Cruise’s best work in the last decade of his career can be found in the death-defying stunt work of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and Top Gun: Maverick is at its best when it’s learning the economical lessons of those films. Establish goals, define stakes, show the whole process. Blockbusters in the universe-building age have become so convoluted that a film automatically distinguishes itself by being clear and succinct. Conversely, the M:I films are made stunts-first, where franchise auteur Christopher McQuarrie and Cruise sit down and decide what kind of physical insanity the film should have and then write the script around these set pieces. McQuarrie is a credited writer on Top Gun: Maverick, and the appreciably stripped-down nature of the plot must have been his contribution. Less plot detail also allows for stunning aerial combat, seamlessly integrated into the visual effects of the film. There are repeated moments of fighter jets going perpendicular over another jet, and each one is treated as a breathtaking pause in the action. Per Cruise’s film-opening thank you note to viewers, the cast experienced real flying and real G’s during filming, and the viewer gets to see it all onscreen.
By spending less time on McGuffins and false complexity, more time can be spent building out the cast. Kosinski’s previous film, the underrated Only the Brave, perfected male camaraderie for a 21st century audience, such that it was competitive but not cruel, loving but not sappy. Top Gun: Maverick isn’t quite up to that standard, as its more about Maverick as opposed to the ensemble, but several of the candidate pilots stand out as distinct individuals, including Glen Powell’s Hangman, Monica Barbaro’s Phoenix, Jay Ellis’ Payback, and Lewis Pullman’s Bob. Thankfully, Barbaro’s character isn’t saddled with girlboss rhetoric, but is instead simply the lone female member of the team and an accepted one at that. Connelly has aged exactly as well as Cruise, and they miraculously have decent romantic chemistry. Jon Hamm’s mission director Cyclone plays well against Maverick as someone baffled by his longevity and miffed at being undercut, a cute meta comment on both of the actors’ careers. Even Val Kilmer shows back up as Iceman, now Maverick’s high-ranking guardian admiral. The character, like Kilmer, is battling throat cancer, and their scenes together give all the dads in the audience a chance to hide their tears.
Top Gun: Maverick belongs to its titular character and the actor who’s willed the film into existence. Cruise doesn’t stretch his actor muscles in the M:I franchise, as good as those films are, and here, he gets to combine his old gifts for emotional intensity alongside his present-day physical intensity. Cruise being able to function as a credible romantic lead is already a huge win for an actor who’s otherwise been sexless since the early 2000’s. The film also allows him to fulfill his aw-shucks competence, plus the chance to be paternal with Teller and vulnerable with Kilmer. One can imagine the script being written in the same way as an M:I entry, only with emotional arcs for Cruise instead of stunts.
The other party with its hands in the script is the military industrial complex. Hollywood and the Pentagon have had an intertwined relationship dating back to the 80’s and the original Top Gun, where exiting audiences were met with Navy recruiters. That relationship is as strong as it’s ever been with Top Gun: Maverick. At least the original contrived an accidental emergency when it came to putting its fighter jocks against another country. Here, an unquestionable act of war is being planned without a second thought given to the ramifications. The film’s jaunty tone doesn’t match in any way to what is being prepared. Aside from the preemptive strike angle, Top Gun: Maverick proceeds to imagine a world where the US is outmatched in fighter jet capabilities, at least as far as nuclear aspirant countries are concerned. Congress just approved a record defense spending bill, bigger than the next several countries combined. Putting this message into the world makes it easier for credulous citizens to not bat an eye at these insane numbers, as if it’s good and right to keep pushing annual defense spending towards a trillion dollars because we don’t have enough fifth generation fighters. The movie is a perfect marriage of action filmmaking and propaganda, with no thought given to lives or resources at the expense of whatever looks and feels powerful. One can imagine Northrop Grumman executives getting a private screening and popping champagne as credits roll.
Top Gun: Maverick is fatally flawed in this regard, but its status as a thrilling cinematic experience is undeniable. It feels completely real, from the emotions to the flying, and for all of Cruise’s presumptuousness about saving the film industry at one of its lowest moments, he and Kosinski got exactly the results they wanted from the box office and are set to start bringing in the awards. Revel in what they’ve wrought. Just don’t think about Seoul being turned into a giant smoking hole in the ground thanks to Maverick’s derring-do. B