Top Gun: Maverick

The end of the movie star is inevitable, headed for extinction. Maybe so, but not Tom Cruise.

I have heard it a thousand times, the age of stars is over, and then Tom Cruise releases another film and everyone has to put an asterisk next to their statement. He may be the one star that still can open a movie, at least in the right vehicle. “American Made”, “The Mummy” and “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” did not light up the box office numbers, but the Mission Impossible films still open the cash registers, and this sequel, coming in 36 years after the original and two years after it was supposed to be released, sure did the trick. This is clearly a Tom Cruise movie and he is clearly the reason that it opened so well.

This movie has received near universal praise as an entertainment, with an audiences score on Rotten Tomatoes of 99% and a critic score of 96%, it won’t be too hard to figure which direction this commentary will go. I have no intention of bucking the trend. The Lambcast this last weekend had the one poor review of the film that I have encountered, and had I been on the show, I would have disputed some of the criticisms leveled at the film, but even from someone who was not a fan, they acknowledged that it was a handsomely mounted film that probably will entertain the masses. Count me in as one of the masses. I did not think there needed to be a sequel to the film, and when I first heard that it was in production, I thought Cruise might be getting a little desperate. Nope, this is the sequel that we needed and Cruise has his confident fingerprints all over the film.

It was a little unnerving at first because the opening moments of the movie are lifted out of the original film. The shots of the planes on board the aircraft carrier, the tech crew who participate in the launch and recovery of the planes, even the establishing shots of the carrier, are note for note. I think the sequence is updated and new but I could be wrong. The same narrative scroll appears at the beginning of both films, so maybe it is the same footage. The motorcycle footage is new, because it is the current version of Tom Cruise on the bike, although he still looks relatively the same. It does not take too long however to get to something I know is fresh. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is now a test pilot for the military, checking out a new supersonic plane that is about to get canceled. The main reason we get this sequence is to remind us that Maverick skirts the rules, presses the limits and still manages to land on his feet.

From the trailer of the film, it seemed like the focus would be on the tension between Maverick and the son of his dead RIO Goose. Miles Teller plays Rooster, but it is not really the death of his father that is the source of the division between the two leads. An artificial conflict has been managed for that. Speaking of conflicts, it was not clear to me why the mission in this film had to be carried out in the way it is designed, but it was extremely clear what the goal was and how it was supposed to get done. The problem that brings Maverick back to Top Gun is a logistics course, that he has to get the best pilots in the world to master. If there is one thing that feels right in the film, it is the prep and training that the pilots have to go through. The simulated conditions feel very real even when there is not a matching physical environment. All of the pilots should be able to comprehend the strategy if they have seen Star Wars because the obstacle in front of them is the same one that the X-Wing fighters were working against. When you add on top of this, the fact that the aerial shots are largely done in camera on actual planes with real g-forces, the technical excellence of what is being done is even more impressive.

The actors work fine in their roles. Tom carries the charisma for the film, Jennifer Connelly adds an age appropriate love interest and when she smiles, the scenes warm up immensely. Teller is a doppelganger for the previously dead Goose, but he is not front and center until the last act of the film. When we get there, his interaction with Cruise is much stronger. Most of the other pilots have only minimal character, although they did seem more distinct to me than most of the secondary characters in the original film. Although his screen time is limited, Val Kilmer gets a chance to act again and he is used in a manner that is completely in keeping with the character he played in the original. The connection between Kilmer’s Iceman and Cruise’s Maverick turns out to be the most enriching story arc in the movie, both because of the two characters but also because of the two actors. Maybe it is fan service but it is the kind of fan service that fans deserve and the actors earn.

Now the plot line is the main issue that might risk criticism from the naysayers. I heard it described as an act of war and something that NATO would not approve of. A preemptive strike on a rogue nations nuclear program is not unprecedented. Israel took out Iraq’s early program and the U.S., Israel and others continue attacks on the programs that the Iranians are engaged in, although those have largely been clandestine rather than overtly military attacks. The U.S. has made extensive use of drone attacks on military targets, including personnel. The U.S. government has made open military attacks on Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and others in the context of terrorism, that has long been standard U.S. practice. The movie does not give us context on the mission, it only outlines the military strategy, not the diplomatic world in which the attack took place. It is quite possible that the U.S. led action in this film was authorized by a U.N. mandate, it just never comes up as part of the story.

The truth is, that political element is superfluous to the story we are watching. This is about how a military unit prepares for a mission and carries it out. The characters are relevant to the emotional core of the story, and the ones that matter, Maverick, Iceman, Rooster and Penny, were given enough story arc to justify our caring about what happens to them. The music pumps us, the tension moments work, and the cathartic explosions, flying stunts and character ticks give us the go ahead to have a good time. So head on out to the danger zone and enjoy the need for speed.