Faced with the cockiest flyboy in the history of naval aviation, Rear Adm. Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) does not mince words. “Your kind is headed for extinction,” he tells the one and only Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. The admiral is talking about the obsolescence of fighter pilots in an age when bombs are dropped remotely from a strip mall outside Las Vegas. But he’s also speaking, in a metatextual manner, about the legend playing this legend: Hollywood’s aging but ageless golden boy Tom Cruise, pushing 60 but still climbing into cockpits at a time when his “kind” — the movie star who’s a draw no matter the movie — has indeed been added to the endangered species list.
Those kind of winks are common in so-called legacy sequels, a very self-conscious strain of modern franchise continuation. Yet there’s scarcely a hint of irony in Top Gun: Maverick, a decades-later follow-up to one of the most anomalous hits of the 1980s. Early in the film, Cruise whips a tarp off that old motorcycle, the one he rode around back in ’86, and the moment is so glowingly awestruck, you half expect it to be accompanied by a 21-gun salute. This is a movie deeply in love with its title character, and with the movie star reprising that role, and maybe even with the fantasy of America it’s reviving.
It’s a tad amusing, seeing such hushed reverence applied to Top Gun, of all box-office sensations. Made with the cooperation and final script approval of the U.S. Navy, that movie was a glorified (and quite successful) recruitment ad propped up by the slick craft of its director, the late Tony Scott, and by the sweat-slicked faces and bodies of its cast. It was popcorn propaganda with all the depth and soul of a Pepsi commercial. Top Gun has endured mostly as a kitsch object, an antique of superficial patriotism and ’80s excess. But Maverick takes it seriously, which is one key to its twinkly romantic charm.
Director Joseph Kosinski, who worked with Cruise on Oblivion, but more relevantly directed Tron: Legacy (another expensive, affectionate upgrade of a one-off ’80s movie), fills Scott’s big jackboots by committing fully to his magic-hour aesthetic. The first few minutes come within striking distance of shot-for-shot remake territory, as that same opening epigraph fills the screen in that same font while that same synth score from Harold Faltermeyer rises majestically on the soundtrack. A beat later, it’s replaced by the familiar sounds of Kenny Loggins and the familiar sight of massive metal birds taxiing around a runway, passing through clouds of music-video smoke. The film is ritualistic in its replications.
Maverick faithfully adopts a Top Gun plot, too. Which is to say, it barely has one. Having dodged promotions for decades, as any incorrigible rebel must, Cruise’s veteran airman is reassigned to his old stomping grounds outside San Diego, where he’ll take some young pilots under his wing. One is reminded that the actor starred in a legacy sequel the same year Top Gun came out, playing the hotshot protégé in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. Nearly four decades later, he’s now in the Paul Newman role. His gaggle of egotistical millennial hotdoggers with colorful call signs includes the socially awkward Bob (Lewis Pullman), steely boys-club crasher Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), and the cowboy antagonizer of the team, Hangman (Glen Powell).
There’s also Rooster (Miles Teller), whose shades and haircut betray his secret identity as the son of Goose, the Anthony Edwards character tragically killed in the original. Rooster simmers with resentment toward Maverick, who’s long tried to keep the kid, 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 shock waves Goose’s freak accident sent across generations.
Kosinski’s aerial action is breathtaking. Like Scott, he knows how to convey altitude and speed, and to coherently crosscut between cockpits to turn every training exercise into a group show of dovetailing dilemmas and volleying wisecracks. The script, coauthored by frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, devises an urgent graduation rite for the new class: An attack on a uranium plant that’s like the Death Star operation crossed with the daunting odds of a Mission: Impossible set piece. Of course, the actual enemy remains nervously, strategically undisclosed, just as it was in the first film — a faceless international “rogue state.” As always, Top Gun exists in a geopolitical Bermuda Triangle, abstracting war into a kind of “big game” at the end of a sports movie, free of any larger global stakes.
Maverick is too fetishistically devoted to the blueprint of an old blockbuster to ever fully emerge as its own movie. But scene for scene, it’s a better time than Top Gun — more nimble, more exciting, more soulful. It ditches Scott’s self-parodic habit of queuing up the same two songs ad nauseam. And the film seems to grasp that bromance was always more crucial to Top Gun’s popularity than romance. Conspicuously absent is Kelly McGillis’s Charlie, the civilian love interest of the first movie. Maverick fills the void via a more sidelined courtship with fellow ’80s kid Jennifer Connelly, who plays a cocktail waitress we’re told Maverick wooed a lifetime ago. (Her character is mentioned briefly in the first film.) The two stars have an easygoing chemistry as old flames rekindling the flame, though none of their scenes are as affecting as the one Cruise shares with Val Kilmer, dropping in for a cameo that works the latter’s real-life battle with throat cancer into the story.
The true love story here is between the camera and Cruise. He’s somehow intense and relaxed, bringing some of that signature charismatic determination, while also easing 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. (That’s really him in the jet, of course — as with Mission: Impossible‘s Ethan Hunt, it can be tough to tell where the fictional daredevil ends and the real one begins.) Kosinski basks in the contradictions of Cruise’s star power as an elder statesman of multiplex cool: What we’re seeing is a summer-movie Adonis acknowledge his advancing years, enduring old-timer cracks, even as he leaps into each stunt with a vain defiance of the aging process.
Maverick grants, as legacy sequels so often do, that its characters are analog relics in a digital world — that to place Top Gun in modern times is an act of anachronistic wish-fulfillment. But truthfully, the original was plenty anachronistic, too: Opening at a time when dogfights were rapidly becoming a thing of the past, it applied a kind of Greatest Generation romanticism to the shiftier goalposts of the Cold War; its pitch to prospective recruits was a vision of military life (and glory) that had little to do with contemporary reality. That makes Maverick a mirage of a mirage, nostalgic for a world that never really existed. Which is why it’s such a perfect vehicle for Cruise, a Tinseltown Dorian Gray whose impossibly preserved physique is its own organic de-aging technology. He’s a movie star out of time, shining brightly in a strictly dreamt America.
Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters everywhere Friday, May 27. For more reviews and writing by A.A. Dowd, visit his Authory page.