Professionalism. Competence. Speed.
Those are rare qualities in the manufacture of costly latter-day industrial movies, which the vertiginous yet muted “Top Gun: Maverick” certainly is: at least $173,588,000 in cash was expended on production in California alone, according to the California Film Commission (see table, page 41). Spin out digital copies in all possible projection formats, advertising, publicity, interest accrued awaiting a year-plus cessation of the worst of an ongoing pandemic… more mounds of money burning with the light of white phosphorus.
And what does an F-35 cost? Slightly less than “Top Gun: Maverick,” before built-in cost overruns. “The F-35’s price per unit, including ancillary costs like depot maintenance, ground support equipment, and spare parts is $110.3 million per F-35A, $135.8 million per F-35B, and $117.3 million per F-35C,” says the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Slated as a Tony Scott film before his death a decade ago, in 2012, “Top Gun: Maverick” is a tooled and calibrated machine for mass reaction, from a hundred people in a darkened room to millions worldwide. But the entertainment on screen, while a story of flyers and death-dealing jet aircraft, is a melancholy affair, as the characters and actors indicate they know the end is coming. (As did Scott.) Yet the themes and tics of the urgently charismatic Cruise’s body of work (and cocky body) are ever-present, as are those fathers and father figures and mentors and protégés disappointing one another.
When you’re looking for an apotheosis of the money and mechanics of the last thirty years of Hollywood, Tom Cruise is there. Further demonstration of Cruise as the last king of quarter-billion-dollar outlays lies in the trailer leaked over the weekend for 2023’s “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” with subtitles in a Slavic language, then released on Monday afternoon. An action movie to break the bank, but only half of one? And it’s not coming until next July? Yes, please, the internet cooed.
Cruise flourishes in exceedingly beautiful light. He’s Benjamin Button in a tailored motorcycle jacket. The light on everyone’s faces, especially in shots with multiple layers, is ravishing, particularly in lowest light. Beauty courses every face, from the application of the costliest male moisturizers ever created, to the eyes of Jennifer Connelly, to the cavernous crenellations of Ed Harris’ weathered features, where a raised eyebrow threatens to crash down boulders. The movie takes its leave of Harris while his face bears an expression like a lemon sucked out of an armadillo.
The competition by the flyers within “Top Gun” is so fully integrated into the culture, even as the camp classic that it has become, that the essential militarism of the pursuits onscreen in “Top Gun: Maverick” is indicated as much as dramatized, secondary to nostalgia from the audiences who have watched the original movie again and again since the last century, with the light of a million stars and a billion beer commercials. These, as it is known, are weapons death, however gloriously they may zoom and boom. (Career curmudgeon Armond White, when he reviews the film, as he must, will identify the ur-fascist strains and huzzah to the heavens, with small disappointment at the diminished homoerotic charge in the non-Scott sequel.)
“I don’t like that look, man,” Maverick’s told. A beat of titanium and Cruise replies. “It’s the only one I’ve got.” Howard Hawks-style banter is the order, crackling with what one takes as the taciturn fluency of Christopher McQuarrie’s screenwriting. Say it, but only say it just enough. (McQuarrie is among a substantial flurry of credited writers; those listed are, story, Peter Craig and Justin Marks; screenplay, Ehren Kruger and Eric Warren Singer and McQuarrie.) “The fastest man alive,” one of the control room men garsh-gollies. Stifled cheers, too, for “You should be a two-star admiral if not a Senator”; “I don’t sail boats, I land on them”; “Put that in your Pentagon budget”; and “Iraq—both times.”
The movie can be taken in many passages as a reflection on the very existence of Cruise and his decades of stardom, let alone Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Now-fifty-nine-year-old Cruise turns sixty the day before the Fourth of July (and would have been about twenty-four when “Top Gun” was released in 1986). An old friend tells Maverick, “It’s time to let go,” to which he can only confess with a tightened tremulousness, “I don’t know how.” A movie is a mirror, sometimes many of them.
Joseph Kosinski is a hyper-efficient director: “Tron: Legacy,” “Oblivion,” “Only the Brave” and “Top Gun: Maverick” excel with sharp, unshowy widescreen compositions. (His director’s credit is placed plainly under a Stealth bomber in a hangar.) But he’s also a fluent director of actors indicating with minimal gestures. There’s more panic and despair in the characters’ survival drive than anything else, on a mission that requires fail-proof munitions to be piloted by humans who surpass the stress toleration of bolts in holes. They rush toward their target accompanied by a clutch of twenty or so million-dollar Tomahawk missiles from the Navy’s quiver of 4,000. The unnamed adversary—somewhere “over there”—fields weaponry far superior to a failed nation like Russia, but the swoop and zoom of their actions rests ultimately in sustained anxiety, not exhilaration.
In the face-cameo end credits of the leading players, Cruise is the last one seen: a bare-chested middle-aged man, grinning like mad, playing beach volleyball, image cropped between neck and nipples. But that smile. That smile. Smile.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.