Tom Cruise‘s monomaniacal drive to be the last great movie star led to this moment. After more than thirty years away from theaters, Top Gun: Maverick finally graced screens worldwide. To say that expectations for the film were sky-high would be lying. Cruise and his team spent the better part of two years priming the world’s audiences to embrace this film at this moment. With a storyline that can only be read as a meta-commentary on Cruise’s own career, the action star returns to the role that made him a superstar. With collaborators Christopher McQuarrie (co-writer) and Joseph Kosinski (directing) helping Cruise shape the film, the lega-sequel blows the doors off any expectations. This Top Gun quickly earns a place among the year’s best films.

Top Gun: Maverick picks up with Cruise’s titular character as he struggles with his place in the military. Long protected by Iceman (Val Kilmer), Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) has worn out his good graces. Seemingly on his last chance, Maverick must return to Top Gun to train the next generation of pilots on how to push the physical and mental bounds of being a jet pilot. Among the recruits is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s flight partner Goose. Guilt over Goose’s death, Iceman’s deteriorating health, and a rekindling romance (Jennifer Connelly) force Mav to grapple with his mortality.

The partnership of Cruise, Kosinski, and McQuarrie allows the formidable trio to new heights. Cruise pushes himself physically and emotionally in the film, delivering his best performance since Collateral in 2004. Even though the Mission Impossible franchise has kept him relevant and Edge of Tomorrow embraced unhinged passion, Top Gun brings a vulnerability we have not seen in years.

Kosinski, McQuarrie, Ehren Kruger, and Eric Warren Singer put Cruise in the position to capitalize on his talent. The story that McQuarrie, Krueger, and Singer construct lays out tremendous stakes with ease. An easy-to-understand plot opens doors for them to enrich the dozens of characters that join the adventure. They inject a shocking amount of personality into the key Top Gun characters, endearing them to us so efficiently one would expect this to be the culmination of a five-film franchise. Kosinski then takes to the skies to deliver stunning visuals, booming sound, and rip-roaring energy. For Kosinski, Top Gun: Maverick makes good on his promise as a director.

The ensemble delivers on the staples of the original film, but find cracks to infuse their individuality into the shells of characters. The arrogance that Glenn Powell brings helps him steal the show. If Cruise gave a lesser performance, Powell would be the talk of the town. As it is, he flashes his giant smile and devilish sneer to tremendous effect. Teller brings his personal baggage into the role of Rooster as well. Seen as the next great movie star by many, missteps with the press and a lack of critical success post-Whiplash stalled out his career. The pause placed on his character eerily mimics his own burgeoning stardom, but he seems poised to take the next step as an actor.

Connelly’s return to big-budget filmmaking also gives Cruise a foil he’s been missing. Rebecca Ferguson’s Mission: Impossible character better watch out, because Connelly’s presence leaves such a mark, you consistently wonder about reactions to Maverick’s antics. Getting a chance to step into the limelight again should help Connelly launch the next phase of her career. Her talent has never been in doubt, but when Hollywood takes the right roles out of your hands, how can you showcase it? Hopefully, that will not be a question for executives after her dominating turn.

Bashir SalahuddinJay Ellis, Monica Barbaro, and Lewis Pullman all get standout scenes. Their back-and-forths with Maverick builds chemistry that makes us invest in the success and failure of the mission. Jon Hamm, Ed Harris, and Charles Parnell tap into the military machismo needed to create animosity within the ranks. Even better, they communicate their frustration with Maverick in ways that make them more than cardboard obstacles. These are three-dimensional men that simply have a frustrating co-worker that pushes the boundaries at every turn.

Kosinski leans into the jingoistic nature of the material because there’s nowhere else for this film to go. Kosinski and the Top Gun: Maverick team knows this story will function as a military ad. Rather than hide from this truth, they embrace it and kick on the afterburners. The only way to effectively critique this type of hyper-patriotism is to ramp it up so high that it borders on parody. The devotion to the cause and mission make the stakes clear. Characters should not return home. This message only hurts if we feel for these characters, and the dramatic irony of these characters is they are unwilling to believe this is their moment to go.

Cruise takes this mantra to the next level throughout the film. His actions and heroism serve himself, but also push the boundaries of what is possible for a human being to accomplish. The joke that Tom Cruise will kill himself making one of these movies continues to circulate. The darkly comedic truth of this prediction, as the man approaches 60, cannot be ignored. Yet as he’s told that his livelihood could be stripped away at any moment, Cruise gets recruited for one last dive into the abyss. Cruise truly believes he can save movie theaters. If he keeps making movies like Top Gun: Maverick, that may not be as absurd as one might assume.

Alan’s Grade: 9 out of 10

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