Tom Cruise aims to prove he is a one-of-a-kind movie star with this throwback, mindless thrill ride
Tom Cruise has something to prove. In many ways, he always has, ever since becoming one of the top movie stars in the world almost 40 years ago. His trajectory has always been for him to act like there is an aspect of his stardom that hasn’t been fully realized. For certain portions of his career, he has wanted to be taken more seriously or less seriously, to be lauded for risking his life for his art of making thrilling cinema. But through it all, the one constant is that Tom Cruise has never fully seemed to be satisfied with his position as a public figure. Rather, he always has something to prove.
Similarly, Captain Pete Mitchell, Cruise’s titular character in his newest film Top Gun: Maverick, has something to prove. A graduate of the Navy’s prestigious TOPGUN program, Mitchell is now denying promotions, preferring to stay in the cockpit of planes rather than behind a desk in command. After being knocked for yet another act of insubordination, Maverick is kicked over to return as an instructor at TOPGUN, where he will train an elite squad of previous graduates to prepare them to run a top secret mission that seems nearly impossible to succeed—at least not without loss of life. It is worth noting that the film goes out of its way to never mention what adversary this mission is against; it’s always simply a uranium enrichment facility that is run by “our enemy.”
Thus the stage for Maverick is set: Maverick, the adrift former hotshot, is put in a position of mentoring the next generation, but you can see behind his eyes that there is still something burning inside him. He runs the young flyers through drills to test their ability, and proves consistently and without question to be their better. The metaphor is not hard to pierce through: while new potential movie stars will constantly arise, there will never be another Tom Cruise. At one point when going over mission details, Maverick declares that “time is our greatest enemy.” It’s hard not to wonder at what point subtext becomes text.
The crew of trainees themselves are all affable, from Glen Powell’s confident and cocky Hangman, to Monica Barbaro’s level-headed, clear-eyed Phoenix, to Lewis Powell’s nerdy and skittish Bob. (Yes, that’s his codename.) The most central to the plot, thoug,h is Miles Teller’s Bradley Bradshaw, AKA Rooster, the son of Maverick’s former flight partner and best friend Goose. After Goose’s tragic death in the first Top Gun, Maverick took it upon himself to look after Rooster and make sure that he stayed safe. This leads to inevitable tension between the two, which in turn forms the emotional stakes of the film.
Which is good, because it happens to be the only part of Maverick that works the best on any emotional level at all. While most of the cadets in the program are likable enough, they are also almost all thinly painted characters, there to serve the perfunctory role of telling Maverick that what he’s demanding of them is impossible and prompting him to prove how wrong they are. There is also a romance plot between Maverick and local bar owner Penny (Jennifer Connelly) that never fully connects and mostly feels like an excuse for someone to listen to Maverick expound his inner thoughts. There’s the added oddness that Maverick and Penny have an established—and often commented on—history from other times Maverick has been an instructor at TOPGUN…but that’s all off screen. It’s almost as if the film is trying to trick us into thinking there was another, secret Top Gun movie between the first and now.
All of this is somewhat secondary to Maverick’s most important objective, which is to present thrilling aerial footage that is hooked into death-defying movements. And those segments are in fact exhilarating, helped by director Joseph Kosinski’s channeling of the late Tony Scott’s visual language, which feels both maximalist and classicist. The thrill of seeing these instruments of war and modern engineering banking and weaving through terrain, especially on a crystal clear IMAX screen, is a sort of cinematic magic that excels past any potential skeleton of a plot that mostly exists as backdrop. And when the film leans into the spectacle, it works gloriously, raising your heart rate and eliciting involuntary fist pumps. The final mission of the film is an especially exciting crescendo, particularly in the final fifteen minutes when it takes a few unexpected twists.
As such, it is hard to really deny that Top Gun: Maverick executes its ultimate aims of providing buzzy visuals and exciting fighter jet action sequences. The fact that its plot is wafer thin and it’s characters even flatter is mostly a function of the movie wanting to get to the next set piece, which inevitably ends in actors from Teller to Jon Hamm all staring on in awe at Cruise’s sheer termity. And in some ways, it provides a fairly convincing argument that Cruise is in fact a movie star quite unlike any other before or to come. He is something of the last of a breed. Early on in the film, Ed Harris informs Maverick in a fantastic one-off scene that he is destined to be outclassed and replaced with drone technology, that he is a relic of a former age. Maverick concedes that this might be true, but that his time to bow out hasn’t come yet. After all, he still has something to prove.