Top Gun wasn’t the first hit Tom Cruise movie, but 36 years later, it remains his ur-hit: The one that vaulted him to megastardom, popularized his star persona, inspired several direct self-ripoffs (Cocktail; Days of Thunder) and, adjusting for inflation, remains his highest-grossing film. It does seem remotely possible that the new legacy sequel Top Gun: Maverick could displace it in that last category—and even more likely that if Maverick doesn’t, nothing else will, either. The enduring popularity and influence of Top Gun is especially impressive because much of Cruise’s career since 1986 has been an exercise in superhuman resilience. During the 20 years that elapsed between Top Gun and 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, Cruise seemed nearly untouchable. Sure, he had the occasional box office or critical fumble, but he toplined over a dozen movies that made $100M or more, and worked with an enviable who’s-who of filmmakers: Beloved auteurs like Spielberg, Scorsese and De Palma; maestros of action and machismo like Tony Scott, John Woo and Michael Mann; distinctive voices like Oliver Stone and Cameron Crowe; Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick in the same year.
Yet during this two-decade period, Cruise also never worked with the same director more than twice. (He re-teamed with Spielberg, Crowe and Scott.) For personal reasons—I wrote a periodic column about actor-director collaborations—I consider three the magic number indicating an ongoing actor-director relationship, so it’s stuck out to me that Cruise doesn’t have as many of these as Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tom Hanks or Matt Damon. So far, Cruise has crossed that threshold only once, and recently, by repeatedly rehiring his current Mission: Impossible co-pilot Christopher McQuarrie.
McQuarrie has become Cruise’s most constant collaborator; in addition to directing him in Jack Reacher and two Mission: Impossible pictures (with two more on the way), he has screenwriting and/or producing credits on Valkyrie, Edge of Tomorrow, The Mummy and this newest Top Gun. He’s a talented filmmaker whose prominence in Cruise’s later-period career also speaks to the mega-actor’s increasingly cloistered inner circle (and possibly the limited number of filmmakers willing to stare into Cruise’s presumably blinding intensity). Indeed, while Cruise has yet to make three non-sequels with the same director, he’s been returning to familiar filmmakers more often than ever in his past decade: Five and counting with McQuarrie, two with Doug Liman, one more with Edward Zwick (who previously directed him in The Last Samurai) and two with Top Gun sequel director Joseph Kosinski.
By most measures, Kosinski does an admirable job bringing back Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, considering that his past Cruise experience was with the decidedly second-tier sci-fi picture Oblivion. It’s not as if the late, great Tony Scott can claim more reputable Cruise control, either; their other movie together was Days of Thunder, a racing drama that’s basically Top Gun with a little more honesty about its own nastiness. Maverick, on the other hand, combines the stoic dad-movie humanity of Kosinski’s Only the Brave with the clean-lined compositions of his other decades-later follow-up to an ’80s movie, Tron: Legacy. It’s a bit like a sleekly-designed couch that turns out to be surprisingly comfy, too: Amidst some truly eye-popping aerial sequences that defy gravity while exuding far more of it than the average CG-choked spectacle, there are notes of humanity. Maverick faces his regrets, the inevitability of aging and, yes, his legacy.
This makes Top Gun: Maverick a far more appealing proposition than its predecessor—one of the worst things Cruise or Tony Scott ever made—and it’s touching to see this late-breaking franchise age with its audience, away from cocky jingoism. It’s similar to the recent trajectory of the Rocky/Creed series, making real drama out of Rocky IV’s bullshit—though that franchise’s humbler beginnings make it a more natural fit for this shift (and director Ryan Coogler made Creed a more muscular, beautifully crafted dude weepie than the new Top Gun can manage).
But if Top Gun: Maverick represents a full-circle moment for Cruise, it’s a strange, oblong version—warped by his own self-image as a solitary, monk-like defender of the ancient order of Hollywood spectacle. In the new movie, Maverick is told repeatedly, endlessly, how outmoded he’s become, how ill-suited he is for this current moment, and of course it falls to Cruise to engineer a tasteful rebuke, with Kosinski as his wingman rather than any kind of visionary. Their action-packed strategy is to basically give Maverick an Ethan Hunt-worthy Impossible Mission, and it mostly works; the climax of Top Gun: Maverick is indeed closer to the sleek Mission: Impossible model than the noisy nothingness of the original.
