His voice is a little deeper, there are a few creases around the eyes, but Tom Cruise is as we remember him. At 59, Cruise has been one of the few constants in the ever-changing film business.
He has yet to play a superhero. He’s resisted the siren call of television.
“I make movies for the big screen,” he recently told the crowd at Cannes Film Festival where he presented Top Gun: Mavericka sequel to the 1986 air combat film from director Tony Scott.
There was a time Cruise was shaking things up. He was the slippery sex guru of Magnolia. The Bellowing Studio Exec Of Tropic Thunder. Even director Stanley Kubrick found a complexity to Cruise’s Ken doll charisma in the steamy Eyes Wide Shut.
For the last decade, Cruise has been laser-focused on a singular kind of character: The Best. Whether it’s space ranger, fighter pilot, or covert agent, Cruise plays the optimal human. The bravest. The most determined. The only flaws are coming from those who stand in his way.
Which brings us to Cruise’s return as Capt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As Admiral Bates breathlessly intones in the new film, “his exploits are legendary.”
Known by his call sign, Maverick is one of the most experienced combat pilots in the navy. Set 30 years after the original, the film opens with Maverick working as a test pilot. As Cruise pushes the experimental jet past Mach 10, hammering the dashboard with his patented “Come On!” a flinty-eyed rear admiral (Ed Harris) orders him to land.
He does not.
But before the admiral can clip his wings, there are new orders: report to Top Gun training school.
If the cycle of derring-do with a dash of insubordination sounds familiar, buckle up, because Top Gun: Maverick is a heat-seeking missile of movie memories, weaponizing every frame of the original film for maximum impact.
Just as with the original Top Gun: Maverick opens with a montage of ear-splitting takeoffs, fiery afterburners all accompanied by the Kenny Loggins classic song Danger Zone. America’s war machine has never looked better.
But that’s just the warm-up.
As he prepares to return to Top Gun academy, Cruise pulls The Jacket out of his locker. He puts on the mirrored sunglasses and jumps on his Kawasaki motorcycle. Director Joseph Kosinski films Maverick’s return to the flight school with all the majesty of a knight in shining armor mounting his steed.
As Cruise zooms past the tarmac, little does he know this is a different kind of mission. No longer a competitor, he’s now the teacher — and he’ll be training a new generation of elite fighter pilots to take out a dangerous uranium enrichment facility. The country of this rogue state is never mentioned. To maximize profitability and avoid any potential offence, the politics of the film have been completely neutered to the point where even Cruise’s famous flight jacket had Japanese and Taiwanese flags removed to avoid upsetting China.
Top Gun: Maverick is not a subtle film. This is a story where each young pilot comes with a call sign and their own baggage, repeated multiple times for maximum clarity. Glen Powell plays Hangman, a pilot with a carnivorous smile who only looks out for himself. Then there’s the Rooster, played by the mustachioed Miles Teller, who doesn’t know when to take the shot.
Rooster is much more than a pilot fighting his instincts, he’s the frustrated son of Goose – who died when Maverick’s jet spun out of control 30 years ago. With Teller’s height and long face, he could easily be the son of actor Anthony Edwards who played his fictional father in the original.
Militarily, Maverick’s biggest challenge is getting the students ready for a seemingly impossible mission in three weeks. But what he’s really battling are the ghosts of the past, wrestling with the death of his friend and the responsibility of putting Goose’s son in danger.
It’s difficult to critique how heavy-handed the storytelling is because the film is so naked in its intentions. This smart bomb of nostalgia repurposes every element from the original, from the sweaty beach sports sequence to the synth pop pumping in the background. Even Val Kilmer, who lost his voice to throat cancer, was recruited and returns as Iceman, now promoted and acting as Maverick’s guardian angel. While Kilmer’s role is mainly silent, his star presence is enough that his brief appearance is effective.
What Top Gun: Maverick lacks in subtlety it makes up for with stunning cinematography and flight sequences with actors in the center of the action. Cruise is an experienced pilot who is known for pushing his cast and crew. Not only did he design a five-month flight training course for the young actors, but he reportedly insisted on the camera system being placed in the cockpits to capture the flight manoeuvres. The result is a blend of acting and real aerial footage that is breathtaking.
We’re so accustomed to watching computer-generated effects that it takes a moment to process that those are real canyons and clouds whipping past the actors as the world swings around them like a gyroscope.
But there’s one special effect Cruise can’t replicate: his younger self’s vulnerability. Yes, the Tom Cruise of 1986 was a bit of a babyface who looked like he should barely be driving, never mind flying $30-million fighter jets. But there was a spark of danger there. Pete had something to prove. He earned that call sign Maverick. Even Iceman didn’t trust him. He was too hungry, too reckless.
In the sequel, nothing is left to chance. The camera orbits around him, his skills are unquestioned. Even Jennifer Connelly as the old flame Penny inevitably gives in with a love scene that has all the passion of a Christmas card. But this too makes sense. There is an almost saintly air about the characters Cruise plays now. He’s gone beyond the needs of the flesh. Call it the Church of Tom.
Top Gun: Maverick ends with a stunning 30-minute climax filled with roaring jets and close calls. His face hidden behind the oxygen mask, all we have are Cruise’s eyes and voice. The jet has become a projection of his will.
“Don’t think, just do,” he tells Rooster as they zip over the terrain.
The actor has spent the past 10 years showing us he’s the best at everything. He’s clearly convinced himself and the people he works with. But in his mania to control every element, he’s lost a little of the spark that made him so watchable in the first place.
Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters May 27th