"Top Gun: Maverick" is a longer, costlier and appreciably weightier affair, and its expanded emotional scope and heightened production values (including a score by the original film's composer, Harold Faltermeyer) give it a classy, elegiac sheen; it's like a hot summer diversion in prestige-dinosaur drag, or vice versa. As a rare big-budget Hollywood movie about men and women who fly without capes, it has a lot riding on it. Once set for a summer 2020 release but delayed almost two years by the pandemic, it arrives bearing the hopes and dreams of a tentatively resurgent industry that could use a non-Marvel theatrical hit. And as such, everything about its story — from the intergenerational conflict to the high stakes of Maverick's mission to the rusted-out F-14s collecting dust at the periphery of the action — carries an unmistakable subtext. Is this movie one of the last gasps of a dying Hollywood empire? Or is its emotionally stirring, viscerally gripping and proudly old-fashioned storytelling the latest adrenaline shot that the industry so desperately needs?
It's hard to consider any of this apart from Cruise, whose attention-grabbing actions during an earlier phase of the pandemic — shooting a video of himself going to see "Tenet" in a packed London theater, verbally lashing members of his "Mission: Impossible" crew for flouting COVID-19 protocols — suggest a man who's placed the weight of an entire troubled industry on his own shoulders. His endless search for the perfect action vehicle has sometimes felt like a quest for some elusive fountain of Hollywood youth, and it's led to gratifying highs ("Edge of Tomorrow") and inexplicable lows ("The Mummy"). Like Maverick, to whom someone wise once said, "Son, your ego is writing checks that your body can't cash," Cruise just won't quit, won't give up, won't listen to anyone who tells him no. As a sometime fan of Cruise's egomania, at least when he's dangling from a helicopter or literally running to catch a plane, I'm not really complaining.
And so there's some irony and maybe even a hint of self-awareness in the fact that while Cruise owns just about every moment of this movie, another star winds up stealing it. As Iceman, Maverick's old adversary turned wingman, mentor and ally, Val Kilmer haunts "Top Gun: Maverick" from its earliest moments but enters it surprisingly late, anchoring a perfectly timed, beautifully played scene that kicks the movie into emotional overdrive. Watching Ice as he greets and counsels Maverick, you may find yourself thinking about the actor playing him, about the recent toll on his health and the rickety trajectory of his own post-'80s and '90s career, subjects that were illuminated by the recent documentary "Val." In one fictional moment, he gives us something unmistakably, irreducibly real, partly by puncturing the fantasy of human invincibility that his co-star has never stopped trying to sell.
‘TOP GUN: MAVERICK’
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense action, and some strong language)
Running time: 2:17
How to watch: In theaters May 27
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