‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is a giant middle finger to bosses everywhere

At its most basic, Maverick’s journey is one of a rebellious loner telling the jerks in the office to mind their own business.

Tom Cruise in 'Top Gun: Maverick' and a white-black wavy striped background
The Need for Speed
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What if every moment was a sunset in San Diego? What if you entered every room to a guitar solo? What if your abs were immaculate? What if you still had all your hair? What if your dad was proud of you after all? What if your movie had three different climaxes? What if your Kawasaki had a full tank of gas and you were always a little tan? What if you were playing something on the piano and the whole bar knew the chorus? What if you flew so fast you were briefly beyond the grip of the universe?

The original Top Gun, released in 1986, was a mood board of Reagan-era excess for aspiring hunks and delinquent hotshots. Directed by Tony Scott, it is part music video, part denim brand commercial. It is a jackpot of screeching montages, Kenny Loggins and The Righteous Brothers in equal measure, both a lust for danger and the comfort of nostalgia and never having to pick up the tab for anything at all.

Tom Cruise’s Maverick doesn’t listen to anyone, not instructors or manuals or the laws of science and engineering. He leaves his wingman, he’s late for dinner, he serenades Kelly McGillis at the bar and then he’s gone before she even wakes up. The only time he seems to display a palpable human emotion is when she pulls up behind him in an old Porsche and tries to lecture him on his maneuvering choices during a dogfight. The original Top Gun is not a movie about a war and only barely about the military, it is about the intoxicating thrill of insubordination, of being so good at what you do that no one can tell you to knock it off.

None of the plot made much sense, but who was really paying attention? The film’s dreamy ethos and visual aesthetic were overpowering — low stakes and high volume, grudges that don’t last longer than the run time, everything drenched in sun and synthesizers. While every Marvel movie melee scene is peppered with Chris Pratt flinging miserably pithy bon mots, Top Gun always understood: never be too smart or too philosophical for your own good.

In the years that followed, Paramount begged Cruise for a sequel and he always resisted. He was taking roles (racecar driver, pool shark) that were often on some quadrant of the same Dickhead Matrix he and each of the other Top Gun pilots fit onto — smug and preening, always just charismatic enough to get away with it — but he was a star now and he had big plans. He made a Stanley Kubrick movie that took 46 weeks to film. He got married twice, divorced twice. Then his personal life got weird, his career collapsed, and only through sheer dedication to stretching the conceivable limits of blockbuster spectacle was it finally resurrected.

The original Top Gun is not a movie about a war and only barely about the military, it is about the intoxicating thrill of insubordination, of being so good at what you do that no one can tell you to knock it off.

Last Friday, after about a decade in development, Top Gun: Maverick finally arrived in theaters. Its existence itself is on some level another of Cruise's daredevil stunts, rejecting CGI whenever possible, demanding each actor train themselves to withstand maximum G-forces in real planes, all while scoffing at the scavenging streaming platforms who offered "significant" amounts to release it with them instead of at multiplexes. Cruise and Paramount have been holding onto the completed film since the beginning of 2020, and when he was asked at Cannes this year if, during the pandemic, he was ever tempted to release Maverick somewhere besides the big screen he said, “No, that’s not going to happen ever.”

Whether this movie is actually great or not is separate from the apparent near-unanimous desire for it to be. The enthusiasm for it had reached a stratospheric height by the time of its release. Tom Cruise is no one’s idea of a hero, nor is a sequel movie about airplanes some brave new concept (by 2024, Cruise will have released five Mission Impossibles, two Jack Reachers, and additional sequels in two other franchises over a 13-year span). But against the deluge of insipid, sensory pummeling Marvel properties it felt, as Maverick's release approached, like everyone had simply decided, “Well we need something, and he's close enough.”

Cruise, who turns 60 in July, has over his career fluctuated between merely peculiar and sequences of what look like chilling mania. The couch thing. Leaked clips of him in a turtleneck raving incoherently about Scientology. “You’re either in the playing field or out of the arena.” But lately no one seems too concerned with that. In a time of dainty greenscreen sets and 40-year-olds in capes suspended by wires, Cruise pulverizing himself while clinging to a helicopter has brought him close to something like redemption. And now here he is with Maverick.

If they postpone the End Of The World in the process that’s fine, but the reason they got into this line of work is to be really fucking awesome.

The movie is ridiculously fun. The aerial footage is a panting, gasping frenzy but always coherent, the planes twist and dive and peel against gravity in a way that makes them feel both like rodeo bulls and hot rods. Every sound, from the boom of the engines to the jam of the throttle to the echo in giant hangars, has been isolated and amplified. The F-18s spit out countermeasure flares that look like a fireworks grand finale.

