If Top Gun: Maverick succeeds at the box office in the weeks ahead - and all early signs would suggest it's destined to become a massive hit - it may well be because of the distance it puts between itself and its predecessor; it's a rare case of a late-in-the-day sequel being just tardy enough to have wiped the slate clean for itself. Arguably, there wasn't all that much to wipe away. An unusually indifferent Tony Scott movie, 1986's original Top Gun was both a triumph of Reagan-era packaging (buff young stars, access to actual military hardware, a bestselling soundtrack album) and, from a dramatic perspective, a hot load of nothing: a recruitment video with better abs, greater firepower and wider reach, the film has come to occupy a disproportionately prominent position in that odd video library that is the collective cultural memory. (This week, it became the oldest title to top the UK home entertainment charts, indicating that a whole new generation is presently finding out it ain't all that.)
Maverick's opening sequence insists upon some residual continuity with the past: a credit marking this as "a Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production" (despite Simpson dying in 1996), a title card (reprinted word-for-word from the original) explaining the genesis of a school for elite fighter pilots, familiar silhouettes of jet fighters taxiing for take-off, even a reprise of Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone". But what follows enjoys a loose, only noddingly friendly relationship with what's come before; it's too canny for fan fiction, and there's none of that damp-eyed pedantry that did for last year's Ghostbusters: Afterlife. We get a mostly all-new cast, for one; what homoeroticism there is now plays out in passing on a cellphone screen; and Miles Teller debuts a moustache as one of the kids being put through their paces by Tom Cruise's Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. Maverick proceeds from the assumption that all that's really required to revive a franchise is Tom Cruise and a need for speed - the same fuel blockbusters have been running on for the better part of two generations.
That the results prove dramatically satisfying - stirring, even, in a way no blockbuster really has been since the resumption of normal cinemagoing business - can be attributed to how much it also functions as a treatise on how much Cruise needs these particular, hands-on event movies, and by extension, how much we need them, watching on from Row F. Squeeze Cruise between the green screens of latter-day fantasy - as Universal did for 2017's non-starting The Mummy - and the result's a dingy disaster. Glue him on the side of an actual skyscraper or into the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat, however, and suddenly anything and everything seems possible again. The spectacle connects not just to those entertainments you and I were raised on, but an entire history of cinema: well over a century of the actors we see on screen performing a version of the stunts we goggle at for real. So the new film is about the cinema, and about Cruise, and about Cruise now, at 59, versus Cruise as he was then, at 23; the franchise has been rebooted into self-awareness, and self-reflexivity, which is another way of saying... human? Consider the prologue: eminent human Ed Harris, drafted in to play the kind of crusty, confoundable CO who became a caricature in the 80s and 90s, telling Maverick (and thus Cruise) that his kind is "set for extinction".
But Maverick's flashbacks are also our flashbacks: pumped-up muscle memories of the blockbusters of yore, vast logistical undertakings that involved no small measure of strain, yes, but also, on our livelier Friday evenings, some semblance of intelligence and wit. It makes sense that Maverick should see Cruise ascending to the rank of teacher, because in many ways this is a film on what the movies have to learn from Tom Cruise. (Even the mission Maverick and his rookies puzzle over here - dropping their payload in difficult terrain at the exact right moment to wipe out the competition - speaks to the challenge of positioning an event movie in an uncertain post-Covid marketplace.) "He's the fastest man alive!," gasps one of Maverick's underlings at an early juncture, and we're clearly being encouraged to share that awe. You might not countenance such idolatry, but there's no denying Cruise has the best business brain of his generation of actors, and arguably the surest feel for what an audience wants to experience through him. The movies have allowed this star to live out this fantasy - fastest man alive, biggest daredevil of the lot - for two decades now; and we've been allowed, in that time, to marvel at the spectacle of Cruise, a famously tiny man, living out his fantasy of becoming larger than life, too big to fail. Everybody wins.
It is, of course, preposterous. Maverick includes a sequence where, to establish his maverick credentials, Maverick literally tosses a thumping great Air Force rulebook in the bin, and it's extraordinary how many scenes in this script (credited to Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) circle back to alpha males tailing one another, on the ground as in the air. But you'd take these things being preposterous over pompous, pretentious or ponderous, and there are a heap of genuine surprises here besides. For starters, the kids are good-looking but likable, and they can act, too. (From 1983's Flashdance to 1998's Enemy of the State and beyond, Bruckheimer's mega-productions have often functioned as vast, pulsating clearing-houses for emergent talent and disparate personalities, like Law & Order reruns with bigger bangs.) Cruise grants them all their close-up (albeit typically of faces distorted by High-G), and even permits the film to jostle his own can-do persona with a scene that finds him ill-at-ease on the back of a fishing vessel ("I don't sail boats; I land on them"). It's a lovely moment, in a big movie that knows what a grace note looks and sounds like: the rigorous self-critique Cruise submitted to in 1999's Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut - the career path not pursued, owing to mass audience disinterest - suddenly re-emerging, softened by the oceans of time, in an entirely new context. I think Cruise has himself spent the past twenty years learning: he knows his strengths and limitations, which may be essential wisdom for any action hero approaching his sixties, and one reason his projects continue to get the insurance coverage they do.
There's an even bigger surprise here, too: that Joseph Kosinski, the effects whizz who made his directorial debut with the strikingly empty one-two of 2010's Tron: Legacy and 2013's Oblivion, should have developed a newfound appreciation and eye for life. He always had a facility of some sort with ambience, and Top Gun: Maverick keeps setting us down in places that are a pleasure to inhabit: you feel the warmth in the afterhours bar the flyers frequent, and can't fail to spot the beauty of the world above the clouds. (Nor the hard work required to maintain the altitude.) He aces the spectacle, but also pulls off a love scene - so parodically PG-13 it becomes enjoyable again - between Cruise and Jennifer Connelly as old friends whose chemistry is so easy they keep falling on top of one another. (It's telling that the generally sexless Cruise should be the one to remind the blockbuster what intimacy is.) Some of the reviews have all but positioned Maverick as a second coming, and it's not quite that: there's a mission beyond the mission that tacks on twenty minutes the film doesn't need. (Cruise may know his limits, but Bruckheimer - honouring the ghost of Simpson, perhaps - never has; as with Con Air's Vegas coda, you may be having too much fun to mind.) Yet it's a blockbuster where you feel the majority of the creative choices were made by those close to the camera rather than faceless suits on the 37th floor, and that alone would make it special in the modern movie marketplace. By committing to the kind of excellence that can apparently still be achieved at this level of filmmaking, and learning lessons from the many, many reboots that have crashed and burned over the past decade, Top Gun: Maverick sets a very high bar for itself - and everybody else this summer - before soaring over it at supersonic speed. Takes your breath away.
Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in cinemas nationwide.