source: Paramount Pictures

Why do we return? It’s a question that inevitably crosses your mind as you take in a thirty years late sequel about a near-obsolete branch of the military with a controversial star in a theater most audiences have abandoned unless a masked hero is cavorting on screen. 

On one level the answer is simple: we return to see a capital M Movie. Even the most jaded viewer will perk up when a jet engine rattles their lungs, the visceral scope of a theater still unable to be replicated at home when taking in a film of Top Gun: Maverick’s unreserved bombast. Even movies with caped crusaders aren’t made like this anymore, but with the excuse of being an ‘80s throwback it runs wild with its gaudy music, cheesy romance, and overwhelming machismo. Getting caught up in it isn’t a choice. This is ruthlessly proficient entertainment filmmaking, and any human plunked into a theater will be powerless against it.

But there’s much more to the question than simple entertainment, because even as Maverick has its way with you it can’t hide that it’s a relic, a thing that reminds you of the creep of time even as it stands in defiance of its ravages. I mean, really, a movie about fighter pilots? They had to explain their relevance with a dramatic title sequence back in the ‘80s, which the sequel religiously trots out again to explain why humans are needed in the era of highly controversial drone warfare. 

Then there’s the reason we’re all truly here: the relic Tom Cruise. The last of a dying breed of capital M, capital S Movie Stars, he can muscle an entirely out of fashion Movie through a costly, dangerous production and get butts in the seats to watch it. 

The latter has been his raison d’être since the pandemic hit, spearheading the return to production and putting his famous face (masked, of course) in a crowd of people watching Tenet, one of the first blockbusters to brave the pandemic theatrical market. Say what you will about the man’s other beliefs; Tom Cruise believes in film, and he’ll do everything he can to make sure it survives. How long he’ll be able to maintain his solitary fight against the grinding machinations of blockbuster filmmaking, though, with its disregard for nearly everything that makes Tom Cruise Tom Cruise, hangs over Maverick more heavily than its textual wrestling with the passage of time.

The original Top Gun was a silly mess that didn’t even give a cogent reason for its final dogfight let alone for its infamously homoerotic beach volleyball game. Maverick’s return to the Top Gun program has a much more streamlined plot, with Cruise’s Maverick returning to train this generation’s elite pilots for a highly technical, dangerous mission to take out a nuclear facility. Add in the threat of this being Maverick’s last mission and the discomfort of Goose’s son (who’s not gotten over the death of his father, Maverick’s co-pilot in the first film) being among the group and you’ve got a tale laced with bitterness and regret.

This emotional backbone only stands out against the first film’s utter disregard for such narrative convention, because despite the setup giving plenty of room to examine these characters’ messy interconnections or to delve into Cruise as an aging action star, none of these pieces get examined beyond one or two lines of clunky exposition. That’s because Maverick isn’t about plot or character or theme. It’s about jets that go whoosh, trying again and again to outrun a ticking clock displayed right on the screen.

I label Top Gun: Maverick an ‘80s throwback not because it’s a sequel to an ‘80s movie but because it retains everything that made Top Gun the epitome of the Reagan era reflected on the big screen. As Mark Harris put it for GQ:

“pure product—stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities. They were rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.”

I loved Top Gun: Maverick. I love the Christopher McQuarrie era of Mission: Impossible. I love Edge of Tomorrow. I love every time Tom Cruise flashes that cocky smile before straddling a motorcycle or launching into a full tilt sprint or flinging his body around for a real, live stunt in the name of the vapid thrills Harris describes. Cruise is the only one keeping this era of blockbuster filmmaking alive, and no matter the damage it has wrought, its charms have been made fresh by the rest of the industry moving on to other flavors of broadly appealing entertainment.

Maverick has allowed Cruise to return as close to these roots as possible, but he’s far past being able to embody the young buck reviling in the thrill of excess these movies celebrate. Even here the torch is being passed to a group that only inspires shaky confidence in their ability to carry it, but for brief moments, while lost in that distracting adrenaline, it feels like nothing needs passed at all.

Release: available in theaters May 27th
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writers: Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Bashir Salahuddin, Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell, Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Glen Powell

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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