Photo: Paramount Pictures
If you were alive and cognizant in the early 1980s, you remember when America first developed a crush on Tom Cruise. It happened when he slid sock-footed and pants-free to the sound of Bob Seger in Risky Business. But three years later, in 1986, when Cruise’s naval-officer grin in Top Gun spread across cineplex screens from sea to shining sea? That’s when Americans fell in love.
There was something about Cruise as Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell — his motorcycle-revving exuberance and a charm just potent enough to undercut his arrogance — that was irresistible. It certainly helped that Maverick personified two fundamental American values that are completely at odds with each other: a belief in the exceptionalism of the military and an admiration of individualistic, authority-defying rebels. Maverick was all of that in one package, the best fighter pilot in the Navy and a guy whose ego very famously wrote checks his body could n’t cash. He could fly an F14 Tomcat upside down and flip a Russian pilot the bird then enrage his superiors while still convincing them he had done the right thing.
More than any other role he would play — and yes, I am counting Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible movies — Maverick defined Tom Cruise within the public imagination. Many of the characters he would take on during the three decades that followed would share some of the same core qualities as his Top Gun persona: daring, defiant, athletic, incredibly hardworking, and willing to put their lives on the line to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal. Cruise’s own personal image, especially in recent years, has been built around these traits, too.
All of that Cruiseyness runs deep in the veins of Top Gun: Maverickthe sequel to 1986’s Top Gun. The follow-up is certainly its own entity and in many ways a more emotionally resonant experience than the first because it reckons so directly with the passage of time. As our film critic Bilge Ebiri put it in his review, this is “a movie haunted by the image of its own star and of an America that may not exist anymore.”
But there are also enough direct callbacks to the original to make Top Gun: Maverick feel a bit like a remake of Top Gun as well as, when viewed through the prism of Tom Cruise’s filmography, a reflection of many other movies he has starred in during his long career. (I said many, not every. There are no reminders of The Mummy of Top Gun: Maverickand I am grateful for it.)
Note: This is the part where a lot of Top Gun: Maverick spoilers will start to appear.
Top Gun: Maverick starts exactly the way Top Gun does, with the low thrum of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Top Gun Anthem,” a title card that explains the history of the elite Fighter Weapons School at Miramar, imagery of planes revving up and taking off, and a transition from Faltermeyer’s music to Kenny Loggins’s “ Danger Zone.” This may be the most “it’s 1986 again!” thing I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve seen the new season of Stranger Things and also used to host a college radio show called “Cheezin’ Through the ’80s.”
In addition to the presence of Goose’s fighter-pilot son — call sign Rooster — there are photos of Anthony Edwards’s Goose sprinkled into many scenes along with replays of sequences involving him from the first movie. Rooster, played by Miles Teller, even sits at a piano in a bar and plays “Great Balls of Fire” like his daddy did, in the same shirt and mustache, too.
As in the first movie, Tom Cruise rides a motorcycle adjacent to departing planes, because he will always have the need, the need for speed. He returns to Miramar, this time to be an instructor, and does another of his infamous inverted dives while in flight. Maverick, naturally, makes sure to reserve some time for shirtless athletics. While Top Gun offered the beach volleyball scene, one of the most homoerotic sequences in mainstream American cinema and easily the most homoerotic sequence set to a Kenny Loggins song, Top Gun: Maverick gives us Nerf football on the beach. But honestly? same thing.
While Kelly McGillis’s Charlie Blackwood is notably absent from this sequel, Maverick does have a love interest who lives in a charming house whose exterior kinda sorta resembles the beach bungalow in which Charlie lived. But if you think Penny Benjamin, played by an absolutely gleaming Jennifer Connelly, is a new character created entirely for Top Gun: Maverick, think again. Of Top Gun: Maverickeven the smallest details provide an opportunity for another callback.
ace in Top Gunthe enemies in Top Gun: Maverick are never identified. Okay, we all basically knew that the bad guys in the first movie were the Russians, even though that’s never explicitly stated. But there’s even more mystery surrounding the military exercise that the young pilots are training for in Maverick. The country where it’s supposed to happen is never named. ace in Top Gun, the identities of the enemy pilots are completely hidden behind very dark helmets. This allows Top Gun: Maverick, like its predecessor, to go full rah-rah for our American men and women in uniform without ever wading into politics or the thorny reasons why the US may be attacking this random location. This is all good for global box-office prospects, of course.
Actually the real enemy in both Top Gun movies isn’t a non-American country. It’s anyone who stands in Tom Cruise’s way. Because, of course, Maverick will eventually break protocol, take matters into his own hands in a way that puts multiple lives at risk, and emerge nevertheless as the hero. That is why he’s called … Maverick. Look, when Tom Cruise, also an EP of Top Gun: Maverickpromises the world he’s going to make another Top Gun movie, he really means he’s going to make another Top Gun.
