nobody movie_Tom Cruise rides into the danger zone of loneliness in Top Gun: Maverick

Tom Cruise will save the movies even if it kills him. The daredevil superstar turns 60 in July, and with two more Missions: Impossible on deck, he’s finally releasing Top Gun: Maverick, the long-delayed, 36-year-later sequel in which Cruise reprises his signature role as the grinning, cock-of -the-walk flyboy in aviator goggles. It’s an outrageously entertaining film that features some of the most exquisitely choreographed action sequences since Mad Max: Fury Road and a bruised but not broken heart brazenly worn on its sleeve. This is the kind of massive, old-fashioned crowd-pleaser you probably thought Hollywood forgot how to make. Because they did.

The film, like its main character, is an outlier – a relic from another era that somehow still hums the spire of a world that has passed it by. As Ed Harris’ not-too-happy admiral says in the prologue, “The end is inevitable, maverick. Your kind is on the brink of extinction.” Nicknamed “The Drone Ranger,” Harris sends pilots out to pasture and has little patience for aging hotshots like Maverick. Since every Tom Cruise movie is, in some sense, a movie about Tom Cruise, it’s not far-fetched to see the Admiral pulling the plug on manned aircraft programs as the proxy for Hollywood studios’ lynchpins for streaming services and cruises see old colleagues comfortably settling into a television career.

This bravura opening sequence – a nifty little mini-movie in its own right before the actual story begins – sees Cruise’s character pull off an incredibly brave and stupid stunt, breaking orders and risking his life to prolong the careers of his colleagues and crew, so they can all fly on for a while. That’s Top Gun: Maverick in a nutshell. It’s not just a summer movie, it’s an act of faith in big-screen entertainment and the time-honored cinematic virtues of watching on your phone in this seedy age of comic book multiverses and the sloppy CGI sludge that’s made for it to become, unfortunately, are outdated. This film’s clarity and classic craftsmanship feel like anachronistic acts of defiance against contemporary blockbuster practices. Cruise replies to Harris, when mocked about his impending obsolescence: “Maybe, sir. But not today.”

A still from Top Gun: Maverick. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

His latest act of disobedience may be Maverick’s last. Trouble with authority over the years has kept him from ever rising to the rank of captain, and he is only allowed to enlist in the Navy thanks to the bi-annual interventions of his classmate and former rival/straight love interest Iceman, who now commands the Pacific Fleet. (Val Kilmers health problems were quite movingly written into the role, and while he doesn’t get to appear on screen often for obvious reasons, this original performance remains so iconic that you still kind of hear his voice in your head when Ice and Mav text.) Our Held would be grounded forever this time unless desperate times call for desperate measures, and much to the leadership’s dismay, Maverick is ordered back to his old alma mater for one last assignment, ending his career.

There is some gibberish about an underground uranium enrichment laboratory in a so-called “rogue state” known only as “the enemy.” (In keeping with the “Top Gun” tradition of strategically vaguely telling us who and where to fight, the villains still wear black face shields so we can’t even see their complexion.) The point is, it’s a tough one defended objective that cannot be reached by drones and requires complicated aerial acrobatics at dangerously low altitudes with dizzying jumps and falls and various other complex maneuvers with which the new generation of Navy pilots have little experience. This gives Maverick a matter of weeks to train a new crew of high-spirited kids for a seemingly impossible mission (sorry) that he fears won’t all make it home.

Miles Teller (center) in a still from Top Gun: Maverick. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

It’s a scenario similar to Clint Eastwood’s superb Heartbreak Ridge – which coincidentally came out the same year as the original Top Gun – that allows a veteran star to go head-to-head against some up-and-coming young whippersnapper and prove who still the best is boss. (Amusingly, both men were 56 when they made these films, but Cruise somehow remains in amber, while Clint already looked older than dirt.) More importantly, it allows Starspace to reflect on his advancing age and time passed to think – something the supernatural, persistently boyish Cruise has been reluctant to do on screen.

