TOP GUN: MAVERICK Still Feels the Need for Speed

“You think up there, you’re dead, believe me.”

I know there are examples, but I cannot remember when we had a blockbuster like Top Gun: Maverick. In a world of cutting-edge special effects technology (which I’m by no means knocking), it’s so great to see such a big film eschew those practices almost entirely in favor of real-life stunts and action sequences that cannot be manufactured.

Not only does Top Gun: Maverick ensure this is the case ( no doubt thanks to its producer/star’s insistence), but it also prompts the question: When was the last time we saw Tom Cruise act his heart out? I don’t mean to dismiss the unstoppable Mission: Impossible franchise, but 26 years on, the role of Ethan Hunt (stunts aside) is not a tall order for Cruise. In many ways, here he faces one of the most significant challenges of his career by reviving an iconic character and giving him the proper full circle moment he deserves.

It’s been nearly 40 years since we checked in on Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and since audiences last saw him, things haven’t seemed to have changed much for the unrivaled fighter pilot. This is especially true where his ranking is concerned as Maverick has avoided any and all opportunities to rise within the ranks. Maverick’s latest defiance of orders results in a last chance assignment- to teach the best of the best of the current crop of fighter pilots who are about to attempt to stop a hostile nation from using enriched uranium on other countries. Among the group, is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former wingman, whose death during a mission has affected both men.

Because this movie bears the Top Gun name, it’s guaranteed that its audience will be treated to a significant amount of spectacle, which they are. Top Gun: Maverick’s opening, in which its forever fearless and eternally rule-breaking main character flies a plane against orders, is a sequence so invigorating, it alone would serve as a third act finale for most other titles of this sort. It’s a brilliantly executed sequence that instantly excites and whets the appetite for what’s to come. What follows, in terms of action anyways, is one breathtaking flight sequence after another where Maverick and his students take to the air for a series of absolutely glorious set pieces. Each action-filled sequence has its own flavor and stakes attached, leading to an extended final act that goes beyond the mission itself for an adrenaline-filled climax that shortchanges none of the players involved and proves the only way to end this kind of ride.

Those looking for an involving and engaging plot might be disappointed with Top Gun: Maverick. There’s nothing especially novel about the mission and the gravity of these fighter pilots succeeding with it. None of this is much of a shock given the limited number of scenarios that could come from that specific world. If the plot isn’t all that original, however, the way it handles the title character makes up for it. In between all the excitement taking place in the sky, Top Gun: Maverick surprises as a surprisingly solid character piece. It doesn’t take much to see present-day Maverick as a broken man who has not gotten over his wingman’s death. Because of this, Maverick has spent decades punishing himself by staying in the same place, refusing the kind of promotions and glory that Goose could never enjoy. After Maverick is drafted into his new assignment, what starts out as an order turns into a quest for atonement as his relationship with Rooster becomes both volatile and more personal than before, leading to moments as emotionally charged and cathartic as anything happening in the air.

It isn’t any surprise why Maverick is one of Cruise’s most beloved characters. As written, he is cocky and confident, but also has an appeal that transcends all of those traits. It was a character Cruise understood from the day he encountered him and, judging by his performance, probably never let go. It’s why he’s able to craft just as compelling a performance this time around, maintaining that appealing arrogance and injecting it with the heightened emotions of a man finally facing his past. It’s the most that’s been asked of Cruise for so long and watching him juggle scenes of levity, intensity and pathos is a reminder of what kind of actor he is.

The supporting cast surrounding Cruise are all adequately suited to play their archetypes. Jon Hamm is a great heavy, Jennifer Connelly is a luminous love interest (sadly, it doesn’t matter how many scenes the script throws her into, she’s still just “the girl”) and Glenn Powell is the competitive pretty boy. Each manages quite well considering the roles they’re playing could barely be considered characters. Apart from a moving cameo from Val Kilmer’s Iceman, only Teller’s Rooster carries enough weight to feel like an actual person. Fueled by resentment and determination, the character requires more from the actor than you think it would and sees him turning in an accomplished, moving performance that very nearly matches that of his megawatt movie star scene partner.

As I said before, the plot of Top Gun: Maverick isn’t original, but its aim was never originality. I believe its only true goal was to bring closure to a protagonist after 36 years of being one of the most iconic characters of his decade. Whether a person embraces Top Gun: Maverick’s dual nature will depend on their level of both general empathy and the ability to wholly surrender to the rules that such a large story set in the real world has created for itself. Those who do will encounter a breed of film that we crave more of: A character piece wrapped up in an action movie that also happens to be a legitimately thrilling blockbuster.

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