It begins with our hero pushing the envelope of aircraft technology, against all odds and the stern warnings of higher-ups.
His jaw clenches as the aircraft races to ever-loftier heights.
The heavens beckon as we’ve never seen before.
The soundtrack screams, the instrument panel glows and you can’t help it as your heart skips a few beats.
That was 1993’s “The Right Stuff” with actor Sam Shepard recreating the historic moment in 1947 when war hero Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly the experimental Bell X-1 at supersonic speed, defeating the so-called “demon in the sky.”
Fast forward to 2022 and this time, it’s Tom Cruise at the controls of a supersonic aircraft that would seem other-worldly in Yeager’s day.
He’s trying to save a test flight program by reaching Mach 10, against all odds and the stern warnings of higher-ups who have branded the program and Pete “Maverick” Mitchell both dinosaurs.
Does he succeed?
Well, it’s Tom Cruise after all, and the movie’s just getting started. So, you do the math.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is being released some 36 years after the original and is itself a kind of relic, a throwback to other decades when movies were driven by sheer star power and didn’t require the hero to wear Spandex or a cape.
It’s been said Cruise is the last Hollywood superstar, and that’s probably true. He has single-handedly shepherded, as both star and producer, some of the biggest blockbusters of the 2010’s, a feat achieved by no one else.
He re-energized the “Mission: Impossible” franchise by defying gravity and maybe common sense in stunts that had more than an edge of real danger. And there are two more installments to come, in 2023 and 2024.
By comparison, a movie about Navy fighter pilots and a sequel to one nearly 40 years old, though successful, might seem like a gamble for both Cruise and Paramount Pictures. But Tom Cruise is famous for breaking the rules.
He drives himself like no one else in Hollywood and it shows in “Maverick.”
The story is both original and an ode to what came before, including a heartfelt tribute to actor Val Kilmer who figured prominently in the first movie and who in real life has suffered a debilitating case of throat cancer.
Cruise insisted Kilmer’s character be brought back and the way Iceman’s story dovetails with the plot here is respectfully handled, even tender.
But it’s movie artistry that grabs you by the throat here and never lets go. The aerial stunt work in “Maverick” is pulse-quickening and jaw-dropping. The scenes hum with a realism that only practical effects can produce.
Which is why for months now, Paramount’s PR team has been telling anyone who’ll listen that all the main actors were filmed in the cockpits of contemporary jet fighters, doing actual stomach-churning rolls and vertical dives. Not like in days of old when actors merely sat on sets in blue-screen mockups.
The result is a seamless big-screen thrill ride, which is how Cruise had always envisioned it. As producer, he demanded an experience to see in a theater and to savor. Mission accomplished.
And as the star, he still holds the center, flashing that thousand-watt smile that first got him noticed.
And for those who might be too young to have seen the first “Top Gun,” or who didn’t bother the first time around, not to worry. The back story is explained with brief flashbacks and enough references to Pete Mitchell’s early maverick behavior that moviegoers are never at a loss for what’s happening on screen.
So, while we wait for the next “Mission: Impossible,” here’s an impossible mission with Tom Cruise once again at its cinematic core.
And still with a need for speed.