Review: Tom Cruise flies the flag for analog movies in Top Gun: Maverick

Tom Cruise in scene from Top Gun: Maverick, which we review
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films

TOP GUN: MAVERICK (Joseph Kosinski). 137 minutes. Opens exclusively in IMAX theatres Tuesday (May 24); in theatres everywhere Friday (May 27). Rating: NNNN

Someone threatens Tom Cruise with extinction in Top Gun: Maverick. Well, okay, they don’t threaten Tom Cruise – who has defiantly resisted physical aging as he pushes 60 and could perhaps outlive eternity with whatever serum Scientology is feeding him – but his character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.

Early on in this sequel to the 1986 Navy propaganda movie, an admiral played by Ed Harris insists on replacing pilots with drone technology. He’s putting humans out to dry while computers take over missions, telling Cruise’s insubordinate daredevil pilot that his kind “is headed for extinction.”

He might as well be talking to Cruise though, the actor and producer who insists on recording breathtaking aerial action with actual humans sitting in F18 Super Hornet cockpits. Doing things for real is Cruise’s mission statement, and Top Gun: Maverick is the latest behemoth flying the flag for his (and our) analog cause. Here’s the rare big studio movie where actors and stuntpeople perform on location while using as little CGI as possible; a movie where Cruise puts his hand on an F18, relishing its very tactile quality in a way that is deeply felt. Given the state of movies today, it’s impossible for someone who holds old-school entertainment dearly to not rally behind that.

Top Gun: Maverick, which is directed by Joseph Kosinski, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The filmmakers are well aware that if it wasn’t going to be fighting for multiplex real estate against Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, it would be competing with some other green screen monstrosity peddling a screensaver aesthetic (and performances from actors who aren’t even in the same room when acting opposite each other). Against that landscape, Top Gun: Maverick soars.

Without that engagement, the legacy sequel could just come off as nothing more than fan service dripping with nostalgia. The opening scenes are nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the original, with the same old Kenny Loggins tune creeping into the soundtrack. Even the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer logo is dusted off to deliver the very first sentimental kick.

The plot sends Cruise’s Maverick back to Top Gun academy, where he has to prepare a mission with a new cohort who have the exact same dynamics as the old one. Happily revisiting the same beats (rivalries, romance and shirtless volleyball), Top Gun: Maverick curls up in a comfort zone with a knowing wink before it lets loose in the air. The tumbling aircrafts that push IMAX to new limits is where the sequel far outdoes its original.

There’s a knowing irony to how Kosinski – who made his debut with Tron: Legacy – uses cutting-edge technology for the sake of entertainment that is somehow categorized as anachronistic. It’s part of the movie’s whole vibe, pushing forward towards what’s been left behind.

That plays out in the aircrafts Maverick pilots. The movie begins with him trying to achieve Mach 10 speed in a futuristic aircraft that looks like a cross between a stealth bomber and space shuttle. And as things proceed, he’ll play in the modern F18s and a retired F14, which will earn cheers from fans who recognize it as the OG Top Gun ride.

The movie ends with Cruise piloting (for real) a P-51 propeller plane. That’s a WWII-era antique that belongs in a museum – you know, where other extinct things go.


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