No need to be too high-brow about this one. Directed by the visual savant Joseph Kosinski and starring the everliving Tom Cruise, Top Gun: Maverick flat-out rules, and I unironically enjoyed it from start to finish. After receiving glowing praise for critics and a five-minute standing ovation after its screening at the Cannes Film Festival, it has since become a blockbuster phenomenon. Maverick became the most successful movie ever released over Memorial Day weekend (which is an oddly specific flex, but ok); moreover, it marked Cruise's 20th film to hit number one at the box office on its opening weekend and is already the highest-grossing film domestically of his career. It's not inconceivable that this film surpasses $1 billion in the coming weeks. Expectations were sky high by the time I saw it, but is there a more desperately committed on-screen entertainer to exceed expecations and convincingly deliver the goods than Tom Cruise? In 2022, the answer is probably no.
You want to know how effective Top Gun: Maverick was for me?? Let's just say that by the time the end credits were rolling, I was in serious need of a dozen Tums and a tepid shower to recover from what just happened. After inhaling two thirds of a bag of popcorn, drinking little to no water, and fist-pumping both inwardly and outwardly for two and half hours, I was in need of an antacid, but the pure, unfiltered cinematic thrills and frills were worth the heartburn. Needless to say, Tony Scott would be damn proud of this one. What Cruise & Kosinski pull off in Top Gun: Maverick is arguably the greatest accomplishment in blockbuster entertainment since Avengers: Endgame -- and that isn't a grandiose bit of recency bias. Rather than just bask in the effervescent aesthetic cannonized by Scott back in '86, Kosinski and Cruise abstain from replication and opt to build on the very best tentpoles of the Top Gun lexicon. Juggling immitation and innovation is not easily done -- but the end result here is a wholly original experience made all the more satisfying thanks to the story's rich history. Bang the gong, queue the synths, and let's buzz the tower.
Carefully conceived and deliberately executed, Top Gun: Maverick gets your adrenaline pumping and nostalgia flowing right from the jump. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, the audience is reintroduced to Cruise's Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (played by Tom Cruise), a U.S. Navy pilot who has intentionally dodged promotion within the Navy ranks for the last 30 years. Instead of moving up the chain of command, he's continued flying; he's still refining his skills and pushing his limits to be the fastest man alive -- he has an unsatiated need for speed, remember? And while he is still very much at the top of his game, he's of a dying breed and not getting any younger -- no country for old men, as they say. Miltary defense is evolving, and drone technolgy doesn't rely on sending hot shot pilots into the air anymore. So when Rear Admiral Chester "Hammer" Cain (played by Ed Harris) shows up trying to prevent Mitchell from taking off on what will be his last test run (Darkstar let's gooo), it's clear that time is running out for Maverick. High command at the Navy has run out of patience with Mitchell and Cain wants to keep him permanently grounded. Too bad Mav's old rival-turned-friend-turned-admiral Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (played by Val Kilmer) is the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet! Time for reassignment.
An urgent bombing mission that involves an unsanctioned and highly secure and protected uranium enrichment plant (in a completely anonymous foreign country) has forced Kazansky to seek out Mitchell to strategize and train a new crop of talented pilots at TOPGUN to carry out the plan. Of the elite aviators assembled, one of them is Lieutenant Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw (played by Miles Teller), the son of the late LTJG Nick "Goose" Bradshaw who was also Maverick's Radar Intercepter Officer and best friend. Enter in the backlog of melodramatic backage. Understandably, Rooster's late mother did not want her son flying and putting his life at risk; when the time came, Maverick followed through on a promise to protect Rooster and blocked his application to the Naval Academy, which of course soured things between them. Thirty years later and Maverick is still washing the blood off his hands for Goose's death. But now he faces a new conundrum: does he keep Rooster on the sidelines again and lose him foreover? Or does he put him in the air for a mission that may very well require the ultimate sacrifice?
This film doesn't exactly try to reinvent or upend Three-Act Structure -- in fact, it shamelessly embraces it. While I can't recall if any character explicitly refers to the story's central plan of attack as an "impossible mission," they might as well have. The setup, confrontation, and resolution play out as you might expect, and it feels like there is no need to avoid any tropes along the way. There is an abundance of metatextual winking and nodding in the first half of the movie, and it's what you might come to expect from a Tom Cruise legacy reboot at this point in his career. The script and screenwriting (which is aided by the 'Cruise Whisperer,' Christopher McQuarrie) prove that this isn't just a fruitless exercise in fast moving images and loud roaring noises -- at it's heart, this story is a character study with affecting emotional stakes, too. The pacing and payoffs aren't so much predictable as they are reliable -- if the formula works, start from there and build on that, right?
