Now available to purchase digitally from outlets like Amazon Prime Video, Top Gun: Maverick is the movie of the year of our lord 2022, and feel free to interpret that as you may, because it’ll be true no matter what. Engineered to be massive by one Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, the film, painstakingly shot with IMAX cameras, sat on the shelf for two years, waiting out the COVID pandemic for a theatrical release, which is nothing really, considering the original smash-hit Top Gun debuted 36 years ago. Quite notoriously, Cruise made sure all streaming platforms took their Maverick acquisition offers for long walks off short piers, and the gambit paid off with an international box office take of nearly a billion-and-a-half dollars. That and Cruise’s insistence on putting himself and his cast members in the cockpits of real F-18s performing wild maneuvers earned him the informal title of Savior of Cinema (and almost making us forget about all that creepy Scientology stuff). So the movie was made explicitly to satisfy your need (your need!) for speed in the theater, but will its big-nostalgia thrills translate to viewing at home?
The Gist: MACH 9: It’s circled in red on his calendar. Whose calendar? Mav’s cal, that’s who. You know, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the guy whose picture is next to “hotshot” in the dictionary. When he’s not turnin’ a wrench on his vintage prop plane, he’s a right-stuff test pilot for the U.S. Navy, where he never surpassed the rank of captain despite several decades of service. He’s a pilot. Period. Middle management ain’t his bag. He gets word that his program is about to be axed by a grimacing honcho (Ed Harris) barking this and that about Pentagon budgets, so Mav pushes the envelope: “They want Mach 10, let’s give ’em Mach 10.” Does he give ’em Mach 10? Reader, it’s not a spoiler to say he does. Let’s be real. If he doesn’t hit Mach 10 and inspire the furrowed-brow scowlers to say things like “You got some balls, stick jockey” and chew out rulebreakers as they stand at attention before them in austere offices with sunlight filtering in through the blinds, then this movie ain’t doing its job.
And so Mav gets lectured. Guys like him are gonna be obsolete real soon. Just like movies don’t need stuntmen and practical effects anymore because CGI is the wave of the future, military drones are the future. But right now, they still need guys like Mav to do this one mission here, and therefore his ass is saved by what we initially believe is someone named Deus Ex Machina, but we soon learn is Iceman himself, you know, the other hotshot (Val Kilmer), who’s now an admiral and has the power to keep a spirited individual like Mav from getting a safer, probably better-paying civilian job. That lungs-of-steel, guts-of-iron mission requires Mav to return to Top Gun, the school for elite fighter pilots, and teach the young whippersnapper cockpitters how to be total f—ing badasses, while Vice Admiral Cyclone Simpson (Jon Hamm) never stops pursing his lips disapprovingly as he tries to keep the lowercase-m maverick from breaking all the rules even though the mission pretty much demands that all the rules be broken.
I’d say that mission is impossible, but that would be easy, too easy. They have three weeks to train for a two-and-a-half-minute endeavor in which four planes have to go LEFFFFFFTTTTTT real hard and then RIGGGGHHTTTTTTT a little bit harder and then left and right and left and right but faster, and then UPPPPPPPP and then upside-down and then DOWWWNNNNNNNN and then launch missiles at a miniscule target (it’s an illicit uranium-enrichment site in a very purposely unnamed country, if you must know) and hopefully destroy it and then go UUUUPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP and try not to pass out from the Gs and then avoid some surface-to-air missiles and hopefully enemy planes that are better and faster than your planes don’t notice. No sweat.
And who are the cocky little shits under Mav’s supervision? Smirking toothpick-gnawer Hangman (Glen Powell) and slightly less bumptious types Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), Payback (Jay Ellis) and a dorkus without a cool handle named Bob (Lewis Pullman), but none are more important than Rooster, and you can tell because I’m giving you his Christian name, Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller). Kick his parents for naming him Brad Brad, but don’t really because his dad Mav’s late best buddy Goose, who you surely remember from the first movie. Turns out Mav once nudged Rooster’s Naval application out of the running at the request of Rooster’s mom, delaying his career for four years, and the kid’s pissed. Lotsa old wounds and complicated feelings here. Meanwhile, Mav reconnects with his ex, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), now an available single mom who owns the bar with the piano in it, as well as Iceman (like I said, Val Kilmer!), because this movie needs to make us cry before it juices the living crap out of our adrenaline glands.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Maverick is a delicious blend of Top Gun (1986) cheese with the ears-pinned-back action of Cruise’s new-benchmark action movies, the Mission: Impossibles.
Performance Worth Watching: Cruise is very much in his sweet-spot zone here, charismatic and ever-so-slightly self-effacing, even looking his age a little bit, as the character demands at this place and time. You’ll never take the movie star out of this guy.
Memorable Dialogue: Three decontextualized lines, and I’ll let you guess who says them:
“It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.”
“It’s time to let go.”
“I’m a fighter pilot… It’s not what I am, it’s who I am.”
Sex and Skin: One amusingly awkward, uber-dorky non-sex sex scene in which Cruise and Connelly are primarily shot from the neck up and has more smiling than kissing. It’s a handful of shots dissolving overtop each other, and it lasts like 10 seconds and their hair isn’t even close to being mussed up post-coitus. So, so weird. Especially considering the Cruise-Kelly McGillis scene from the original movie basically taught me what “Frenching” means.
Our Take: Maverick’s enormo-emotions and crowdpleaser thrills absolutely work at home; one might say they’re too big to fail. Joseph Kosinski’s pedal-to-the-metal direction is too insistent. Passive viewing of this movie is a challenge, even when the dog’s barking and your phone’s chiming and the pause button is within reach – especially during a near-genius multi-act action-sequence finale that delivers the goods with style, brio and exquisitely timed blasts of cinematic dopamine. There’s a point where it reaches fever pitch, teases us, breaks the tension and then lets rip like a golden retriever let off its leash to bound and gambol as we giggle helplessly.
Does a sequel to a slab of ’80s mega-cheese like Top Gun deserve to be so wildly entertaining? Probably not. But the same aesthetic rigor Cruise brings to the Mission: Impossible franchise easily translates to Maverick, which renders the highway to the danger zone even faster and more dangerous than before. This is a keep-it-simple-stupid plot that precisely outlines every perilous point of Mav and co’s death-defying military objective (they are definitely not grocery clerks on an errand) like it’s a Heat– or Ocean’s 11-sized heist, then shows them executing the plan and seat-of-their-pants improvising their way through the inevitable unseen impediments. The movie’s a masterwork of cinematography and editing, aiming for visual clarity and hitting the bullseye. (The action inevitably blends CGI and practical stunts, but you’ll be hard-pressed to notice.)
The screenplay – by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Cruise’s Mission: Impossible cohort Christopher McQuarrie – impeccably balances the new with the nostalgic, drafting on the previous movie’s conflicts and amplifying its emotions. Not that the film is truly about anything beyond its existence as a diversion for its audience; its jingoistic military hoo-ah is more vague than it is in the original film, and the blatant nonspecificity of the enemy in this movie is more nudge-wink comedy than worthy of critical harping. No, the point of Maverick is to reaffirm Tom Cruise’s status as exactly that. Let him do as he does, and this is what you get.
Our Call: Top Gun: Maverick is a blast. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.