Tom Cruise Pulls Off The Impossible For ‘Top Gun’ Sequel (Movie Review)

Tom Cruise is still the “Top Gun” in the sequel to the era-defining 80’s hit. Thirty-six years after the original, Top Gun: Maverick combines a heavy dose of nostalgia with state-of-the-art aerial stunts featuring “The Last Movie Star.” The danger zone is as big as an IMAX screen now. Director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) re-teams with Cruise with a script aided by Mission Impossible maestro Christopher McQuarrie. The film also stars Jennifer Connery, Miles Teller, Jon Hamm, Monica Barabaro, Glen Powell, and the Iceman himself, Val Kilmer. However, did this long-in-the-works sequel take my breath away?

As an 80s teen, I felt like Tom Cruise’s biggest fan, at least among my friends. Director Tony Scott’s Top Gun was a megaton blast that led to many teen boys, including yours truly, getting his haircut, another pair of Ray-Bans (we already had those black ones from Risky Business), and, if you could afford it, a bomber jacket. Lucky for me, my aunt had a brown leather jacket I wore every chance I could.

Back in ’86, not everyone loved Top Gun. A kid in my high school psych class ranted about how the aerial sequences were tremendous, but once Maverick, Goose, and Iceman landed back on the Earth, it was a dull, dumb disaster (Even that shirtless volleyball scene? Come on, man). Even Roger Ebert gave it two and a half stars.

Truthfully, Top Gun was not the best movie ever, even back in 1986. The year before, audiences marveled at Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future. And yet, for many young teens (primarily dudes), Cruise was the king of a very specific Gen X American Dream. The one that eschewed being a basic football jock – All the Right Moves is fine, I guess – for being a pool shark, bartender, stock car racer, and in 1986, the best fighter pilot on the planet. Heck, Barry Levinson’s Rain Man made me think a yuppie who sold exotic cars was a totally viable lifestyle. In Jerry Maguire, the best character is the sports agent that writes his own goofball manifesto, not the all-American quarterback. And naturally, they’re all played by Tom Cruise.

Pre-2000s, he was the star I idolized who focused on non-sci-fi antics to succeed in pulling me away from my diet of Star Wars and Star Trek fare. Even Michael J. Fox’s adorable charms were in service of a time travel plot in the Back to the Future series. Later, Will Smith became a Hollywood royalty playing a hotshot pilot too, but by the 90s, acting alongside dinosaurs and aliens was pretty much required.

Instead of following suit, Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner opted to turn an old television series that was mostly forgotten except for the catchy opening theme into a heart-pounding Rube Goldberg trap film franchise: Mission: Impossible. Cruise’s cocky but likable attitude made me believe he could do anything. Decades later, he’s the king of big holy cow stunts with those Impossible flicks. That killer smile could do anything.

Now that I’m no longer a teen but an old, I lack some of my wide-eyed teen sensibilities. Unlike The Color of Money or Rain Man, despite capturing the zeitgeist, Top Gun is one of the weakest of Cruise’s phenomenal run. Obviously, it’s better than Cocktail, but it comes up just as short in terms of repeat viewings for me. I saw Top Gun three times in theaters but rarely, if ever, did I watch it at home. Even though I eagerly purchased the then “priced to own” Paramount VHS. Nowadays, it’s the kind of film better served playing in my 80s nostalgic mind (The fantastic soundtrack featuring Kenny Loggins and Berlin still rules, though). Like Cruise himself, I never really felt the need for a speedy return to Mirimar. So, when I heard Cruise had finally agreed to make a sequel, I shrugged, more eager to see Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning (Part One) in July 2023.

Top Gun: Maverick didn’t change my mind about the original’s quality as a story, but it did put into focus one vital aspect: the need for the big screen. The screening I attended was in DolbyVision, which was superb. I do not share my fellow critics’ love for this sequel, but I can’t deny that all the aerial sequences are indeed phenomenal. Easily topping the original. The last act is a master class in shot composition, editing, sound design, and, above all, stunt work. I have no clue exactly what was CGI beyond some explosions, as these were the best flying set pieces I’ve witnessed since, well, Top Gun.

The story, like the original, is merely a set-up for amazing spectacle. The spectacle is two-fold: the jets and Cruise. The actor rarely gives less than 200%. Here, as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the script has done a serviceable job of adding years of regret and frustration to the character who’s never really moved up in the ranks of the navy. Cruise makes a possibly downer of a character on paper into a big smiling diamond, but to the star’s credit, it is nice to see the actor playing a person who recognizes his own limits as he turns 60(!) this year.

Unlike other legacy sequels, there was no chance Cruise would be playing Luke to new-to-the-series Miles Teller’s Rey. The supporting cast is good, but this is the Cruise show. Teller, who plays Goose’s son, and Glen Powell, a kind of Maverick 2.0, are the standouts. Sadly, Jennifer Connelly’s bar owner/love interest, Penny, lacks any sparks with Maverick. Val Kilmer’s return to the big screen in decades is note-perfect, and yes, I teared up.

The problem, or at least the reason the film isn’t spectacular, is partly because it relies on too much nostalgia. The opening Paramount logo and the credits sequences with the planes taking off are akin to the Star Wars opening crawl. There’s a volleyball scene, a “let’s drink and sing classic rock songs” scene, etc. You get it.

I was tempted to give this film a stronger recommendation because the stunt work is incredible. And who knows, maybe I’ll bump up my final score over time. As of this week, however, Top Gun: Maverick is terrific a reason to see movies on the biggest screens possible. Who needs a hearty story or even characters when you have a production featuring one of the biggest movie stars of all time doing his thing? It may seem like playtime for Cruise, but he’s never lost that loving feeling for delivering from such great heights.

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