Top Gun: Maverick is a surprisingly emotional experience as it conjures up the title character’s loneliness after a life of breaking bridges and breaking all the rules. With Cruise riding his motorbike alone and pottering around in an empty hangar filled with old airplanes, it seems like the highway into the danger zone is actually a lonely one. A beautifully directed scene shows his class of new recruits teaming up in a bar, blasting each other’s chops and singing along to jukebox oldies. An inferior film would have found a way for Maverick to mistake it for the kids, but the latter is content to let him watch longingly. Of all the things I expected from a Top Gun sequel, a melancholy pull wasn’t one of them.

Jennifer Connelly as Penny Benjamin and Tom Cruise as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Maverick spends the film being haunted by ghosts from his past and the wreckage of bad decisions. First up is Miles Teller’s disgruntled rooster – son of his late sidekick Goose – a promising boy whose military career our guilt-ridden hero sabotaged because he couldn’t bear to put him in danger. There’s also a star turn from Glen Powell as Hangman, a boastful know-it-all who physically resembles a cross between Cruise and Kilmer in 1986 and, to Maverick, represents everything he hates about his younger hot dog self. Finally he’s back together with Jennifer Connelly’s Penny Benjamin, the admiral’s daughter alluded to in the original film, with whom our main character had more than a few affairs in the decades that followed, and his considerable charms are long gone with her. (Connelly is great casting because not only can she hold her own against Cruise’s megawatt flair, she’s also in her fifties and still looks 35.)

Attempting to direct all of this is Jon Hamm’s stubborn Vice Admiral, a perfect Margaret Dumont for Cruise’s cockpit groucho. The man Tina Fey once described as “looking like a cartoon pilot” in 30 Rock spends the film finding a thousand hilarious ways to get angry at Cruise and his refusal to do everything by the book. (In one of the film’s most adorable metaphors, Maverick starts the first day of class by tossing the flight manual in the trash.) Or maybe he’s just pissed because nobody invited him to play shirtless touch football on the beach during a tongue-in-cheek rehash of the most infamous scene from the previous image.

Jon Hamm as Adm. Beau “Cyclone” Simpson in Top Gun: Maverick. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Director Joseph Kosinski doesn’t have the late Tony Scott’s greed for varnished pictures, which is fine given that the sequel is more of a real movie than a real movie a commercial for being great. It has the easygoing camaraderie and rueful humor of an old Howard Hawks or a late-era Eastwood film, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise like Kosinski’s woefully underrated 2017 woodland firefighting drama Only the Brave (which also co-starred Connelly and Teller) borrowed the correct moves from Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings”. He brings amazing clarity and precision to the aerial stunt sequences and impeccably lays out the spatial geography at unfathomable speed. Paramount has released a 50-page book for the press explaining all the unprecedented and insane efforts that have been made to capture this footage during a shoot that began back in 2018. But I didn’t want to read it, preferring to preserve the illusion of those stunning images whizzing past in IMAX. I prefer to believe my eyes.

Cruise is also convinced. During the pandemic, it was reported that both Netflix and Amazon offered astronomical sums to stream the film, while the star vehemently vetoed it, insisting his baby be seen exclusively on cinema screens first. If you believe what he claims in interviews, Cruise remains so enamored with the cinematic experience that he dresses up and goes to multiplexes to watch regular audience movies. (Everyone jokes about him wearing the pull-out prosthesis from Mission: Impossible, but I prefer to picture him at the mall looking Morbius in one of his old Eyes Wide Shut masks.) Cruise would have it Couldn’t possibly have known when they started filming how much trouble theaters would be in until the final release of Top Gun: Maverick, but at a moment when even an alarming number of couch potato film critics are anticipating the end of the… Pleading cinematic experience, it’s a relief to have an ally in The Last Movie Star.

“The world needs Maverick,” says a beloved character in the film’s most shameless moment. And the film industry needs movies like Top Gun: Maverick — big, sizzling blockbuster entertainments that remind audiences it doesn’t have to be all weird doctors and spider-men that Disney+ spinoff series set against green screens on the Atlanta sound stages build up. Sure, I could argue about some choppy scene transitions and the rushed feeling of the film’s first hour, but the fact remains that the last 45 minutes of this film made me so ridiculously happy that I couldn’t stop kicking the chair in front of me at the press presentation. My apologies in advance to anyone who will sit next to me at future screenings.

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