Now don't get me wrong, the sensory experience and spectacle of seeing this in the theater is still undoubtedly the top billing -- yo, the stunt work is sick and the practical effects are jaw-dropping. The scene where Maverick is grounded but goes full alpha hops in a Navy jet anyways just to prove in a simulation that his designed course of attack is actually achievable is one hell of a breathtaking sequence. Seeing and hearing him grunt and groan with each dip and turn in the cockpit felt incredibly authentic, not to mention undeniably badass. It begs a question worth reiterating: how the hell did they pull this off?? Fortunately, that is pretty easy to answer -- they put a half dozen cameras in their planes, physically put the actors inside the cockpits, and did basically everything in the air while avoiding CGI whenever possible (from what I've read). Their hardwork shows -- this is an amazing visual accomplishment. The "wow factor" around each aerial action set piece is designed to force the audience to suspend their belief time and time again, and dammit do they sell the shit out of this. Every sequence feels tactile and every reaction I had was equally visceral. The tempo and cross-cutting between insert shots is a top-shelf editing, and I wouldn't be surprised if Maverick gets some love in the craft categories come awards season -- this could be a technical darling like Dune was this past year.
How about that supporting cast?! Ed Harris as Rear Admiral Chester "Hammer" Cain, who is super memorable but only shows up for maybe 6 minutes; Jon Hamm as Vice Admiral Beau "Cyclone" Simpson, another role where Hamm is a stiff, bureaucratic man of authority in khakis trying to enforce the rules; Charles Parnell as Rear Admiral Solomon "Warlock" Bates, a friend of Maverick's who provides one functions as one of the audience's avators and provides an excellent an array of reactions ranging from wryly deadpan to cautiously concerned to blissfully relieved; Lewis Pullman as Lt. Robert "Bob" Floyd, Monica Barbaro as Lt. Natasha "Phoenix" Trace, Jay Ellis as Lt. Reuben "Payback" Fitch, Danny Ramirez as Lt. Mickey "Fanboy" Garcia, and the rest of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aviators were all fresh, new faces that fit right into the Top Gun world; Glen Powell as Lt. Jake "Hangman" Seresin, the character who crushed every scene he was in and almost ran away with the movie (can't wait to see what he does next); the lovely Jennifer Connelly (an ageless wonder like Cruise) as Penelope "Penny" Benjamin, who brought an incredible balance to the movie and amazingly enough had some actual chemistry with the cyborg that is Tom Cruise; Miles Teller as Lt. Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw, who had to carry the emotional weight of the movie for most of the runtime (and does so effortlessly); and of course, the great Val Kilmer as Admiral Tom "Iceman" Kazansky -- the scene between Kilmer and Cruise was worth the price of admission.
There's too much to talk about and too little time to cover it all, so I wanted to lay out a 4-pack of other observations and reactions I had about the film:
I have so so much more I could say, but I'd run the risk of just rambling about sound mixing -- all the below the line craft is just exceptional -- and oogling about the figher jets. Simply stated, this is a true feel-good, fist-pumping, high-five-worthy time. Go see it in a theater where its blindingly bright and thunderously loud -- it's worth it. To this day, Tom Cruise 'putting himself in mortal danger purely for the sake of an audience's entertainment' is a timeless pursuit that still sells a shit load of tickets. He's still a huge fucking weirdo, there's no denying or reconciling that. But our reigning "Battle of the Toms" winner just added another gem to his sterling catalogue. In case we needed more proof, it's clear that Cruise is still a bankable movie star capable of delivering some silver screen magic. Like Maverick, he's a relic of a past time -- despite being phased out of the spotlight by comic book multiverses and a myriad streaming services, he's still willing to go the extra mile to get your ass to the theater. And even though he doesn't wear a cape and prefers to sport a leather bomber jacket with blue jeans and pair of aviator sunglasses, Cruise might be our last real life superhero at the movies -- I wouldn't put it past him to outlive the MCU.
Early retirement?! Over Maverick's (and Cruise's) dead body. Here's something new from a familiar friend -- Early Retirement from Chicago's Hopewell Brewing Company. Brewed with sudachi (green citrus from Japan I had never heard of until I looked it up), this beer, like Top Gun: Maverick, is a vibrant, summery delight that I'd also recommend. Tart yuzu-lime? Crushed peppercorn?? Fresh pine??? They jam-packed more flavor into this can than there was body oil for the dogfight football scene on the beach! Save the Budweisers for the Hard Deck and cheers to an Early Retirement.
Early Retirement Lager - Helles | 4.8% Hopewell Brewing Company @hopewellbrewing