Top Gun: Maverick has finally arrived in theaters, flown in directly from the ’80s at Mach 10 with all the appropriate corniness and nostalgia we could have hoped for, packed elegantly into an expertly made blockbuster. The belated sequel is deliriously enjoyable, and though it’s got its fair share of cheese, that also means its chock full of sincere, popcorn entertainment; a full serving with action, romance, drama, call backs, new developments – not to mention it’s positively oozing Cruise. The star delivers his typical charisma while giving the now middle-aged Maverick an appropriate amount of turmoil, and as producer has ushered in a follow-up under the sharp direction of Joseph Kosinski, which easily improves on the original for a movie that’s as good as you misremember Top Gun being.
What sets this apart from just being a case of “Again, but better”, is that Top Gun: Maverick can be surprisingly human, as characters wrestle with their limits, stagnant relationships and the lingering fallout from fan-favourite Goose’s death. The love story here is as divorced from proceedings as ever, but far more welcome is the chemistry brought on board by co-star Jennifer Connelly. Holding their own are Miles Teller as ‘Rooster’ (embittered son of the late Goose), Glen Powell as the resident jerk ‘Hangman’, a returning Val Kilmer as ‘Iceman’, with Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Greg Tarzan Davis and a smattering of fresh-faced Lieutenants rounding out the candidates for the film’s top secret and life-threatening mission. Though as Cruise is increasingly cited as one of the few true remaining ‘movie-stars’, the film inevitably indulges itself in a “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” outlook, but with an approach as fruitful as this, it can be tough to say otherwise. Apart from a palpable old-school methodology to both the filmmaking and storytelling, the film also imports another of its greatest strengths from the ‘80s: genuine aerial action sequences.
These daring feats of aviation, wherein actors are really sat in their jets, pulling G’s and reacting in real-time, are incredibly elaborate, not only to execute but to stage without spatially disorienting the audience. Whilst his younger co-stars had to undergo a 3-month Navy approved boot camp to withstand the experience of performing, operating the cameras and (most crucially) staying conscious while airborne, Cruise has been a qualified pilot for 30 years now, a skill his fans will be familiar with from several of the star’s more daring stunts. The sense of realism strived for through those antics plays a huge role in the appeal of Top Gun: Maverick, well beyond the morbid curiosity of seeing death being defied, so perhaps it’s worth examining how this ever-shrinking approach to filmmaking can elevate the experience of going to the movies.
That ever-shrinking quality is certainly part of the appeal. We are well aware that with computer-generated effects, absolutely anything can be done today. Has this made us feel more involved? Arguably, by limiting the scope of what can be done on camera, practically, the audience is reminded that what they’re seeing is spectacular. The tremendous effort put into executing action as seen in Top Gun: Maverick, imbued with a sense of the rarity of its accomplishment, allows the audience to feel that this is not a disposable experience. It’s a must-see, and at a movie theatre.
On a plot level, far from halting an audience’s involvement in the story being told, this comprehension of what went on behind the scenes fades into the back of your mind, allowing investment with the characters and their tremendous undertaking to develop. So much of Top Gun: Maverick revolves around how unbelievably difficult the run these pilots will need to undertake is. The tactility of filming genuine flights, the strain and speed reading as authentic, produces an effect beyond the awe of aerobatic skill, heightening suspense for the lives of the characters and the outcome of the mission.
Even as from film to film Cruise looks for ways to top himself, and studios only allow as much to get butts in seats with the promise of new heights (think of Cruise’s plans to shoot in space coming up on the horizon), the danger involved presents itself as only one part of the equation. If we’re to believe that the upcoming Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One’s motorcycle cliff dive turned base jump mid-freefall is the most perilous stunt yet, and about as dangerous as they come, Ethan Hunt won’t run out of mind-blowing escapades thereafter. When it comes to these productions, far more thought goes into divining creative and exceptional exhibitions of movie magic then goes into inching the star closer to an early grave.
It’s a commitment to going above and beyond that springs from Cruise’s admiration for the showmanship of classic film, often having his crews watch a particular musical or the silent-era balletic choreography of Buster Keaton (another of film history’s greatest “do-it-yourself” leading men) to get a sense of what he’s trying to accomplish when putting together a scene. It doesn’t take much to get the actor to exalt the importance of cinematic motion when constructing action set-pieces; the storytelling language of almost exclusively physical scenes. It’s a comparison Cruise has just recently rekindled: when asked by a journalist at the Cannes Film Festival why, as a family man with kids, he would do all his own stunts, he replied “Would you ask Gene Kelly why he does all his own dancing?”. Cruise is in love with both films and filmmaking, and that passion has been a wellspring for fabulous entertainment and a damn fine career that shows no signs of slowing down.
It’s the same desire to provide a great night out with which Top Gun: Maverick is sure to charm audiences. By now you certainly know what you’re getting from a Tom Cruise action movie: Dedication that’s second to none.