By accident or design, a significant part of Tom Cruise’s early career was dominated by roles in which he was fighting to achieve self-actualization or independence from the reputation of his father or a father figure. Though these characters frequently went unseen, except as a narrative and emotional catalyst, his mentors, from Days Of Thunder to Cocktail to The Firm, always cast a long shadow, one that was difficult to escape, much less live up to. Top Gun: Maverick gives Cruise the biggest full-circle moment of his career, and not just because it tells the ultimate story of a student becoming the teacher: as the film’s lead and its producer, he shepherds a new generation of actors through their early steps towards stardom while burnishing his own legacy in the process.
It’s a remarkable effort in an extraordinary film that evokes the iconography of its 1986 predecessor. But Top Gun: Maverick exceeds the original technically, while circumventing naked jingoism in an era when depictions of the military can (or maybe should) no longer be unambiguously celebratory. Joe Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) matches his well-established architectural precision with suitably nostalgic but never pandering emotionality, while Cruise commands the screen in a performance that leverages his multimillion-dollar star wattage to brighten the entire film.
Cruise reprises his role as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the hot dog Top Gun graduate who burned out as a teacher two months after the end of the first film and spent the next three and a half decades repeatedly sabotaging his career with one act of rule-breaking aerial rebellion after another. When his gig as a test pilot ends with record speed and a crashed plane, Maverick receives orders to return to Top Gun and train a group of overconfident aviators for a mission to destroy a heavily defended weapons factory.
Maverick agrees, in lieu of a dishonorable discharge, but soon discovers that Rooster (Miles Teller), the disgruntled son of his former co-pilot Goose, is among the trainees. Unsure how best to prepare the reticent young pilot for a mission that requires absolute self-assurance, Maverick attempts to mend fences with Rooster while watching him compete with classmates like Hangman (Glen Powell), who shows none of Rooster’s hesitation—nor his compassion, a different kind of weakness. As the deadline for the mission nears, Maverick trains Rooster, Hangman, and the other pilots with increasing urgency, hoping they will rise to his unconventional challenges, while taking a hard look at his own accomplishments as reflected through his students’ failures and successes.
If the original Top Gun enjoyed then-unprecedented access to Naval aviators and their equipment, the reported 500 percent spike in recruitment numbers following its 1986 opening unquestionably emboldened both the military and the filmmakers for Maverick. Instead of putting the actors in a studio cockpit and matching the shots with real aerial footage, Kosinski and returning producer Jerry Bruckheimer actually sent their cast up in the sky and captured their reactions with IMAX-quality cameras. After Cruise’s increasing acts of derring-do in the Mission: Impossible franchise, that choice comes as no surprise—for his sequences, at least. But the consistency and versatility of the coverage that Kosinski gets creates an astonishing verisimilitude that almost no action film has recently matched.
As conceived by Kosinski and a handful of military consultants and written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Cruise’s M:I collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, the mission for which the trainees prepare exudes heavy “a two-meter port on the Death Star” vibes. But in an era of increasingly gamified storytelling (Uncharted, for example, felt more like an advertisement for its source material than an adaptation), Kosinski mostly manages to evade the sensation that audiences are playing the movie instead of watching it. That engaged, humanistic edge is amplified by emotional threads that McQuarrie and his counterparts build into sequences, allowing the characters to lead instead of the spectacle. Rest assured, though, that you’ll be gobsmacked by the aerial footage, which probably exceeds what was captured by Tony Scott and cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball in the original film. Still, it’s the people in those planes that keeps viewers invested.
Cruise, of course, leaps back into Maverick with the same fearlessness and resolute commitment he has brought to seemingly every other challenge in his recent career. But the more that he collaborates with McQuarrie—and now Kosinski, who directed him in Oblivion—the more comfortable he seems acknowledging his age, even if he’s still determined to defy it with his actions. Cruise has become increasingly generous towards his co-stars in recent years; as mesmerizing as Emily Blunt was in Edge of Tomorrow and Rebecca Ferguson has continued to be in the M:I films, a big part of their respective successes involved Cruise clearing a path for them despite his marquee status. Across this film’s unilaterally attractive and charismatic ensemble, he does the same again, making choices both in the story and as a scene partner that frequently showcases or defers to them.
Notwithstanding Jon Hamm as the ranking hard-ass who begrudgingly comes to respect Maverick’s iconoclastic pedigree, it’s Jennifer Connelly who makes the biggest meal out of her supporting role. As an admiral’s daughter and local bar owner, Connelly semi-reluctantly rekindles a relationship with the guy she once “went ballistic” with, per dialogue from the first film. She’s a witness to his emerging leadership and growth, but she’s also a stable, self-sufficient business owner and single mom in a military community where a constant circuit of new recruits creates an atmosphere of impermanence. Her scenes with Cruise feel at once like two masters enjoying both the fun of sparring with dialogue, and a second chance (or maybe a third) at romance between folks who thought they had aged out of meet-cute moments.
Meanwhile, you might not think of the young star of Whiplash as the spitting image of Anthony Edwards, but from the moment a mustachioed, Hawaiian shirt-wearing Teller sits down at the piano to play “Great Balls Of Fire” for a bar full of service men and women, it immediately becomes clear how solid a choice he was for the role. The character’s resentment toward Maverick is more complicated than simply blaming him for Goose’s death, which makes their dynamic one you desperately want to see resolved. But even as an individual navigating the balance between individual achievement and the Navy’s esprit de corps, Teller injects his role with layers of introspection and complexity that makes his professional, personal, and generational coming of age feel earned.
Powell shines among the rest of the new recruits as Rooster’s nemesis, a next-generation version of Val Kilmer’s Iceman, even as Kilmer shows up for a brief and tender cameo highlighting both the wisdom that comes with getting older, and the heartbreaking vulnerability. But while Kosinski steadily builds to what feels like an hourlong, sustained climax that synthesizes expert piloting, virtuoso camerawork, and methodical storytelling, Cruise wields his singular Hollywood stature as effortlessly as his character does the joystick of an F/A-18 Super Hornet, reminding audiences why they’ve loved him for more than four decades.
In fact, until he reminds you of it, it’s easy to forget that Pete Mitchell actually graduated second in his Top Gun class back in 1986. Top Gun: Maverick finally and fully immortalizes him as the best among equals, but not just because there’s seemingly nothing he can’t do in an airplane. Rather, the real lesson he imparts is that the best talent to cultivate—in the military or anywhere else—is becoming a good wingman, and even more than his character, Tom Cruise does that better than just about anyone.