How Top Gun: Maverick shocked the world

Expectations weren’t exactly sky high, then, when Top Gun: Maverick eventually opened in May 2022 – but that may have worked in its favour. Viewers were hoping for a nostalgic guilty pleasure. What they got was one of the best Hollywood movies in years – a film that earnt a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96% from critics, and 99% from audiences.

As written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Cruise’s regular Mission: Impossible collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie, Top Gun: Maverick accomplishes an almost impossible mission itself. It continues a story that began in 1986, but it delivers as a stand-alone story, too. It keeps the structure and setting of the original by having a group of cocky pilots training (and playing beach games) at a US Navy jet-fighter school, but it improves on the original in every respect. The plotting, the acting, the dialogue, the head-spinning aerial sequences – all of them are polished until they gleam. And, of course, the film’s exemplary skill and efficiency are embodied by its leading man, back in the cockpit as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, doing more of his own stunts than ever, and looking better than he did in 1986.

The poignancy of time passing

Crucially, though, Cruise isn’t just showing off his teeth, his hair and his daredevil piloting in Top Gun: Maverick. He also turns in the best dramatic performance of the second half of his 40-year career, largely because he is growing old gracefully – or growing middle-aged gracefully, anyway. As recently as 2017, The Mummy presented him as a rascally, rebellious youngster, but in Top Gun: Maverick, he finally accepts that he is over 40 – maybe even over 50 – and this acceptance brings poignancy to Pete’s second-chance romance with his bar-owning ex (Jennifer Connelly). It’s rare indeed for Cruise to have an involving love story in a film – but Top Gun: Maverick gives him two. Val Kilmer’s character, “Iceman”, had been treated for throat cancer, as had the actor himself, so his friendship with Pete is far more touching than anything in the original film.

None of this emotional heft would have been there if other Top Gun sequels and reboots had been made already. The 36-year gap ensured that Top Gun: Maverick was about more than just a nifty fighter pilot with a killer smile. It was about ageing and mortality, memories and regrets, holding on and letting go. It was about time passing – not just for Pete, or for us, but for cinema.

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