The specifics of the plot, to the extent that they matter: 37 years after the first movie, Cruise is now test flying in-development military planes. At one point early in the movie, he’s forced to parachute out of a flaming stealth jet he was recently piloting somewhere over Oregon after pushing it far beyond its advised speed. The military sends him to the last place that will have him, the Top Gun academy in San Diego, where he will train a dozen pilots for an urgent real world mission.

Among his students are Glen Powell’s “Hangman,” an irresistible wiseass who is like some mashup of Maverick and Iceman’s younger selves, always grinning like he’s chewing gum even if he is not actually chewing gum, and Miles Teller’s “Rooster,” Goose’s son.

Since we last saw him, we are told Maverick’s stints in combat have been distinguished but always disobedient. “You should be a two-star admiral or at least a senator,” one superior tells him as he’s being banished to the academy. Maverick has never advanced past the rank of captain, but who cares. Ambition is for chumps at a desk somewhere. The movie doesn’t want you to think his character has evolved or that the noble pursuit of being simply the coolest guy in the sky is now beneath him, nor does it want anyone in the audience to retire from cheering such a thing.

Where the Marvel franchises almost hide their trashier pleasures behind limp sarcasm and tedious parables about morality and responsibility, Maverick has its chest puffed out. It has decided that outside of the context of American empire and obscene imperialist conquest, there is a visceral excitement to big, stupid engines roaring and men decisively yanking levers and corkscrewing across the sky, and it’s hard to disagree with them here. It is never insecure. All of it plays with the cartoon bombast of a hair metal ballad and it never makes an excuse for itself. It gives the audience everything it wants and never has delusions of anything more sophisticated.

Back at the academy, Goose is gone, Iceman is gravely ill, McGillis is gone. James Tolkan, the soaked, cigar chomping aircraft carrier commander is gone too, replaced here by a drone-obsessed and desiccated Ed Harris, who’d launch Maverick and every living, breathing pilot just like him into the Indian Ocean if he could. Tom Skerritt’s gruff paternalism has been replaced with Jon Hamm, a sneering vice admiral who sees men and machines as only Pentagon line items.

The pilots want to win not because of the geopolitical implications but because they are simply not losers.

Maverick doesn’t do much these days besides fix planes and fly planes. He doesn’t drink much, he rarely laughs. Even romance for him seems to be a frivolous contest that fills the time between flights. His love interest, Penny, is played nimbly by Jennifer Connelly in a role that mainly asks her to come in a distant, accommodating second to Important Missions and Cruise reckoning with being the last of the sweaty renegades he grew up with.

All we’re told about the mission Cruise has been dispatched for is that an unnamed enemy has a uranium enrichment facility located at the bottom of a roller coaster-looking mountain range.

In their review of the original film, which also was careful to keep its enemy ambiguous, the New York Times wrote, “not having a real war to fight lowers the stakes.” But Top Gun was never interested in being a war movie, certainly not one with stakes. It is much closer to a sports movie; these are not conquests but championships, a team made up of 11 quarterbacks. The franchise is not selling America, it’s selling testosterone, leather jackets, speeding off on a motorcycle down a pencil-straight desert highway framed by mountains as everyone back in the tower shakes their head and says “there he goes again.”

The pilots want to win not because of the geopolitical implications but because they are simply not losers. If they postpone the End Of The World in the process that’s fine, but the reason they got into this line of work is to be really fucking awesome. At one point in the final act, his fate previously unknown, Maverick’s GPS signal blinks to life on the command center radar screen. An officer’s eyes widen and he says out loud “It can’t be,” except of course it can, and then here comes the music and here comes Maverick.

What the franchise cares about isn’t the epic, it’s the juvenile. Going fast, pulling it out in the bottom of the 9th, shit-talking pitched right up to the point of hostility, and then a cut to a shirtless montage on a beach. Miles Teller driving a Ford Bronco onto beach sand, going inside a bar and banging away on the piano singing “Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire.”

Sitting next to me at an IMAX showing this past Sunday was a small old woman with white hair, gripping a balled up napkin. At one point, after Hamm has dismissed Cruise from a mission, the woman said out loud, “boy I hope somebody tells him off.” A scene later, Maverick sneaks out in an F-18, blasting across the desert all alone, and completes a training exercise in such an impossible time the entire class and even Hamm can only stand marveling with their mouths open, a little plane icon whipping through the mountain terrain on a digital map. Here is the spirit of the movie, shaved of everything else — a flickering wild man telling the jerks in the office to mind their business.