Top Gun: Maverick (2022), Joseph Kosinski [4/5]
Updated: Sep 24
What is it that has action movie enthusiasts and avant-garde cinephiles alike praising Tom Cruise this summer, heralding him as the man who's single-handedly saving cinema?
Intellectualizing Top Gun: Maverick (2022) is like writing about a Khabib Nurmagomedov UFC fight; the thing that makes them both so electric to watch is the absence of words, the dynamism of action and form. Yet Maverick cleverly works on two levels; Tom Cruise's real fight to save the pre-streaming summer blockbuster as the last action movie star amplifies the thematic weight of Maverick's fictional struggle to save the Navy as a pilot of the old guard.
In the movie, Maverick and his old school “elbow grease” approach to dogfighting is being phased out by the Navy’s investment in unmanned drone aircrafts. We watch Maverick push the limits in increasingly risky stunts (like accelerating beyond Mach 10 in a prototype orbital aircraft) to try to prove that the old way of doing things is still worthy. But the slow crawl of technology replaces the sweat and blood of lived-in experience.
In the movie industry, streaming and its consumer selective algorithms have largely replaced theatrical releases and the "classic movie experience." During the pandemic, companies like Disney, NBC, and 20th Century sent many of their features directly to streaming, skipping, delaying, or severely shortening their time in theaters. By March 2020, one-hundred American movie theaters had closed and the global box office lost an estimated $5 billion. Even after lockdown measures were lifted, many theaters were sinking ships.
Then in May 2022, Maverick opened exclusively in theaters and became the highest-grossing domestic movie of the year at $700 million, a whopping three-hundred million more than its closest competitor Doctor Strange. Providing 23% of the domestic movie line-up that summer, Maverick saved numerous theaters and reinvigorated that culturally imperative tradition of "going to the movies."
In addition to the war between streaming and theaters, CGI has largely replaced practical effects and on location shooting in action movies. With its drab color scheme and weightless, computer-generated fight scenes, Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) represents much of the poorly made action genre today in looking like a Hyundai commercial.
Tom Cruise, meanwhile, ditches the blue screens and performs his own stunts, often throwing himself in harm's way to capture authentically awesome practical set pieces. During a chase stunt for Fallout: Mission Impossible (2018), Cruise broke his ankle leaping between rooftops in London. At the Venice Film Festival this year, a promotional video for Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning showed Cruise balancing on the wing of a biplane thousands of feet over a South African canyon. "See you at the movies!" says Cruise before the plane dips hundreds of feet with him in tow. His approach to the wonder of action filmmaking gets viewers excited about going to see his movies on the big screen.
In both worlds, Tom Cruise fights for an older method — maybe even a more “honorable” or alive method — which looks to be slipping away. Maverick improves on every element of the original Top Gun (1986), directed by Tony Scott, which lacked the same direction and self-awareness, shifting between volleyball themed soft-core and 80s MTV music videos. Quentin Tarantino and many other viewers have theorized the awkward match-up between Charlie (with Kelly McGillis' gender-bending presentation) and Mav in Top Gun was an allegory for Mav's character struggling with his own sexuality: the original couple simply lacked romantic chemistry. In Maverick, however, Cruise and Connelly maintain the tangible spark of a real couple.
The movie's technical spectacle — interior shots of the cockpits of roaring aircrafts and claustrophobic dogfights in the clouds — serve the jingoistic premise of a rag-tag team of U.S. pilots fighting an evil, unnamed government, a story which sounds like it belongs to a mid-century B-movie. Maverick's callbacks like Kenny Loggins' iconic "Danger Zone" anthem and the scenes of oiled up testosterone bros high-fiving on the beach retain the sensibility of the 80s with a hopeful, charmingly naive impression of pre-Bush American armed forces and their role in the world. Furthermore, the aged Maverick is continually shown to be the only one capable of high-speed maneuvers to get the job done while the younger, millennial cast struggles to keep up. The film reveres the achievements of the experienced Boomers in an age when the Internet provokes their insecurities of obsolescence. This is likely the reason Louis CK and thousands of other dudes and dads discussed the rousing emotional impact of the movie. It's no surprise that some have referred to Maverick as the last "non-woke" blockbuster: it's like taking a step into an earlier period of movie history and marveling at the vitality of that world.
In the age of CGI-filled streaming, even the archetype of the movie star seems to be going extinct. Hollywood journalist Ben Fritz dug through the 2014 Sony Pictures leak to report on the dawn of the franchise film era. Fritz follows how this has returned the industry to Studio Era dynamics, except now the companies control the cinematic brands instead of the talent. This creates a dynamic where major actors vie to get onto a cinematic brand like Avengers instead of the dynamic in the 90s where companies could build a movie with a couple stars and an original idea. An article from the Huffington Post titled, "The Decline Of The Movie Star is The 2010's Great Cultural Tragedy," reports on the same trend, mentioning Leonardo DiCaprio as the last actor to do things the old way.
Despite these economic and technological forces, Tom Cruise awakens something in audiences as an inspiring action movie star: the last of his kind. In all of this, Top Gun: Maverick remains an antidote to the CGI-shlock of the streaming era, a highly entertaining and original summer classic. If you missed it in theaters – too bad, but it's worth a watch regardless, 4/5.