By Noah Gittell
Tom Cruise is here to save us. In the legacy sequel “Top Gun: Maverick,” arriving in theaters this week, Cruise once again plays Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a cocky Navy pilot who hasn’t lost a trace of his talent or self-confidence since his debut in the cockpit 36 years ago. Neither has Cruise. With the theatrical box-office now returning to pre-pandemic levels (despite alarmingly high Covid numbers), Cruise has delivered a movie that demands to be seen in the theaters, where the aerial cinematography is exhilarating, the booms are supersonic, and the one-dimensional characters fly under the radar.
When we catch up with Maverick, he is doing what he does best: ticking off his superiors. After crash-landing a very expensive fighter pilot, he is reassigned to flight academy to train a new generation of pilots to carry out an urgent, dangerous mission. Some people would take this opportunity to settle down and embrace a new phase of life. Maverick takes to the skies with his students and teaches through humiliation, pushing them forward by showing them up with a dazzling array of stunts. His gruff superior, known as Cyclone (Jon Hamm), is perpetually unamused by his antics.
At its best, “Top Gun: Maverick” straddles the line between pure fan service and a new story with its own drama and thrills. For those who prefer the former, the opening titles are a warm embrace, mimicking the music, font, and quick shots of fighter jets landing and taking off from a massive airship from the original film. There’s an MTV-style shirtless football game on the beach that recalls a famous volleyball match. And there is a love scene between Maverick and Penny (Jennifer Connelly), his comically underwritten old flame) that is somehow even more chaste than the one between Cruise and Kelly McGillis. At my screening, the guy next to me literally pumped his fist at every callback, so if that sounds like you, “Top Gun: Maverick” is going to scratch every one of your itches.
For those who were lukewarm on the original, however, the new one might feel like an improvement. It has a clearer plot, with Maverick working to both train the new recruits and win over the affections of Rooster, (Miles Teller), son of the dearly departed Goose. Rooster resents Maverick for his father’s death and for pulling his application from the Academy years earlier. Teller doesn’t have much to do here besides look like a sullen teenager — and to be honest, his Goose-like mustache does a lot of the characterization for him — but Maverick isn’t the most well-drawn character either, so it hardly stands out. Their rivalry is just a chance for Maverick to prove his dominance over the young stud pilot and protect him at the same time.
When that moment comes, in the film’s dazzling climax, it’s worth the wait. The biggest drawback to the original film is how chaotic the aerial sequences are. Director Tony Scott made a trademark style out of quick cuts, but it made the flying sequences illegible. In “Maverick”, director Joseph Kominski is better at the choreography, and it helps that the pilots are in real planes doing real stunts all the time. Cruise surely is owed some credit here; the actor flies several of the planes himself, and, in synchronicity with the story of the film, it surely inspired the younger actors to tough it out and at least sit in the real cockpit (with a stunt pilot doing the flying). It makes the film work. As the world rushes by, you feel the speed of the planes and the stakes of the mission.
And as for Cruise? Well, he’s the same old Cruise, no better or worse at this sort of thing than he has ever been. The smile still works, and so do the shades. He’s an old school star who doesn’t have to really act. All we need him to do is be himself, and he’s better at it than ever. He’s a force of nature that gains power with age, mostly because he never changes. We envy his agelessness, and we’re grateful for his constancy. In a turbulent world, Cruise will pilot you through the friendly skies and bring you down for a soft landing.