Tom Cruise was being honest when he told a crowd in Cannes on Wednesday that he believes the main ingredient of art is “skill.” Though he has worked with edgy auteurs Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, and Paul Thomas Anderson — in each case only once — Cruise has always seemed more at home in the hands of “tradesman” directors like Christopher McQuarrie, Doug Liman and the late Tony Scott.
Top Gun: Maverick, then, is the logical conclusion to his worldview. A ruthlessly competent action movie populated by familiar archetypes (Jon Hamm, please stop playing pencil-pushers), it’s as enjoyable as it is frustratingly distant. Maybe we shouldn’t expect more from Cruise, who spent much of the mid-2000s (successfully) recovering his reputation from what seemed like a divorce and Scientology-fueled death spiral. But we should expect more from our biggest blockbusters than Maverick, which is all about ‘giving the fans what they want’ and far too little about telling a new story of its own. If you liked Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Matrix sequels, Ad Astra or Gemini Man, you’re out of luck. Everything is The Force Awakens now, the similarly steady, uninspired and above all lucrative Star Wars reboot not coincidentally directed by Mission: Impossible III’s JJ Abrams.
But it’s Joseph Kosinski behind the camera on Maverick. The Tron: Legacy and Oblivion director is already one of the best action filmmakers in Hollywood and gets a chance to show his skills with one of Maverick’s first scenes. Captain Pete Mitchell (Cruise and, yes, still just a captain) must take a supersonic stealth bomber to Mach 10 or the US Navy program he’s part of will be defunded. Maverick abides. The trip, which is hastily scheduled before Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) can arrive to pull the plug, is quite the set piece. Mach 10 is more than 7,500mph – and Kosinki almost makes you feel it. It’s a sequence worthy of one of the three most recent Mission: Impossible films, which is to say it’s absolutely wonderful.
Unfortunately, though, Maverick has some baggage to attend to, in the form of the ‘Top Gun’ flying school at North Island, San Diego. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s trusty late sidekick Goose (Anthony Edwards), still blames Maverick for his father’s death. Iceman (Val Kilmer) is now a Navy Pacific Commander and decorated war hero. (Who’d have thought?) Meanwhile Penny (Jennifer Connelly) is a local bar owner and single mom who catches perpetually single Maverick’s eye. Kelly McGillis, who has retired from acting, does not return. In theory this is a handy opportunity for Top Gun to give its lead a new lease of life in the form of a romantic subplot. It works to a degree, and by no fault of an excellent Connelly, but Penny is too underwritten for Maverick’s personal life to be a real focus here.
The rest of the cast is largely populated by stereotypes. Maverick must teach a class of talented trainees how to take inordinate risks and make it out alive by bombing a nuclear weapons supply plant in an unnamed country. (This seems partly an homage to the first film’s unspecified politics, part canny commercialism on the part of Cruise and Jerry Bruckheimer.) Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell doing the Glen Powell thing) is the obnoxious alpha and Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro) is the committed “woman in the room” trying to prove she can really do it. But it’s Bradley who Maverick must spend the extra time on, and who might reap the highest rewards.
Visceral action sequences ensue, and Kosinki has a few more tricks up his sleeve than we might first predict. But the absence of a challenging or interesting story, never mind a challenging or interesting performance on man of the hour Cruise’s part, are glaring omissions. It might now be Tom Cruise’s world, and we’re just living it. I wish it had leaned a bit more into the danger zone rather than staying inside the lines.
This review is from the Cannes Film Festival. Paramount Pictures will release Top Gun: Maverick only in theaters on May 27.