Obsolescence is not something Tom Cruise considers. Obsolescence consumes Tom Cruise. One could argue obsolescence has enjoyed a rent-controlled, utilities-included life in Cruise’s mind ever since his first sight of graying hair pushed his pathological passion to please people into overdrive. But obsolescence has luxuriated in Cruise’s mental penthouse for nearly a decade, ever since Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation simultaneously hoisted its fist skyward about how awesome it feels to be The Guy and examined how exhausting it must be.

At the time, the fictitious Ethan Hunt’s weary resignation and consideration of an exit strategy mirrored Cruise’s own: How many times would the actor push his physical capabilities to the limit for the sake of awe and just how many more Missions would Cruise, then 52, accept? (If you believe industry scuttlebutt and presume we all survive until 2024, the answer is three. Oh, and he also might be filming a movie in space. Who knows?)

Obsolescence then gutted and redecorated the place after a rancid run of the career-low Jack Reacher: Farts Smell Bad, 2017’s The Mummy and American Made. This triple feature would have been a triple tap to most fading superstars, but Cruise took it as a course corrective: Never again would he exert anything less than utmost quality control on anything bearing his name.

Then came the mind-blowing glory of 2018’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout, the only other sixth-film-as-best-film in a franchise besides Fast & Furious. The success of Fallout didn’t send obsolescence packing, but it at least required some new roommates to cover the note. Hot on its heels was to be Top Gun: Maverick, a decades-later legacy-quel to the testimonial of ’80s testosterone that transformed Cruise’s career. But a planned 2019 release turned to 2020, and then 2020 turned to … well. But 2020 also turned Cruise’s anxieties about obsolescence into something new — the living manifestation of a completion bond.

In December 2020, Cruise took lumps over audio leaked from the set of the Mission: Impossible installment (shot in the thick of the pandemic) during which he berated crew members who had violated COVID protocols:

“We are the gold standard! They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us! Because they believe in us and what we’re doing! I’m on the phone with every fucking studio at night. Insurance companies! Producers! And they’re looking at us and using us to make their movies. We are creating thousands of jobs, you motherfuckers! … No apologies. You can tell it to the people who are losing their fucking homes because our industry is shut down. It’s not gonna put food on their table or pay for their college education. THAT’S what I sleep with every night. The future of this fucking industry! So, I’m sorry, but I am beyond your apologies. I have told you and now I want it, and if you don’t do it, you’re out!”

Who could have known then that Cruise’s tirade would telegraph the far less profane prologue of Top Gun: Maverick? (One of the last pre-pandemic blockbusters left to launch, the film finally hits theatres this week, more than three full years after principal photography ended.) 

Once the pride of the Navy’s fighter-pilot squadron, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is, after all these years, still just a Captain (“decorated,” he’s quick to note). Still, his renegade choices have relegated him out of relevance in an increasingly automated military world. Being a test pilot feeds Maverick’s need for speed, but Halloween-themed airshows pay the bills.

The former won’t be around for long, either, not with Pentagon budgets prioritizing drone flights. It’s the rationale Rear Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) uses for an early shutdown of Maverick’s latest project, a plane he plans to push to Mach 10 (or roughly 7,673 miles per hour). Relishing his role as a reaper of rogues like Maverick, Cain is en route to can this plan in person. Ah, but Cain is not there yet, Maverick tells Hondo (Bashir Salahuddin), his new “guy in the chair” as it were.

“Do you know what will happen to you if you do this?” Hondo asks.

Maverick’s reply: “I know what happens to everyone else if I don’t,” amid a montage of control-room faces that may as well be the gaffers and grips to whom Cruise referred in real life.

I’ve said before that because Tom Cruise can make any movie he wishes, all Tom Cruise movies are ostensibly about his wishes. As if the aforementioned bit weren’t instructive enough about what Cruise wants to will into existence with Top Gun: Maverick, consider this exchange with Hondo:

“I don’t like that look, man.”

“It’s the only one I got.”

No one would ever accuse Cruise of subtlety. Part of Top Gun: Maverick’s long and winding road to theatres came at his insistence that his cabal of new actors experience full-on flight school — in which they would not only pilot jets themselves but serve as self-cinematographers in close-quarter cockpits. There are obviously some digital embellishments 36 years (!) after the original film, but a priority on practical effects ported over from Cruise’s Mission franchise lends a hair-raising authenticity to these aerial sequences, all apt to pin you to your seat in what will certainly be the summer season’s most simultaneously stressful and exhilarating third act.

And once director Joseph Kosinski (reuniting with Cruise after 2013’s underrated Oblivion) moves past nostalgic reconnoiters on late Top Gun director Tony Scott’s compositions, his own craftsmanship comes through. Kosinski commandeers a compelling sense of controlled chaos and calculated suspense in the sky in a manner rendering the original’s toothless climax (a last-minute remembrance that a fighter-plane film should have dogfights) even more ridiculous. Then again, Top Gun has always been a mood masquerading as a movie. At least the screenwriter surplus that now comes standard for such long-gestating blockbusters (five credited here) pulls together a sufficiently sophisticated story. 

Maverick is still holding on to pictures of Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), the beloved wingman he lost to an ejector-seat malfunction after making an ill-timed hot-dog maneuver. He’s also haunted by Bradley Bradshaw, Goose’s late son — now himself a Navy fighter pilot with a call sign of, ahem, Rooster, and played with an almost supernatural resemblance to Edwards by Miles Teller, who channels his unlikability into his most uncommonly soulful performance since Whiplash.

