Danger Zone, why Top Gun: Maverick is the most Tom Cruise movie of all time

His voice is a little deeper, there are a few wrinkles around his eyes, but Tom Cruise is as we remember him. At 59, Cruise has been one of the few constants in the ever-changing film industry.

He has yet to play a superhero. He resisted the call of the television sirens.

“I make movies for the big screen,” he recently told crowds at the Cannes Film Festival where he presented Top Gun: Mavericka sequel to director Tony Scott’s 1986 dogfight film.

There was a time when Cruise stirred things up. He was the slippery sex guru of Magnolia. The bellowing studio director of Thunder in the tropics. Even director Stanley Kubrick found complexity in Cruise’s Ken doll charisma in the steamy Eyes wide closed.

For the past decade, Cruise has been laser-focused on one singular character type: The Best. Whether he’s a space ranger, fighter pilot, or secret agent, Cruise plays the optimal human. The bravest. The most determined. The only flaws come from those who stand in his way.

Which brings us to Cruise’s return as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. As the breathless Admiral Bates says in the new film, “his exploits are legendary”.

Known by his call sign, Maverick is one of the Navy’s most experienced combat pilots. Set 30 years after the original, the film opens with Maverick working as a test pilot. As Cruise pushes the experimental jet past Mach 10, pounding the dashboard with his “Come On!” a stone-eyed Rear Admiral (Ed Harris) orders him to land.

He does not do.

But before the Admiral can clip his wings, there are new orders: go to the Top Gun training school.

If the cycle of bravery with a hint of insubordination sounds familiar, buckle up, because Top Gun: Maverick is a homing missile of movie memorabilia, weaponizing every frame of the original film for maximum impact.

Jennifer Connelly plays Penny, a local bar owner and old flame from Maverick’s who just can’t resist the pilot’s approach. (Paramount Pictures)

As for the original, Top Gun: Maverick opens with a montage of breathtaking take-offs, fiery afterburners, all accompanied by the classic song by Kenny Loggins Dangerous zone. America’s war machine has never looked better.

But that’s just the warm-up.

As he prepares to return to Top Gun Academy, Cruise fires Jacket out of his locker. He puts on the mirrored sunglasses and jumps on his Kawasaki motorbike. Director Joseph Kosinski films Maverick’s return to flight school with all the majesty of a knight in shining armor riding his mount.

As Cruise walks past the tarmac, he is unaware that this is another type of mission. He’s no longer a competitor, he’s now the teacher – and he’ll train a new generation of elite fighter pilots to destroy a dangerous uranium enrichment facility. The country of this rogue state is never mentioned. To maximize profitability and avoid any potential infringement, the film’s policy was completely neutralized to the point that even Cruise’s famous flight jacket had The Japanese and Taiwanese flags were removed to avoid upsetting China.

Top Gun: Maverick is not a subtle film. It’s a story where each young pilot comes with a call sign and their own baggage, repeated several times for maximum clarity. Glen Powell plays the Hangman, a pilot with a carnivorous smile who only takes care of himself. Then there’s the rooster, played by mustachioed Miles Teller, who doesn’t know when to shoot.

In Top Gun: Maverick, the character of Cruise is responsible for preparing a new generation of flight pilots for a dangerous mission to destroy a uranium enrichment plant. (Paramount Pictures)

Rooster is more than a pilot fighting his instincts, he’s the frustrated son of Goose – who died when Maverick’s jet spun out of control 30 years ago. With Teller’s height and long face, he could easily be the son of actor Anthony Edwards who played his fictional father in the original.

Militarily, Maverick’s biggest challenge is preparing the students for a seemingly impossible three-week mission. But what he’s really fighting are the ghosts of the past, grappling with the death of his friend and the responsibility of putting Goose’s son in danger.

It’s hard to criticize how heavy the storytelling is because the movie is so bare bones in its intentions. This smart bomb of nostalgia reuses every element of the original, from the sweaty beach sports sequence to the pumping synth pop in the background. Even Val Kilmer, who lost his voice to throat cancer, was drafted in and returns as the Iceman, now promoted and acting as Maverick’s guardian angel. While Kilmer’s role is mostly silent, his star presence is enough to make his brief appearance effective.

In the center, Miles Teller plays Rooster, the son of Goose, who died during a training mission with Maverick. (Paramount Pictures)

What Top Gun: Maverick lack of subtlety which it makes up for with stunning cinematography and flight sequences with actors at the center of the action. Cruise is an experienced pilot who is known for pushing his cast and crew. Not only did he design a five-month flight training course for young actors, but he reportedly insisted that the camera system be placed in the cockpits to capture flight maneuvers. The result is a breathtaking mix of actors and real aerial footage.

We’re so used to watching computer-generated effects that it takes a moment to realize they’re real canyons and clouds streaking past the actors as the world sways around them like a gyroscope.

Monica Barbaro and Cruise prepare for a scene using the special camera system that captures the actors in the cockpit during live flights. (Scott Garfield)

But there’s one special effect that Cruise can’t replicate: the vulnerability of his younger self. Yes, the 1986 Tom Cruise was a bit of a babyface that looked like it should barely drive, let alone the $30 million fighter jets. But there was a spark of danger there. Pete had something to prove. He earned that call sign Maverick. Even Iceman didn’t trust him. He was too hungry, too reckless.

In the sequel, nothing is left to chance. The camera revolves around him, his skills are undeniable. Even Jennifer Connelly as old flame Penny inevitably relents with a love scene that has all the passion of a Christmas card. But that too makes sense. There’s an almost holy air to the characters Cruise plays now. He went beyond the needs of the flesh. Call it Tom’s Church.

Top Gun: Maverick ends with a mind-blowing 30-minute climax filled with roaring squirts and close calls. His face hidden behind the oxygen mask, we only have Cruise’s eyes and voice. The jet became a projection of his will.

“Don’t think, do it,” he tells Rooster as they fly over the field.

The actor has spent the past 10 years showing us he’s the best at everything. He has clearly convinced himself and the people he works with. But in its mania for controlling every element, it’s lost some of the spark that made it so watchable in the first place.

Top Gun: Maverick hits theaters May 27