Late in the film adaptation of “No Country for Old Men,” aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell visits his uncle Ellis, a wheelchair-bound ex-lawman. Ed Tom laments the lost promise of old age, the absence of the enlightenment and tranquility that he presumed the creator would bestow upon Ed Tom in his twilight years. “What you got ain’t nothin’ new,” Ellis retorts. “This country is hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
A similar scene plays out during “Top Gun: Maverick,” when a middle-aged Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) visits his former wingman, “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). The cocky frenemies from 1986’s original “Top Gun” forged an icon-clad friendship in the decades hence, but they have led divergent lives. The renowned Maverick nonetheless remained moored as a captain because he still spends as much time getting dressed down by superior officers than inside cockpits. Meanwhile, Iceman rose to the rank of Admiral Kazansky and settled down with a big family. But, like Kilmer, cancer has left Iceman barely able to walk or talk.
The contrast between Cruise, still supping on some fountain of youth, and the frail Kilmer is stark and, for any child of the 1980s weaned on both actors’ movie stardom, more profoundly affecting than any dogfight. “Top Gun: Maverick” dusts off the basic playbook of the original blockbuster, but this sequel is steeped in the inevitability of mortality. Maverick is now the oldest guy in the bar. His latest love interest is Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly, with Kelly McGillis nowhere in sight), a single mom and admiral’s daughter offhandedly namechecked in the original film. When Penny invites Maverick over to canoodle, Maverick later leaps from her upstairs bedroom to avoid getting caught, not by Penny’s parents but instead her preteen daughter. Unlike its forerunner, which was firmly focused on restless youth, “Top Gun: Maverick” reminds us that life goes on after the final credits.
Two actors portrayed versions of Obi-Wan Kenobi last weekend. One was Ewan McGregor as the Jedi Knight in exile in the titular Disney+ limited series. The other is Cruise, as Maverick Mitchell, like old Ben, has spent the decades following the demise of both his best friend and fellow pilot, “Goose” Bradshaw, and Goose’s wife watching over and attempting to steer their scion, “Rooster” (Miles Teller), away from following in his father’s missteps. Destiny eventually arrives and Maverick is called upon to train young Rooster in the ways of the g-force.
Rooster embarks on a dangerous mission that involves traversing a narrow trench dotted with weapons turrets before eschewing his instruments and eyeballing a missile strike into a small exhaust port, destroying a nearly-constructing Death Sta … er, uranium enrichment facility. Maverick must choose to sacrifice himself to save his young apprentice. Oh, there’s also a young, skilled pilot-cum-scoundrel who later arrives just in time to save the day.
Rooster is one in a squadron of new hotshot recruits Maverick must hone for their secret operation in an otherwise thin and predictable plot. Unlike Viper in “Top Gun,” who showed his pupils how to become an ace aviator, Maverick seems pathologically compelled to show everyone that he’s still an ace aviator. Whereas the now-dated flying sequences in the original “Top Gun” were stitched together thanks to careful editing, three-plus decades of improved technology have resulted in the most immersive, exhilarating aerial filmmaking perhaps since 1930 audiences laid eyes on Howard Hughes’s “Hell’s Angels.” Director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”; “Oblivion”) puts both the actors and the viewers inside the cockpit, with real planes and real Gs.
Cruise launched his Hollywood career with “Top Gun” but, unlike most action actors, forged his early career seeking critical acclaim. It wasn’t until his 50s that Cruise became almost exclusively an action star and, largely through his partnership with filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie, revitalized and reframed the genre. “Top Gun: Maverick” continues that movement, with another “Mission: Impossible” movie just two months away. For all its recycled youthful exuberance, “Top Gun: Maverick” also reinforces that life ain’t waiting on us, that we can’t stop what’s coming. Thankfully, Maverick — and Cruise — ain’t done just yet.
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