All that Maverick has to show for his vehement envelope-pushing is a vapor trail of vigorously pissed-off rear admirals, but a buddy from his past turned top-brass benefactor continues to bail him out. So it goes as Cain is about to lower the boom and Maverick is dispatched to the Top Gun flight school — now under the authoritarian domain of Vice Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm).

Simpson informs Maverick of unsanctioned uranium enrichment underway in an unnamed but very hostile, very Eastern European and very mountainous nation. The enrichment site rests in a valley where GPS is jammed, so drone strikes are off the table. It’s guarded by stacked racks of surface-to-air missiles set to fire on aircraft flying even just a few hundred feet off the ground. 

Getting there will require pilots to fly no higher than 100 feet, at a minimum of 760 miles per hour, across a treacherous, winding mountain pass. After one loop-de-loop over the mountain, they must drop “consecutive miracle” bombs on a target 10 feet wide, then pull up at a steep incline where the G-force will press their brains against their skulls. Provided they don’t pass out, they’ll emerge into “Coffin Corner,” where surface-to-air missiles will unleash hell and they’ll have to dogfight any deployed bogeys — all “fifth-generation fighters” advanced well beyond the good guys’ F/A-18 Hornets. Oh, and they have to do all this in a minute less than it would take to listen to “Danger Zone.”

Anyone familiar with the impish, boundary-pushing work of Cruise’s creative impresario, Christopher McQuarrie, will sense his prototypical all-in push here — as if he scoured several hundred Navy-pilot deathtrap scenarios and smashed together his seven favorites. Co-written by McQuarrie, Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Peter Craig and Justin Marks, the script stamps this suicide mission’s details into our minds early in the first act so that, by the time it takes place, it feels like a Danny Ocean heist in mid-air at Mach 1 across a matter of minutes.

Maverick thinks Simpson wants him to fly the mission. Instead, he wants him to train the Navy’s 12 best fighter pilots on the mission and then pick six to carry it out. Maverick’s previous stint as a Top Gun instructor lasted a couple of months, and now he’s being asked not to teach what he does but who he is — an intangible almost as insurmountable as the mission specs. (“A man flies like Maverick or a man does not come back,” it’s said of this mission.) 

And that’s before Bradley (whose call sign is, ahem, Rooster) walks in as one of the dozen for the drill. Rooster is skilled but cautious, carrying an inherent in-flight trepidation after what happened to his dad that’s used as an argument against him by hotshots like Hangman (Glen Powell, perfectly inheriting Val Kilmer’s Ice-mantle of well-tanned intimidation from the first film). Maverick has understandable hangups about pushing Rooster toward his fate, experiencing borderline PTSD with a nostalgic singalong that hits too close to his troubled memories.

Will Maverick’s guilt create confrontations with Rooster? Will Hangman’s goat-getting guile slide under Rooster’s skin? Will Maverick try to take his mind off all this by acting like a horny teenager with an old flame (Jennifer Connelly) who’s oh-so-briefly mentioned in the first film? Will circumstances push Maverick and Rooster toward a rather immersive therapy session?

Because a Top Gun film can only be so demanding, Maverick literalizes nearly all of what it’s doing. It’s a blockbuster. That’s part of the playbook. But it gets away with its textual excess by emphasizing remorse and regret as deeply as the original did cockiness. The only way for Maverick to process grief has been to keep it at his tailwind or compress it with a lifetime of sin-eating — for the Bradshaw family and the U.S. military. (Maverick is shrewd enough to see only a splinter of distinction between an automaton soldier and an automated aircraft.) As Maverick calls out for Goose during the Mach 10 prologue, he’s chasing communion with his confidante up there in a stratospheric slipstream. He could do this on the ground with Goose’s survivors, but that would mean breaking a silence that’s as comfortable as his iconic jacket. Maverick is never the sort of guy to say those three little words, but there are six little words that resonate in the resolution thanks to the near-tears earnestness with which Cruise musters the strength to utter them.

For the roles afforded the latitude to match him, the cast meets Cruise in this character-driven challenge while Claudio Miranda’s crisp cinematography focuses on scars, striations and stretched skin that emphasizes the aged, fragile flesh endangered here. Ultimately, Top Gun: Maverick does enough to forgive its occasional narrative sloppiness (what Hangman does and doesn’t know about Maverick’s reputation), a haphazard engagement of talented actors (Kosinski flirts with making Connelly the “woman on the phone” as he deftly avoided in his underseen Only the Brave), unnecessary rah-rah moments with a Rear Admiral reiterating Maverick’s righteousness, and a cameo appearance for which a couple of callous choices upend marvelous moments of broken men mulling over fault and forgiveness.

Those who proclaim Cruise is somehow single-handedly saving mainstream action cinema are just being snobs. He would be the first to echo that’s a myopic rejection of the rigorous work of his creative contemporaries. But he is invigoratingly challenging their bona fides when most still-sexy sexagenarians would simply let more limber folks handle the toughest stuff themselves. “Time … is your greatest enemy,” Maverick intones as his face fills the screen. Again, not subtle. Obsolescence will come for us all, even Tom Cruise, but not yet. Not today. That’s the message in Maverick and the M.O. for its main attraction — whose rousing razzle-dazzle will not last forever and which Maverick reinforces as something we should cherish while we can.