Faced with the most arrogant flyboy in naval aviation history, Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) doesn’t mince words. “Your species is on the verge of extinction,” he tells the one and only Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. The Admiral talks about the obsolescence of fighter pilots in a time when bombs are dropped remotely from a mall outside Las Vegas. But it also talks, in a metatextual way, about the legend who plays that legend: Tom Cruise, Hollywood’s aging but ageless golden boy, pushing 60 but still climbing cockpits in a time when his “gender” – the movie star who is a draw no matter the film – has indeed been added to the endangered species list.
These kind of nods are common in so-called legacy sequels, a strain very conscious of the continuation of the modern franchise. Yet there is little irony in Top Gun: Maverick, a sequel decades later to one of the most anomalous hits of the 1980s. At the start of the film, Cruise pulls a tarp off that old motorcycle, the one he rode in ’86, and the moment is so dazzled that you you half expect it to be accompanied by a 21-gun salute. It’s a film deeply in love with its title character, and with the movie star reprising that role, and perhaps even America’s fantasy, it’s reborn.
It’s kind of amusing to see such a hushed bow applied to Superior gun, of all box office sensations. Made with the co-operation and final script approval of the US Navy, this film was a glorified (and quite successful) recruiting advertisement bolstered by the skillful talent of its director, the late Tony Scott, and by the faces and sweat-soaked bodies of his cast. It was popcorn propaganda with all the depth and soul of a Pepsi ad. Superior gun survived mostly as a kitsch object, an antiquity of superficial patriotism and 80s excess. But maverick takes it seriously, which is one of the keys to its shimmering romantic appeal.
Director Joseph Kosinski, who worked with Cruise on Oversightbut more relevantly directed tron the legacy (another expensive and loving upgrade from a one-off 80s film), fills Scott’s big boots by fully committing to his magic hour aesthetic. The first few minutes come a striking distance from shot-for-shot remake territory, as that same opening epigraph fills the screen in that same font as the same Harold Faltermeyer synth score rises majestically over the soundtrack. A beat later, it’s replaced by the familiar sounds of Kenny Loggins and the familiar sight of huge metallic birds rolling on the ground around a track, breaking through clouds of music video smoke. The film is ritualistic in its lines.
maverick faithfully adopt a Superior gun the plot too. That is to say, there is barely one. After dodging promotions for decades, as any incorrigible rebel should, Cruise’s veteran aviator is reassigned to his old stomping ground outside San Diego, where he will take young pilots under his wing. The actor is remembered to star in a legacy sequel the same year Superior gun came out, playing the hotshot protege in Martin Scorsese The color of money. Almost four decades later, he is now in the role of Paul Newman. His herd of selfish millennial hot dogs with colorful call signs includes socially awkward Bob (Lewis Pullman), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), and the team’s antagonistic cowboy, Hangman (Glen Powell).
There’s also Rooster (Miles Teller), whose shades and haircut betray his secret identity as the son of Goose, the character Anthony Edwards tragically killed in the original. Rooster simmers with resentment towards Maverick, who has long tried to keep the child, offspring of his dead wingman, out of the sky. It’s the film’s savviest dramatic choice, building the entire emotional conflict of the story around our hero’s lingering guilt and the shockwaves that Goose’s freak accident sent through the generations.
Kosinski’s aerial action is breathtaking. Like Scott, he knows how to transmit altitude and speed, and coherently traverse cockpits to turn every training exercise into a group spectacle of dilemmas in harmony and sagacity on the fly. The screenplay, co-written by frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, crafts an urgent graduation rite for the new class: an attack on a uranium plant that resembles Operation Death Star crossed with the daunting odds of ‘a Impossible mission pieces together. Of course, the real enemy remains nervously, strategically undisclosed, just as it was in the first movie – a faceless international “rogue state”. Like always, Superior gun exists in a Bermuda geopolitical triangle, turning the war into a sort of “big game” at the end of a sports movie, free from any larger global issues.
maverick is too fetishically devoted to the outline of an old blockbuster to fully emerge as its own film. But scene for scene, it’s a better time than Superior gun – more agile, more exciting, more moving. He ditches Scott’s self-parody habit of lining up for the same two songs until he’s nauseous. And the film seems to grasp that bromance has always been more crucial to Superior gun‘s popularity than romance. Noticeably absent is Kelly McGillis’ Charlie, the civilian lover from the first film. maverick fills the void via a more fringe courtship with another ’80s kid, Jennifer Connelly, who plays a cocktail waitress whom we’re told Maverick courted a lifetime ago. (His character is briefly mentioned in the first film.) The two stars have a laid-back chemistry as old flames rekindle the flame, though none of their scenes are as emotional as the one Cruise shares with Val Kilmer, falling for a cameo that works the latter’s actual battle with throat cancer into the story.
The real love story here is between the camera and Cruise. It’s kinda intense and relaxed, bringing some of that signature charismatic determination, while toning down into the minor melancholy of Maverick’s trip down memory lane, taking stock of how he’s changed since those halcyon days in Reagan’s America. (It’s really him in the jet, of course – like with Impossible mission‘s Ethan Hunt, it can be hard to tell where the fictional daredevil ends and the real one begins.) Adonis acknowledges his years of advancement, enduring the cracks of the ancients, even as he leaps into each stunt with a futile challenge of the aging process.
maverick grants, as legacy sequels so often do, that its characters are analog relics in a digital world – than placing Superior gun in modern times is an anachronistic act of wish-fulfillment. But honestly, the original was also very anachronistic: opening at a time when dogfights were quickly becoming a thing of the past, it applied a kind of greatest-generation romance to the more shifting Cold War goalposts; his presentation to potential recruits was a vision of military life (and glory) that had little to do with contemporary reality. Which does maverick mirage of a mirage, nostalgic for a world that never really existed. That’s why it’s such a perfect vehicle for Cruise, a Tinseltown Dorian Gray whose incredibly preserved physique is his own organic aging technology. He is a movie star out of time, shining brightly in a strictly dreamed America.
Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters everywhere Friday, May 27. For more reviews and writings by AA Dowd, visit his Authory page.