Tom Cruise’s stardom is based on an oxymoron. Cruz is so cheesy and eager to please — so all-American, timeless, committed, enthusiastic, and idealistic, according to the rules of lackluster masculinity — that he surveys as super weird. And when he’s at his game, he’s intentionally funny. Strangeness said, demonstrating a sense of need despite his success in the stratosphere, in a way that makes him relate to it.
In other words, Cruise is so fake that it’s real, reflecting our insecurities and fantasies of success that the media inseminates us.
From the late 1980s through the early 2000s, when working with authors, Cruz showed a surprising willingness to question his image as a damaged actionman. These days, Cruz is all about polishing a legend, working with talented but relatively faceless people who won’t complicate his powers. Smart showman, Cruz still sells a certain kind of nervous weakness; As a ’80s and ’90s star who refuses to fade, and who can still command an expensive prop sequel, he’s both king and underdog.
There is something increasingly fanciful about him, an analog man in a digital world who believes you can still build success from unfashionable practical influences and overt military propaganda. This gamble, which embodies nostalgia, is the motivation behind Top Gun: Maverick.
Considering it’s a decades-delayed sequel to a critically hated movie, “Top Gun: Maverick” has received surprisingly positive reviews. A: Because the critics are much less discriminated than they were before and (b) because most of them, however they might pretend otherwise, are subject to nostalgia and the various forms of movie star manipulation described above. Yet every review I’ve read begins with an obligatory reminder that the 1986 film “Top Gun” epitomizes Reagan-era values, especially the perception of the U.S. military as an uncomplicated force for good that turns boys into men. That’s right, but there’s an “eat your veggie” feature in these recurring reminders, which must be crossed before critics admit that the fierce battle scenes in the new movie are astounding, and Cruz himself is at the hilarious climax of his hilarious life—after a highly potent star force.
Before we sing Top Gun movies on knuckles to sterilize war, which they do to an unforgiving degree, let’s take a moment to realize that many American pop movies do the same. What are Marvel products but are soul-boring symbols of intergalactic (read: global) war that mean nothing and cost absolutely nothing? As with the “Star Wars” movies. The depersonalization, indigestible violence, lack of sex, and dialogue are all too closely excluded from any eccentric human control in the modern pop movie, so why single out “Top Gun: Maverick?” Because he has a legacy legacies in the Reagan era, because he generates real military hardware, refines his imagination with real-world artifacts, and reminds us that our dreams of accidental control have a cost we must question.
“The Maverick” wants it both ways: He recklessly plays with war issues in the manner of a top ’80s movie, but is volatile in a modern way. I’m not going to pretend that the first “Top Gun” isn’t a shoddy and ridiculous movie, but I missed his crap while watching “Maverick”, which beats it. “Top Gun” is a sexist, titled Male Debauchery in which an angry fighter pilot is celebrated for doing whatever the hell he wanted. Cruz doesn’t shy away from the narcissism of Navy pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, perhaps because he didn’t, at the time, have the instinct to consider him wrong. The locker room scenes feature unbridled, politically incorrect eroticism punctuated by the big shots of all fighter jets gliding through the air to synthesize the low-rate music and songs that are still remembered today. Boomers and Gen Xers miss the ’80s crap for not apologizing for themselves, which feels almost dangerous and disruptive in an age when a celebrity has to apologize so hard for a tweet lest it get rescinded.
Cruz and his director Joseph Kosinski, as well as a group of screenwriters including maestro Christopher McCurry’s “Mission: Impossible,” throw sand in the locker room in bullshit in “Maverick.” In the first “Top Gun” movie, there is a real sense that male anarchy is barely and poorly exploited by the government. In “Maverick,” one sees a lot of young actors working hard to be dangerous while trading barbs that wouldn’t surprise a middle school teacher. The Maverick wants to bring back the ’80s, but tentatively, is that too masculine in a good way. This is the bad news.
Commodity news is that the “renegade” is still pretty weird, and it walks like greased lightning. One gets an idea of the film’s episodic madness immediately, when it is revealed that Maverick lives in the Mojave Desert in a hangar, sleeps with his pet plane and set up photos with former wingman Gus, who is notorious for killing him in the first film. At this point, Cruz treats us with a very contrived witch shot that’s silly and adorable: polishes his plane, flexes his biceps and shows us the muscle features that a tight white shirt barely has. It’s as if Cruise saw Megan Fox in the Transformers movie and had a lust… for himself. I don’t blame him: After pushing 60, Cruise can still fulfill that 42-year-old desire to commit to losing 20 (okay 30) pounds and start his morning ritual with sit-ups.
Cut to the chase, the Maverick remains a renegade; Legend has never risen through the ranks of the Navy because he is a brave addicted to the sky rush. On his way to dismissal after destroying an experimental plane, he is rescued by ailing former rival Iceman (Val Kilmer), now an admiral who orders his old friend back to Top Gun School to train cool new players for a mission that bears uncanny resemblance to a mission in the first Star Wars, except in an unnamed country. It is inhabited only by masked fighter pilots. This mission gives Maverick the opportunity to exorcise various evil spirits that he shares with Roster (Miles Teller), a talented pilot who is also the disgruntled son of Goose.
Cruz used to specialize in sons who had to get past a father’s problems in order to fly that plane, make that cocktail, or win a court case involving a few good men. But now, as in “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds,” which probably feature his best performances, Cruz is dancing the burdens of being a father. Yes, he does finally flirt with playing a warped sage, a possibility that is of course ignored when, in imitation of true contemporary Cruise film, “Maverick” reveals that his character is the only person who has led a team to destroy the Death Star, um, the uranium mine.
Maverick grapples with his legacy and obsolescence vividly reflects Cruz’s crusade to remain a box office draw, much as Ethan Hunt’s missions to save the world in the latest “Mission Impossible” sequel parallel his efforts as the show business’s deadliest man.
Where Tony Scott’s direction for “Top Gun” was amazing cut-and-paste, Kosinski was a classic. Compared to most recent blockbuster films, which are crowded, exaggeratedly plotted, and run at least an hour, Maverick is a remarkably straightforward and compelling work. There’s no scene pull (indeed, moments are often nipped in the bud prematurely), the plot is elemental, and the action scenes are models of visceral cause-and-effect cohesion, especially the truly exhilarating climax. It may be tempting to describe the film as impersonally effective, but this raises a paradox for Cruise.
Smooth and polished, without the agonizing violence, with no complicated relationship, the professional film suggests, as recent Mission: Impossible entries do, a dedication to the craft in itself that it is deeply unsettling. Cruz will do his stunts (fuck) and he’ll make the funniest movie (fuck) you’ll ever see in theaters (fuck, damn), you won’t learn a single thing about him that he doesn’t want you to know. Maverick, particularly in his latest (and moving) preposterous work, alludes to a fantasy whose protagonist may have spent one night during his death in a bar, the fantasy of going back and forth and editing the notebooks of his own life. This could also be Cruz’s imagination.
Which is to say that the film’s distrust of extraneous, revealing, potentially difficult or eccentric details is its character, and that “The Dissident” makes the non-character positively psychedelic. Critics may not admit it, but it’s fun eating junk food and watching movies of the impulse genre. The problem was that most modern pop cinema was not good enough to show that highly qualified tape.
In “Top Gun: Maverick,” Cruz makes our still-haunted obsessions. His devotion to America’s mystical story is more sobering than the boring, smeared, crowded reality that he has become a master at encouraging his audience to engage in his self-soothing. This is very scary and touching.