Top Gun: Maverick dances across blockbuster skies

Top Gun: Maverick

Maverick, the long-delayed sequel to Tom Cruise’s star-making megahit, launches with thoughtful character work before turning and burning to thrilling action.

Navy Captain Peter “Pete” Mitchell, callsign “Maverick” (Tom Cruise) is a living legend. He is the only man to have shot down multiple enemy planes in the modern era of combat aviation. From the F-14 Tomcat to bleeding-edge skunkworks stealth plane prototypes, there is nothing he cannot fly, nothing he cannot (or more accurately will not) push past the fabled Danger Zone.

Maverick is a singularity, for good and ill. On the one hand, he may well be the best fighter pilot alive. On the other, there is a reason that he has remained Captain Mitchell for decades while his rival-turned-wingman-turned-best-friend Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer, appearing briefly but magnificently) is the commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet (and the only reason Mav hasn’t been booted out of the Navy several times over).

Flying is Maverick’s life. Thus, after an incident with the above-mentioned stealth plane and a perpetually sour Admiral (Ed Harris), the Navy issues Maverick an ultimatum. Return to the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program TOPGUN and train the best of the best of the current generation of pilots for an impossible mission or never fly again. Despite Maverick’s doubts about his ability to teach and his fraught history with one of the candidates—Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late radar officer and best friend Goose (Anthony Edwards, appearing via archival footage)—he agrees. The clock is ticking.

Top Gun: Maverick

Top Gun: Maverick is excellent blockbuster filmmaking. Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy and Cruise’s 2015 science fiction Oblivion) applies his mastery of practical and digital effects to craft aerial action sequences as beautiful as they are tense. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Kosinski’s regular filmmaking partner), working in concert with the cast and flight teams, captures these flights with style. The F-18 is, to put it simply, an extremely cool plane—one that Maverick delights in showing off.

Together with Mission: Impossible editor Eddie Hamilton, Kosinski, and Miranda balance the intimate (the cast in their cockpits) with the grand (F-18s darting and doing battle across the California desert and the icy corridors of the nameless-but-nuclear-capable rogue nation’s mountain lair). This balance, working in tandem with steady stakes escalation, ensures that the action is consistently exciting while remaining human-focused. In other words, it’s how the pilots fly the planes, rather than just the planes, that makes Top Gun: Maverick‘s setpieces sing.

Top Gun: Maverick

And those pilots? They’re a solid crew. Teller acquits himself well as a regular scene partner to Cruise. Rooster recognizes Maverick’s skill and the bond he shared with his dad, and at the same time, carries a great deal of not-unjustified resentment towards the older man. Maverick wants to protect him, perhaps too much so—there is a point where that desire can turn from honorable to stifling, and Mav’s crossed it in the past. Glen Powell (Hidden Figures) likewise makes a strong impression, twisting his charm into sneering confidence, an arrogance not unlike that of the pilots in the original Top Gun—but made sourer by his bullying tendencies.

As for Maverick? He’s a genuinely fascinating lead character. Cruise’s charisma is as mighty as ever, and Mav’s cocky confidence has not diminished with age. He’s the best, and he knows it. But that is only true in the air. In other parts of his life, Pete Mitchell is a bit of a wreck. Before reuniting with old flame Penny (Jennifer Connelly, with whom Cruise has decent romantic chemistry), he has no friends outside of the service. Even his closest relationship—his warm, loving, and now decades-long friendship with Iceman—is complicated by Ice’s status as Mav’s superior officer.

True, Maverick lives in a supremely cool bachelor pad (an airstream in a deserted Navy hangar where he’s restoring a vintage P-51 Mustang—I predict teens and Dads alike will covet it). True, he still loves and draws a great deal of satisfaction from his work. But outside of flying? Maverick has very little, and he’s getting to the age where, physically, he simply will not be able to fly the way he’s driven to for much longer. The life he’s built for himself will not last. Its end is inevitable, but whether that end is annihilation or transformation is an open question—one that training younger pilots and witnessing Iceman and Penny’s lives forces Maverick to answer.

Top Gun: Maverick

It’s very, very fine work on Cruise’s part, in and out of the cockpit. In the air, he sells Maverick as the best of the best—be it pointedly, playfully toying with his overconfident trainees early on, or setting aside his bombastic streak and just flying to make a point about how to keep his pilots alive on a mission unlike any undertaken in decades. On the ground, he does thoughtful work as a man experiencing a quiet crisis. Maverick may be emotionally intelligent enough to understand where he’s struggling and why, but facing his fears, doubts, and regrets is a challenge he is not used to.

The result of Cruise and company’s work with Maverick is a compelling character arc. One thoughtful and heavy enough to give Top Gun: Maverick genuine pathos without falling into the overly maudlin. One tied into the core action (best exemplified by the proving-a-point flight that leads into the film’s final act—my favorite sequence in the movie) so that the thrills feed the character work and the character work feeds the thrills.

Indeed, between Kosinski’s masterful handling of tone, Miranda’s gorgeous (and in some cases outright groundbreaking) aerial work, and the cast’s—particularly Cruise’s—game turns, Top Gun: Maverick repeatedly proves itself a darn good blockbuster action film, one of several this year (with, for my money, its main peer being AmbuLAnce). It thrills and does so with care for its characters. That is always worthy of celebration.

Top Gun: Maverick pushes against gs in a high-speed climb to theaters on Friday, May 27th.

Top Gun: Maverick Trailer:

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