The glint in Tom Cruise’s eye and the sparkle in his smile are two of the most potent tools in Hollywood history.
Risky Business made him a star, but Top Gun made him an icon. The film offered little more than excellent aerial sequences and Cruise in full-on movie star mode, casting a worldwide spell. That was enough: Top Gun was 1986’s highest-grossing film and proved the pull of Cruise’s absorbing charisma. Top Gun’s box office success helped him become the world’s biggest movie star for three decades. The potent combination of that glint and sparkle powered him through box office smashes, Oscar nominations, and the occasional misfire. It assured Cruise’s place at the apex of Hollywood.
Top Gun: Maverick should be a brutal compromise. It signaled that Hollywood was moving beyond Cruise towards IP-driven projects with increasingly anonymous actors and that he accepted it. His only path to relevance in the new world order was to strap on the helmet and fly a fighter jet towards his metaphorical oblivion. In the end, Cruise had lost.
Hah, as if.
Thirty-six years after Top Gun, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is frozen in sun-drenched amber. He is still a captain when he should be a two-star admiral. He’s testing supersonic fighter jets in the Mojave desert for the US Navy, but not for him to fly. The government is looking to a pilotless future, and, as Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) bluntly puts it, Maverick is not in it. At Maverick’s former wingman Tom “Iceman” Kazansky’s (Val Kilmer) request, Maverick has to train twelve best-in-class graduates for a near-impossible mission to destroy a uranium factory. It’s a chance to reunite with Iceman and old flame Penny (Jennifer Connelly), but the assignment is the Navy’s final indignity towards him.
Who is Maverick’s new class? Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the adult son of Maverick’s deceased wingman and best friend Goose, casts a dark shadow over Maverick’s lesson plans. Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) is a dangerous and complicated blend of younger Iceman and Maverick. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro) is tough and astute, observing the dynamics that her classmates miss.
None of this matters because Maverick is a one-man show. The film doesn’t set up the new class because how does anyone follow Maverick, or Cruise for that matter? The newbies are asteroids floating around a supernova. They frame Maverick’s growth and his stasis. They remind him of his losses, why he lost, and what he’ll give up, so no one else has to lose as much. The Navy sees him as an aging playboy with the “need for speed,” but Maverick is so much more. He’s as risky as cautious, instinctual and thoughtful, and relaxed and fearful.
Maverick is a much richer character than he was in Top Gun. He was barely a character at all in that film. Anything memorable about him came from Cruise’s lithe, confident, and exciting portrayal. It’s why Maverick and Cruise are so tightly linked.
Thankfully, Maverick has an infinitely better script, with clear stakes and genuine emotional resonance. With it in hand, Cruise delivers a brilliant performance. His movie-star tricks now carry the weight of hardened regret. That glint and sparkle shine just as bright but with darker shades. You sense a man so in love with his work that he refuses anything less than the best. Failure to reach top speed nullifies his entire existence, and given what he’s lost, what would that mean? Cruise conveys that dogged, self-destructive energy in every astounding scene. His powerful presence makes every moment without him feel beside the point.
There are only two forces that come close to Cruise’s power. The first is Val Kilmer. His Iceman is now a four-star admiral, a leader of the Navy Fleet. He also has end-stage throat cancer. Maverick thoughtfully writes Kilmer’s health issues into the script. His pain is so debilitating that he must speak via text. Kilmer appears just once, but his scene is the film’s emotional core. Age, experience, and health have softened and warmed him, but he is still confident and self-assured. He conveys both urgency and peace in his amazing, devastating scene. Because of Kilmer’s generosity, Cruise effectively taps into Maverick’s trauma. The Academy should repay that generosity with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The second force is director Joseph Kosinski. He delivers some of the most incredible action direction I’ve ever witnessed on screen. Kosinski renders every aerial moment with a breathless intensity that feels startlingly real. He knows how long to hold a shot before cutting, so you can feel the air and heat stripping at the planes. There’s barely enough time for you to reorient when he does cut before he tussles you back into the action. He builds both spine-tingling tension and comic relief in this way, and it never fails. The first 15 minutes are the most thrilling this year, and there are still two hours left to go. The final act is an incredible blend of heart-pounding satisfaction and emotional catharsis that few action movies have achieved.
Top Gun: Maverick is an inconceivable triumph. The film is a powerful exaltation of one of the greatest stars that Hollywood has ever seen. It houses his best performance in at least a decade and gives Val Kilmer a beautiful moment to shine. It is also one of the best action films released this century, eclipsing the Mission: Impossible franchise to which Cruise has stubbornly attached himself. Maverick exceeds Top Gun in every metric, so much so that it should be detached from the original.
The era where Tom Cruise dominated Hollywood with a glint in his eye and a sparkle in his smile is over. Maverick makes the most compelling case for why it shouldn’t be, why Hollywood needs him, or someone like him, to survive.
In the end, Tom Cruise won.