It also subsumes the sense of reflection that gives the non-aerial scenes some weight into Cruise’s later-period action-man persona. Though it begins with some welcome ambivalence about Maverick’s place in the world, his character growth starts to more closely resemble Cruise’s rebranding: No longer the cocky daredevil who feels the need for speed, he’s now the honorable daredevil who uses his superiority for self-sacrifice that, paradoxically, can’t quite kill him. Kosinski is either powerless to change the path of this unstoppable force, or happy to go along for the ride.
It’s easy to imagine the latter; Cruise is a movie star, after all. Giving in (and ignoring, or leaning into, his innate weirdness) is part of the fun, and that probably holds true for his filmmakers, too. By most accounts, Cruise is an enthusiastic collaborator who gives every project his all, which means that even his more calculated later-career triangulations tend to involve directors with a certain amount of polished, big-budget professionalism, like McQuarrie, Kosinski or Liman. (Cruise is no longer a star on the Leonardo DiCaprio level, but it’s equally rare to see either of them in a movie that’s actually badly made.) Kosinski raises the level of Top Gun: Maverick just high enough for my mind to wander to what it might’ve looked like if it were as good as another legacy sequel, one where Cruise played the upstart, the very same year as Top Gun: The Color of Money, a decades-later follow-up to The Hustler.
Some of this is simply the passage of time. Color of Money was a Scorsese-for-hire job, not a long-standing passion project. But Scorsese gives the movie enough grit and texture to make it his own. His movie with someone else’s character. Top Gun: Maverick has its moments—Cruise’s scene opposite Val Kilmer, as Maverick’s old rival, lives and breathes—but it’s returning to a slick world too frictionless for even death to catch. Even more than Kosinski’s visually striking sci-fi work, the universe of Top Gun: Maverick feels borderline abstract. As part of the rich Top Gun tradition, the enemy goes unidentified, even when the new recruits are training for a life-and-death mission involving thwarting some kind of threatening military installation. This is a warmer movie than the original, but its supposed emotional component is as machine-tooled as ever.
The idea, then, of a third Kosinski-Cruise picture is almost too easy to picture: It will be fleet, well-shot and expensive-looking, without any implicit actor-director tension that might be caused by even the slightest of differing aims. Among Cruise’s current go-to guys, it’s Doug Liman who seems to have the best shot at making a meaningful triptych. Their American Made is the only Cruise movie of the past decade that doesn’t feel anything like a franchise play (it probably would have been a decent-sized hit in, say, 1998), and their Edge of Tomorrow may be Cruise’s best since his Spielberg days. It has a surprising amount in common with the Top Gun series: It’s also about a military version of Cruise who can’t die, fighting a conveniently unnamed enemy, and even follows the transition from callow, slick Cruise into sacrificially minded warrior Cruise.
Yet Edge of Tomorrow feels more alive than either Top Gun—more like a movie, and less like an immaculately crafted branding session. Though the lead character uses his time-loop status to hone his battle skills to a sharp, Cruise-like point, there’s at least an acknowledgment of all the trial and error that leads there—and what might be waiting on the other side of all that sacrifice. Look at the movie’s lovely final shot of Cruise’s face, laughing to himself as he gazes with relief upon the woman he loves who, thanks to a curtailed time loop, does not recognize him. It’s a Cruise movie that actually makes him look grateful to defy death, rather than stoically accepting it as his destiny! Liman may not be a visionary, but he may be the only recent Cruise director who can push back against his invincibility, however incidentally or even accidentally. Cruise has mostly used his talented collaborators to manage that brand of his, staying the course toward tactile real-world spectacle as he speeds toward his 60th birthday. Imagine what might happen if one of them decided to start using him for their own mysterious, mortal ends.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.