May 12, 2022 10:53 AM EDT

It no longer matters whether you like or dislike Tom Cruise: no matter how good he looks in his ultra-moisturized, deal-with-the-devil skin, his ship has sailed not just into the waters of middle age, but beyond them. Always a performer desperate to be liked, Cruise has entered a new era, one of potential irrelevance, which could be the best thing that’s ever happened to him. In a world where we’re all either captivated or annoyed by TikTok, freaked out about global warming and the loss of a woman’s right to choose, and trying to coax recalcitrant relatives into getting vaccinated, it’s not even worth the effort to dislike him. And that, if you’re a person who has never liked Tom Cruise, frees you to enjoy the myriad over-the-top pleasures of Top Gun: Maverick.

Top Gun: Maverick, directed by Joseph Kosinski, is a much better film than its predecessor was, and much better than it needs to be overall. Tony Scott’s 1986 jockstrap of a movie about hotshot Naval pilots—produced by fast-lane Hollywood players Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, who perhaps bear more responsibility for its numbnuts machismo than Scott does—is a caveman relic that has achieved enduring popularity, a high-fiving fantasy populated with dude bros before we even had a name for them. In the ’80s, we went to Jim Jarmusch movies to get away from these guys.

Yet it’s easy to make peace with the 2022 version of these men, Cruise included. Top Gun: Maverick takes place in a world where no one seems to be all that worried about the threat to modern masculinity. One of the pilots in the current gang happens to be a woman (she’s played by Monica Barbaro), but even if that’s a significant departure from the 1986 movie, made at a time when women weren’t allowed to fly in combat, it’s still beside the point. Without ridiculing or diminishing them, Top Gun: Maverick allows its male characters to have doubts and insecurities, to fear that maybe they can’t be the best, to worry about being too old to matter. At one point Ed Harris, playing a crusty admiral in a cameo role that nods to The Right Stuff, one of the truly great movies of the ’80s, practically snarls at Cruise, playing aging whippersnapper Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, for disobeying orders: “The future is coming, and you’re not in it.” Even if this is cartoon anxiety about being sent out to pasture, it still counts. Every generation gets the feeling of creeping obsolescence it deserves.

And Maverick is feeling it. Never having achieved a rank higher than Captain, knowing that climbing the ranks would only ground him, he’s been working as a test pilot for the Navy: in an early sequence, he gets his Chuck Yeager moment, climbing into a plane that’s like a space bird and pushing both it and himself to the limit. What has he got to lose? But it turns out that that proverbial one last job is waiting for him: His old friend and rival Iceman (Val Kilmer, whose inability to speak has been deftly written into the role), who is now officially a big gun, has called him in to train a group of youngsters for an almost impossible mission. They’ll have to guide their planes through—not above—a twisty canyon, flying at dangerously low altitudes, with the goal of taking out an enemy airstrip and bunker. Jealous Navy dude and uptight authority figure Cyclone (Jon Hamm) doesn’t think Maverick is up to the task, which of course means he can’t turn it down.

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick
Scott Garfield—Paramount Pictures

So Maverick returns to the place where it all started, the Top Gun training site known as Miramar, a.k.a. Fightertown U.S.A. He makes the move, apparently, on his motorcycle, with nothing more than his trademark patch-adorned leather jacket on his back. Who needs a U-Haul full of sofas, toaster ovens, and pants and T-shirts when you can just jump, unhelmeted, on your bike and go? Even before his first day on the job, he encounters his 12 recruits as they whoop it up at the local watering hole, which happens to be run by an old flame, Penny (Jennifer Connelly), mentioned in passing in the first movie but now a woman, and a character, with a life of her own. She has a daughter; she loves to sail. In one scene, she gets Maverick out on her boat, where she navigates staunchly at the tiller while Maverick clings tentatively to a railing behind her. Isn’t he supposed to be in the Navy, she asks him? “I don’t sail boats, Penny,” he informs her. “I land on them.”

Thar she blows—wit! Or what passes for it when Cruise is doing the talking. But Maverick is dead-serious when he’s training his pilots, a group he must narrow down to six for the mission. The crew of eager aspirants include Phoenix (Barbaro), whose presence the guys accept, correctly, as no big deal; arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), toothpick hanging from his mouth with the devil-may-care insouciance of a guy who saw a movie once; and, most significantly, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s old flight partner and best friend Goose (played in the earlier movie by Anthony Edwards), who died during a training maneuver—a loss Maverick has never gotten over, and one he still feels responsible for, even though the Navy has absolved him.

There’s understandable tension between Maverick and Rooster. Rooster wants to charge forward at life; Maverick, though he can barely admit it, would prefer to hold him back just to protect him. This is the central conflict of Top Gun: Maverick, one that’s resolved in the movie’s multilayered and, typically for Cruise, over-the-top climax.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

If you haven’t already read a million things about how Top Gun: Maverick was made, and how solemnly Cruise accepted this mission, don’t start now. It’s not really worth it, and it could dull your joy in the fact that this is, at the very least, a feat of old-fashioned action moviemaking, light on CGI, and favoring human beings actually moving and planes actually flying. (Bruckheimer is, incidentally, one of the film’s producers. Simpson died in 1996.) The flying sequences are divine, sometimes tense and sometimes rapturously freeing, and they feel realistic because they’re minimally touched by CGI. (Cruise is an experienced pilot, and got extra training from the Navy on top of that; his fellow actors learned to fly as well.) But even its more casual sequences show definitive flair: at one point Cruise and the younger pilots, all in beachwear, cavort in the surf during a rowdy game of dogfight football. The sun glints off the men’s water-dappled pecs; their aviator sunglasses hide their inevitable squinting. Bruce Weber could have done it better, but Kosinsky—who has made two previous features, the 2010 Tron: Legacy and the 2012 sci-fi drama Oblivion, also starring Cruise—pulls it off even so.

It may be damning Cruise with faint praise to call him tolerable in Top Gun: Maverick. But even if he’s just playing at the indignity of aging rather than truly feeling it, he’s at least attempting to be less of a hologram and more a facsimile of a human. Early in Top Gun: Maverick, he sits at Penny’s bar by himself, looking on as the younger pilots swig their beers, taunt one another, argue with good or ill humor about who’s the best pilot. His gaze—affectionate, a little wistful—signals that he knows what’s coming for him, sooner rather than later. But first, to show these kids he’s still got it. Love Tom Cruise or hate him, he’s the only one we’ve got; his particular set of qualities have no equal. The day he stops needing to prove himself will be like the day a lion loses the will to roar. And only a cruel person would rejoice in that.

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