Top Gun: Maverick ★★★
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Availability: In theaters in North America and internationally; for future streaming, see JustWatch here.
Coming of (Old) Age
Maverick—Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell—is just the guy you want in the cockpit of your Boeing 737 MAX on its daily Delta run from JFK to Miami: knowledgeable, highly talented, confident, decades of experience, once a “Top Gun” (the Navy’s school for perfecting the skills of the “best of the best” of its pilots).
When right-side up isn't good enough. Tom Cruise as 'Maverick' flying his F-18 with fellow pilots alongside.
But that’s not what Maverick is doing. Rather than “retire” to the comforts of a commercial airline, at 57 (Tom Cruise, who plays Maverick, is now 59) he’s still a crack test pilot and proves he’s still the Navy’s (and maybe the world’s) best pilot, demonstrating his superiority by defeating in air-borne dog fights every one of a group of “Top Guns,” all at least 30 years younger, assembled to compete for the right to fly a “mission impossible.”
Sorry, but that doesn’t work. Age will have its way. Imagine Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 57, or a late-50s Michael Jordan returning to the Bulls for one more season—and leading the team to an NBA championship.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is a late-middle-age white male fantasy.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is a late-middle-age white male fantasy, and not only because a soon-to-be eligible-for-Social-Security Maverick remains at the top of his game. The young pilots (including one woman; the people of color and women are window dressing) have their moments: carousing, wise-cracking (they call Maverick “Pops”), bragging, and singing around a piano (ala World War II films) in an inviting local bar; all those beautiful, oiled-up, 6-pack bodies in a joyous game of beach football, a scene that brings to mind ABC’s frothy “Bachelor in Paradise.” As pilots, though, these kids are all deficient, and only ‘Rooster’ (Miles Teller) has a meaningful story and role, one that derives from the first “Top Gun” plot 36 years ago.
Maverick is still at the top of his game with the women, too, picking up where he left off years before with the foxy, flirtatious owner of the bar (Jennifer Connelly). There’s even a hint that Maverick, in his middle age, may be willing to settle down. Older viewers may (or may not) appreciate that there’s only one sex scene, and not much sex in it.
Left, Maverick (Cruise) with a lovely Jennifer Connelly, who as Penny provides what little love interest there is in the film. (Note, no helmets).
If you can accept the fantasy for what it is, there’s a lot to enjoy.
If you can accept the fantasy for what it is, there’s a lot to enjoy. Cruise brings his patented little-boy smile, a credible physicality, a touch of humility, and a thoughtfulness not seen in many of his films. The mission/combat scenes are sensational and, at Cruise’s insistence, mostly accomplished using real planes (with the cooperation of the Department of Defense), without green screen and CGI aerial shots. Maverick’s decision—in a riveting Act One of the film—to take his experimental plane to an unheard of, hypersonic Mach 10, sets the stage for the stress and tension to come, while serving as a warning that extreme conditions and maneuvers can be too much for some pilots to handle. Maverick also rides a mean motorcycle (no helmet!), at speeds which we are led to believe approximate a jet taking off.
The mission is thoroughly described and analyzed, first by Maverick in an over-the-top demonstration of his brilliance; later, and on the cusp of departure, in one of those World War II-like briefings, as if we didn’t get it the second, or the third, time. At least one knows how it’s all supposed to go down.
Fans of “Star Wars” (“May the force be with you!”) will recognize the script’s emphasis on action and instinct over thought and deliberation.
“Top Gun: Maverick” has some ideas, too, though they are often derivative. Fans of “Star Wars” (“May the force be with you!”) will recognize the script’s emphasis on action and instinct over thought and deliberation. As he tells his young recruits, ”You think up there, you're dead.” The ancient F-14 in which Maverick and Rooster contemplate their escape from enemy territory (an unnamed adversary, though Iran checks all the boxes) recalls Han Solo’s efforts to hold his ship together with chewing gum and bailing wire (not to mention the simplicity of some of Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing calculations), while dipping into nostalgia for a time when technology was manageable.
It helps that Maverick is old enough to remember how to fly a 40-year-old plane, a skill that belies the concept, articulated by Rear Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain (Ed Harris) in an early scene, that pilots like Maverick—indeed, all pilots—are on the verge of being made obsolete by unmanned aircraft: “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.” ‘Hammer’ Cain may well be right, but this film looks back, not forward. “Maybe so, sir,” Maverick responds, “but not today.”
The theme of the value of life plays a minor role, as Maverick, being a maverick, bucks his superiors to stand up for mission parameters designed to protect the pilots, while the by-the-book Admiral Beau 'Cyclone' Simpson (a competent Jon Hamm) is willing to sacrifice them. Besides Cruise, Val Kilmer is the only actor brought back from the original film. Kilmer’s cameo role as Admiral Tom 'Iceman' Kazansky—it’s telling that he has risen to Admiral while Maverick remains a Captain—incorporates Kilmer’s post-op, throat cancer status, a touching bit of reality.
The only subplot of substance is Maverick’s relationship with the young pilot Rooster (Miles Heller, right).
The script also takes a stab at the teamwork vs. individual paradigm, with
beach football and group singing on the teamwork side, and Maverick’s willful, creative, anti-authoritarianism (and ‘Hangman’s’ [Glen Powell] cocky arrogance) on the other. This topic plays into the only subplot of substance: Maverick’s relationship with the young pilot Rooster, who may be the film’s most interesting character, the lone person with a capacity to change. Maverick must decide whether to put Rooster on the “team”—whether he can be a team player, despite their complex, divisive history and the baggage Rooster brings to the Top Gun camp. There’s a father/son issue here too, perhaps a throwback to the Han Solo/Luke Skywalker relationship in “Star Wars.”
Above, one of the film's "stabs" at teamwork, the young pilots singing in the bar. Left to right, Lewis Pullman ('Bob'), Jay Ellis ('Payback'), Douglas Rouillard ('Stumbler'), Monica Barbaro ('Phoenix') and, on piano, Miles Heller ('Rooster').
Except for the Maverick/Rooster conundrum, the film’s “ideas” are of the on-the-surface variety that any script would generate. This is an action film, directed by Joseph Kosinski (who made his mark with Disney Studio’s “Tron: Legacy”), dominated by men, by machines, by nostalgia for an era in which the United States was confident that its military could change the course of history. And by Tom Cruise, in an altogether satisfying performance. On that level, it’s superb.
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Val Kilmer, Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell
Runtime: 131 minutes
Country: United States
Other Awards: None to date