The Last Action Hero

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ — and Tom Cruise — are the last of a dying breed

“Our greatest enemy is time.”

Thirty-six years ago, a 24-year-old Tom Cruise rose to stardom in “Top Gun” as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a cocky U.S. Navy fighter pilot with a big ego and even bigger chip on his shoulder. Audiences flocked to the theaters for a full year and turned the film into a phenomenon. America couldn’t get enough of the need, the need for speed toward the end of the Cold War; the film, co-produced with the blessing of the U.S. Navy, also served as a goldmine recruitment ad. 

And Cruise was the megawatt-smile face of it all, cementing his Hollywood movie star status after he slid into frame in just his socks, shirt and underwear in “Risky Business” three years prior.

Tom Cruise is now 59 and seemingly has a cinematic death wish. This man will die on a movie set. Every movie he’s made since “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” has seen the already intense actor up the ante on just how “real” he can be on camera. In that movie, he climbed nearly 1,700 feet off the ground on the Burj Khalifa. He HALO jumped more than 100 times for just one scene in “Mission: Impossible — Fallout.” He flew his own plane in “American Made.” And for “Top Gun: Maverick,” he designed his own flight school and made his co-stars attend it so that they could film themselves flying fighter jets in IMAX. 

Cruise is the only movie star alive who could pull something like that off. Indeed, he’s the only bonafide movie star we have left. 

Before my showing of “Top Gun: Maverick” last week, the theater showed a video of Cruise loudly thanking the audience for coming to “THE MOVIES,” an all-caps sentiment from an all-caps man. The man approaches being an actor the way Tom Brady approaches being a football player, with insane precision and devotion to his craft. And he truly believes in the power of the theatrical experience. After this Memorial Day weekend, where “Top Gun: Maverick” made a record-breaking and personal-best $124 million, Cruise proved he’s the last star that can drive massive ticket sales based on his name alone.

“The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.”

“Maybe so, sir. But not today.”

Maverick is a relic. The movie bearing his name is a relic. Cruise himself is a relic. At this point, Maverick is Cruise and Cruise is Maverick, which is something “Top Gun: Maverick” understands deeply. This is a movie about fighter pilots, yes, but it’s also about movie stardom, aging and the very concept of movies themselves. It’s the perfect legacy sequel, one that understands the cultural significance of the original “Top Gun” but is never overwhelmed by it, and confident enough to forge its own way.

The movies are similar in several ways, some of which I won’t spoil here. They even start the same way, with the exact same intro text (the new version makes sure to include “men and women” instead of just “men”) and the same scene of sunset plane maintenance set to Kenny Loggins’ immortal “Danger Zone.” 

But “Maverick” isn’t interested in redoing the original — negative, Ghostrider, that pattern is full. It’s more interested in having a conversation with the original, and keeping all the things that made “Top Gun” great while also updating them for 2022’s technology. This is as perfect a legacy sequel as we’ll ever get, so great an example of the form that anything that comes after is going to be parody, much like how “Walk Hard” ruined biopics.

To that end, it helps that this movie is directed by Joseph Kosinski, whose big-budget debut was directing “Tron: Legacy,” one of the first (and best) legacy sequels of the last few decades. Cruise also has experience with these as well; he filmed “The Color of Money,” a legacy sequel to “The Hustler,” right after the original “Top Gun.”

Here, as in the original, the U.S. is not currently openly at war with any countries. But this time, the “enemy” is never really mentioned nor located — no MiGs here, all the better to sell the movie overseas and not provoke an international incident while Russia continues to attack Ukraine. The true enemy in this movie is time.

That’s because these movies are not war movies as much as they are sports movies, where a ragtag team has to learn to put aside egos and trust each other before the big game (or mission). In “Top Gun: Maverick,” that mission has more stakes than the original. A nuclear weapons cache is about to become activated, and it’s up to a group of TOPGUN graduates to do the impossible: Fly a fleet of F-18s under the radar through a tight trench, drop a missile, climb vertically out of the trench and then make it out before the enemy sees them. And they have to do it all in less than 3 minutes. (This is basically the trench run from “Star Wars” on steroids, but that sequence was itself an homage to the WWII dogfighting films that George Lucas loved so much.)

Who will teach these hotshots before their mission? Why, Maverick, of course, but only after he literally throws the rulebook in the trash. He’s been called back to TOPGUN at the request of Iceman (Val Kilmer), who’s now an admiral. Mav has stayed a captain for the entirety of his decades-long career, intentionally thwarting his own chances for advancement so he can test out new planes and feel the need for speed at MACH-10 levels.

“The Navy needs Maverick. The kid needs Maverick. That’s why I fought for you. That’s why you’re still here.”

One person who doesn’t feel the need, the need for speed, is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). Sure, he can fly with the best of them, but after his dad Goose died on a training flight with Maverick in the original movie, he’s hesitant to do anything that would put his wingman in jeopardy. He’s haunted by Goose’s death and wears his dad’s clothes and wears his dad’s goofball persona like a second skin, barely masking the hurt he still clearly feels. Rooster resents Maverick, too — not just for inadvertently causing Goose’s death, but for intentionally stalling his career out of guilt, not wanting another one of his family members to get hurt. 

Cruise displays a level of vulnerability here that he rarely shows on screen. He lets other actors be taller than him, for one. He’s got some gray in his hair and in his scruff. He talks about time and mortality and seems to be acknowledging that he, like every other human on this planet, will die. His whole character arc is about learning to let go of his ego (again) and put his faith in Rooster and the rest of the new crew, and let go of his guilt. The hardest and most important lessons are the ones you have to learn twice.

Kilmer, in the one scene he’s in, also displays an amazing level of openness and vulnerability, seamlessly weaving in his own fight against throat cancer with Iceman’s legacy in a way that isn’t corny. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end of his scene.

The Maverick/Rooster relationship is explored as a surrogate father/son dynamic, but there should have been more of that, in my opinion. There could have been more of that and less of the love story plot, but that would mean the audience would lose out on seeing Jennifer Connelly light up the screen as Penny Benjamin, single-handedly turning a punchline from the original into a flesh-and-blood woman.

In other places, there is a beach football scene, and Ed Harris and Jon Hamm steal the scenes they’re in as this movie’s version of James Tolkan and Michael Ironside, respectively.

But the stunts. The flying! The setpieces! That final mission through the mountains at the nuclear facility is stand-up-and-cheer worthy. There’s one scene in particular that I have no clue how they filmed, and how they got a pilot to agree to do it. Obviously there’s CGI involved with some of the shots, but most of the flying is real, and it shows. I felt like I was up in the air during this movie. That third act especially is something I want injected into my eyeballs at an IMAX screening.

There is no denying the pull of this movie. I’ve been going back to movie theaters ever since they opened back up, and this was the fullest theater I’ve been in since 2019, and I was one of the youngest people in the theater. People dressed up in flight suits. Anecdotally, I’ve seen a lot of people on my social media feeds talking about how this was the movie that got them out of the house for the first time in years.

There might never be another movie like this for a while. Go see it at the loudest, largest screen possible — if only to witness the end of an era for Hollywood.

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