‘Top Gun: Maverick’ and the Irreplaceable Artistry of Tom Cruise

There are few things like a Tom Cruise movie -- and there's nothing like 'Top Gun: Maverick', a blockbuster that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

by Jack Edgar
Top Gun: Maverick

Warning: this review contains unabashed adoration for Tom Cruise. 

So leave your shit at the door, no one wants any part of it. Cowards couch their praise of Cruise behind opening statements like, “We all know he’s evil, but…” and “Problematic fave alert”. Stop that — I don’t want to hear it. Tom Cruise is one of the last remaining titans of cinema — full stop. He’s a movie star on a plane so high (pun intended) above today’s welterweight class of movie stars, there’s simply no comparison. And rather than coast into his sunset years, he has dedicated his entire being to sustaining the concept of the cinematic blockbuster and the theatrical experience itself. While his ex-wife Nicole Kidman (gloriously) advocates for the magic of the theater, Cruise is one of the last vestiges of the true magic left. His movies feel like the movies, unapologetically. And if you’re a fan of the movies — and let’s be honest, if you’ve found moviebabble.com, you are — you should by definition be a fan of Tom Cruise. 

It has been 36 years since the release of 1986’s Top Gun. It was the top-grossing movie of that year, increased naval applications by 500%, is single-handedly responsible for the continued existence of aviator sunglasses, and launched a promising young actor named Tom Cruise to superstardom. In the years that followed, Cruise was the textbook definition of a movie star: he worked with the best directors, mixed it up with action franchises, Oscar plays, and genre films, and could guarantee both box office success and critical acclaim across his films. And then in the 00s, two things happened. The first was his own fault: he let his onscreen manic energy escape into his real life, and the public rejected him for it (see: the couch). The second, no one saw coming: IP-driven franchises became bigger than individual movie stars. The star no longer headlined the movie — the character did (see: the MCU). What was a diminished star to do in this new era of filmmaking?

Tom’s answer to the modern notion of a blockbuster: reject it, and be better. 

As films become more and more tied to CGI and special effects, Cruise’s films in the last decade have doubled down on practical effects. As movie stars recite dialogue that often undercuts the film for the sake of comedy (the Deadpoolization of movies, if you will), Cruise’s films apologize for nothing: they are genuine, full-hearted cinema, and they dare you not to care. And as more and more actors find themselves replaceable in front of the big green screen of modern filmmaking, Cruise has ventured into rare territory in Hollywood: he has made himself irreplaceable. Nearly replaced by Jeremy Renner in 2011’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, the idea now seems laughable. Cruise has pushed his physical acting and practical action stunts further than any actor in history, and the unique gifts he has to offer movies will likely die with him.

Perhaps that work ethic, that dedication to old-school blockbusters, and that full-throated genuineness are what has positioned Top Gun: Maverick to be welcomed by moviegoers with open arms this weekend. We are inundated with CGI, direct-to-streaming movies, and movie stars flocking to limited series. It’s an era of content accumulation that has forgotten the majesty of the movies. This film’s thesis: fuck that

Top Gun: Maverick exceeds the standards of its predecessor in every conceivable way. 

The original Top Gun is a relic of its time — an undeniable classic, but something of a curio to watch today. The groundbreaking action sequences feel slightly small, the vibes are cringe-inducingly tied to the 80s, and the plot is…largely missing. It still works mainly because of a few magnetic performances, incredible music, and the raw charisma of Tom Cruise (also upon a recent rewatch — it is so horny?!?!). As a legacy sequel, Top Gun: Maverick wisely brought what worked back into the fold for round two, and gave audiences all the notes they need to know from round one so that a prerequisite viewing is merely a nice-to-have, but by no means necessary. This film stands alone, and it’s all the better for it. 

Set 30+ years after the events of the first Top Gun, Maverick finds its titular pilot (Cruise) leading a life on the fringes of the Navy, his career and ability to fly only intact thanks to his close friendship with his former rival Iceman (Val Kilmer), who has become a high-ranking admiral. Yet another act of insubordination puts Maverick’s career in jeopardy until he is assigned a teaching post at his old alma mater Top Gun, where he is to prepare an elite team of young pilots to execute a nearly impossible mission. Among those young pilots is Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) — the son of Maverick’s late best friend Goose, and a hothead in his own right who has yet to forgive Maverick for past mistakes.

It’s a tight, barebones story that leaves space for the stars (and the action) to shine. 

Indeed, even the enemy in the film is only referred to as “the enemy”. It’s part of a series of decisions that makes the film seem utterly timeless — Maverick exists in a fantasy world that is set in modern times, but in a reality where the 80s never truly ended. The planes and people are of today but the music and mood all feel of yesteryear. And at the center of these incongruent ideas, there is the timeless, nearly ageless Cruise. 

In his late-stage revival as an unbeatable action hero, Cruise defies death in every scene, but it’s been a long time since he’s been asked to act human. He’s still the same Maverick, but here for once, Cruise allows himself to feel his age. He’s vulnerable and worn down, and the lines on his face are at odds with the charming quips his character delivers early on in the film. You immediately understand that years of being the best but being alone have left him just a little crazy — and one might wonder how much of that is even a performance at all. But once he gets the chance to act off of the supporting cast, his trademark charisma just crackles and flies off the screen. 

And the supporting cast here is a deep bench of great players: Ed Harris and Jon Hamm play foils who are over Maverick’s shit, but they’re hardly given much to do. No, this is a film about Maverick finding some version of peace. And that means Teller’s Rooster and Jennifer Connelly (as a former flame) are given the most to do, and they do everything needed to carry the plot forward. But it wouldn’t be Top Gun without a brash hotshot to keep everyone else on their toes — and in Maverick, that role belongs to Glen Powell’s “Hangman”. He’s a charming, electric livewire whose every moment onscreen demands that he become our next leading man. 

And it really wouldn’t be Top Gun without the one thing it delivers like nothing else: the open sky. There aren’t words to describe the aerial action set pieces in Top Gun: Maverick, because there is so little to compare them to. Cruise’s insistence that the actors really fly these planes and act as their own camera crews pays off magnificently — the action is visceral, the planes feel majestic, and the final product is on a grand scale that few films have ever even attempted to reach. The set pieces are breathtaking experiences, unlike anything I have ever seen before. 

This is a legacy sequel deserving of a legacy all its own. 

When all is said and done and the final chapter is written on Tom Cruise’s career, no doubt some biopic or docu-drama limited series will one day be attempted. But there’s hardly a need; Top Gun: Maverick is the perfect film to tell future generations everything they need to know about our greatest movie star, and how he could out-smile and outrun anyone else straight off the screen. 

Few films are truly for everyone, but then again, few things unite humanity quite like our love for charming people getting to go really, really fast. Plenty of films weaponize emotion successfully — they’ll make you laugh, or cry, or shriek in terror. But it’s rare that a film makes you giddy. You know, that feeling you get when something is so utterly perfect, so brilliantly delightful that you start to emit weird noises and you realize that you’re clapping in a crowd of people and you never clap in a crowd of people. And then you realize, to further delight, that everyone else is doing it too. And so you eat some more popcorn and bask in the rare experience of a perfect movie moment. That is what Tom Cruise strives to give us every time, that is what he gives us with Top Gun: Maverick, and that is the magic of the movies.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Jack Edgar @JedgarAllenPoe

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1 comment

Nick Kush June 10, 2022 - 11:13 am

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