Of all the nostalgic bait in the first five minutes of Top Gun: Maverick—Faltermeyer theme! Danger Zone! Tony Scott-like montage!—the one I didn’t expect to get misty-eyed about was the Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer credit. I would never argue that the films they made were any kind of high art or even exemplary rubbish. But in their garishness, their real-world settings and flesh-and-blood characters, even their failures felt more alive than the sanitized studio successes of today.
Director Joseph Kosinski approaches Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) with something like reverence. Wherever a hat tip is possible, it is done (this includes beach volleyball). Yet, he also pares it down to something hard, fast and efficient. There’s barely a wasted frame, but what’s even more striking is the simplicity of the task the film sets itself. An unnamed rogue state has a uranium enrichment facility. Top Gun fliers are the only ones who can take it out. Maverick is the only one who can train them.
Three-and-a-half decades since we last saw him, Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) can still fly. But he’s in a dead-end job in the Mojave desert, his penchant for rule-breaking having kept him from rising above captain. A recommendation from his old rival, Iceman, now an admiral, gets him the instructor job for the bombing mission (there's a touching Val Kilmer cameo). Pete accepts it reluctantly—he’s not a teacher, but more importantly, Cruise is an action hero, and action heroes take jobs reluctantly. Another reason for his reluctance is Rooster (Miles Teller), his late friend Goose’s son, is one of the pilots, who resents Maverick for pulling his application and thereby delaying his career as a navy pilot (and probably for being in the same plane when his father died).
Top Gun, though a bona fide Reagan-era film, was vague about the enemy jets Maverick and Iceman fight; they're likely Soviet or North Korean. Today's Hollywood is way more cautious, with its eye on all foreign markets, and the ‘rogue state’ in Maverick isn’t given any identifying markers. By sheer coincidence, Kosinski’s film has this in common with the week’s big Hindi release, Anek, which unfolds in an unnamed northeastern state. But while Anek’s vagueness harms the film, it hardly makes a difference in Maverick, which is as detached from the real world as Cruise’s Mission: Impossible films (Christopher McQuarrie, director of the last two M:I films, as well as two forthcoming ones, is one of the writers here).
As Maverick puts Rooster and the other pilots through impossibly difficult training exercises, it becomes clear that the old man is still the best pilot around. That holds for Cruise the actor as well, who looks alarmingly good for his 59 years and is a more committed action star than anyone else in Hollywood. He’s started to do ‘one last job’ films, an understandable decision given the physical punishment he takes. Cruise has always been a huge star, but this has changed to reverence in the last few years. He realizes people see him as perhaps the last big screen American movie hero, and he's accepted the responsibility.
Maverick builds confidently and methodically to the final mission, which unfolds in 30-odd minutes of taut, lean-forward-in-your-seat filmmaking. Teller is no match for Cruise; he’s not even a match for Glen Powell, who plays charming braggart pilot Hangman. I think the film recognizes the emotional hook isn’t Maverick and Rooster’s history. It’s Cruise doing even better now what he did 36 years ago. And it’s the few years we have left while he can still do it.