didn’t really have an emotional center for viewers to latch onto until the tail end – no pun intended – Maverick succeeds by making Goose its heart, and that heart pervades every decision, every moment of this film in such a way that one may mistake its success for having always been there since the beginning.
But it’s not only Maverick or Rooster that get a boost in characterization this time around. Jennifer Connelly, one of the most underutilized actresses alive given how often she nails whatever she’s given to do and how watchable she is as a screen presence, stars as Maverick’s former love interest Penny – a far cry from Top Gun’s Charlie, given how believable her connection with Maverick is in this film. As much as Top Gun: Maverick is concerned with the legacy of Maverick’s connection to Goose, Iceman, Rooster, etc, it never forgets to really hammer home that there are people who are afraid of losing him too, whom he might leave behind if he doesn’t come back home at the end of the day. That fear really hits home in this film; you believe that Cruise and Connelly had a connection before, despite never having seen it happen. You believe that Maverick’s attachment to Goose wasn’t as superficial as the original film feels on reflection. And most importantly, you believe in Maverick and his entire team from the moment they begin training to the moment the movie is over. Hangman, Payback, Coyote, Bob, Phoenix, Fanboy, and Omaha are one of the best ensemble teams assembled for a motion picture since the original Avengers lineup, and every one of them sells their mission perfectly.
If there were any improvements to be made to this movie, perhaps one more set-piece could have been added and the second act a little faster-paced, but shaving minutes off this movie would end at a count of 2-3, not 15-20 the way most films with room to trim do. It’s not quite the wall-to-wall action sensation that something like Mission: Impossible Fallout was, but it’s every bit in the vein of what a sequel to Top Gun should be, its focus more on the Navy and its pilots than on what they do. The mission may be some of the most stressful, thrillingly-edited action filmmaking this side of Mad Max: Fury Road, but there is a leadup to it that takes its time and isn’t in a hurry to keep butts in seats. The film trusts that its audience will stay on the strength of its buildup alone; it seeks to earn your attention, not to capture it straight away.
Top Gun: Maverick is proof positive that no amount of superheroes, fan service, cameos, or franchise potential is a proper stand-in for classic, big-budget tentpole filmmaking, the kind where everything you see on screen is happening for real, and the kind that is not only elevated by but necessitates theatrical moviegoing. The final 30 minutes of it are absolutely breathtaking, as tense as any action sequence of the past five years and as thrilling as being in a fighter jet likely feels. A perfect summer sequel that builds upon and improves the original’s legacy without sacrificing it in the process, and a world-class example of just how righteous Tom Cruise’s one-man fight for the theatrical experience really is, this truly is something you don’t want to miss. I can’t wait to see it again.
I’m giving “Top Gun: Maverick” a 9.1/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.