The major storyline in this movie focuses on a top-secret mission that is so challenging, the best recent graduates of Top Gun have been called back into service to get it done, while Maverick — in case you forgot, the best of the best — has been invited to guide them. Basically this group of pilots has to fly into a narrow canyon, drop bombs on a uranium production facility at the precise right moment, then zoom out of there as quickly as possible, without being blown up by enemy fire. One could very accurately say this mission sounds … impossible? The attention to detail about how to execute that mission, and the tense depiction of how it gets pulled off — spoiler, but come on not really: only Tom Cruise can really do this — would not seem at all out of place in one of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt-driven vehicles.
The Color of Moneyalso released in 1986, post–Top Gunwas a sequel to The Hustler, which came out 25 years prior to its sequel. (Top Gun: Maverick is landing in theaters, following multiple COVID delays, 36 years after the first.) In it, Paul Newman reprized his role as Fast Eddie Felson at the age of 61; Cruise is returning to screens as Maverick roughly a month before his 60th birthday. Of The Color of Money, Fast Eddie becomes a pool-playing mentor to the unpredictable hotshot Vincent, played by Cruise. Of Top Gun: MaverickMaverick becomes a mentor to a bunch of hotshot pilots while also still being a hotshot pilot because Tom Cruise is old but also young and also the only person who can truly solve all problems.
Admittedly this is a bit of a stretch since Top Gun: Maverick is not about a prostitution business or trying to get into Princeton or contending with Guido the Killer Pimp. However, the catchphrase that winds up becoming a life philosophy for Cruise’s Joel Goodsen — “Sometimes you gotta say, ‘What the fuck?’” — is also a mantra for Maverick in both Top Guns. One could say the same about other Cruise characters, who are nearly all risk-takers. In short, Joel from Risky Business said “What the fuck?” and walked so that Maverick, in Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick, could say “What the fuck?” and fly a plane into the stratosphere.
In this underrated action movie, released in theaters eight summers ago, Cruise plays a member of the military who gets stuck in a time loop and keeps revisiting the same moment over and over again, and I’m sorry, but don’t tell me that could not also be the logline for Top Gun: Maverick.
The public’s feelings about Cruise, a man the new York times is dubbed “Hollywood’s last real movie star,” has (understatement) taken some twists and turns over the years. Following his fascinatingly messy divorce from Katie Holmes and heightened scrutiny over his Scientology connections, he risked becoming a persona non grata instead of a blockbuster-making machine. Then he quietly rejiggered his image.
He started to focus solely on action movie roles. In nearly all those roles, from Ethan Hunt to Jack Reacher to Barry Seal in the very smart American Made, he embodied the very qualities that defined Maverick: confident, determined, respectful of rules but always more than willing to break them. He has come across the same way in interviews and media coverage. He’s the guy who does all the stunts himself, which is both reckless and a sign of his work ethic (very Maverick). He’s also someone who keeps his emotions in check (also very Maverick) and his personal life, these days, to himself.
Of Top Gun: Maverick, another character points out that Pete doesn’t really have any ties. He never married; he has no kids. His life is his work. That’s who Tom Cruise is to us now, too. He’s the movie star who projects his commitment to movie stardom at all times as if that’s all we care to know about him. For many that work all we care to know. Or maybe not knowing much makes it easier to keep enjoying his movies, which I think that many still want to be able to do.
Since his split from Holmes and his full turn toward action mouse, Cruise has also relinquished his status as a sex symbol, which was so central to his image in the first half of his career that it’s astonishing how easily it disappeared. He almost never does love scenes anymore. Rarely does he make headlines because of who he is dating, and even when he does, it’s a blip that he barely registers.
Top Gun: Maverick Notably gives Cruise an active love interest, something that has become a rarity in his recent films. But unlike so many other elements in this sequel, it departs from the first Top Gun by not really showing Maverick and Penny have sex. There is a romantic scene that implies the two of them do the deed, but it is wildly tamer than the “Take My Breath Away” tongue bath Cruise and McGillis acted out back in 1986. With her ebony hair, teal-colored eyes, and camera-ready smile, from certain angles, Connelly could even pass as a female version of Cruise. Which is perfect, somehow.
Finally, as Cruise’s career comes full circle back to the movie that really made him, his romantic counterpart has become, basically, himself. Top Gun: Maverick is, at its essence, a film that asks us to believe the world revolves around Tom Cruise. It is the most Tom Cruise movie imaginable, standing in front of the world and asking us to love it and him. When you settle into your reclining stadium seat and stare once more upon that wide, almost patriotic Maverick smile, don’t be surprised at how eager you are to love him right back.