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The secret of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is that it doesn’t try too hard

In an era of biggest, loudest, most outrageous, Tom Cruise proves that effortlessness is still his superpower

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in "Top Gun: Maverick." (Paramount Pictures)
5 min

“Top Gun: Maverick” has been described as many things in its mostly rave reviews: Thrilling. Slick. Visceral. That rare sequel that improves on the original at every hairpin turn.

The iconic 1986 “Top Gun” played like a parody of Reagan-era macho posturing. What makes “Maverick” such a bracing gust of cinematic pleasure is the fact that this time, all the shiny hardware, fist-bumping action, whooshing sound effects and bros-forever emotional beats are kept afloat so effortlessly.

'Top Gun: Maverick' rocks with finesse, style and genuine emotion

Effortlessness — the art of appearing nonchalant even when you’re working your hardest — might have been the cardinal virtue of cinema’s Golden Age, when stars like Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and Sidney Poitier personified its most elegant, unselfconscious values. But the term can apply just as aptly to movies themselves — when “motion” and “picture” converge on a sublime plane all their own, with sound, image, actor and emotion fusing to create an experience so organic that it feels as if it arrived on screen fully formed. A movie is effortless when it just feels right — or, conversely, feels just right.

Like the original, “Maverick” is a big, boisterous summer blockbuster, made for spectacle and sensation rather than subtlety. But it achieves all those aims with off-handed confidence that’s as disarming as it is startling, arriving at a time when showing your work has become a badge of honor, on screen and elsewhere. In the decade or so since Hollywood has turned to comic books and other IP for its business model, filmmakers have increasingly bought into the darker-equals-deeper myth, each one laboring with tight-lipped intensity to make their origin story drearier and more downbeat than the last. The other option seems to be fan service at its most arduously pandering, whether by way of characters (why settle for one Spider-Man when you can have all three?), cutesy crossovers (You got your Predator in my Alien! No, you got your Alien in my Predator!) and compulsive fusillades of in-jokes, nostalgic needle drops and quippy references (four words: “Guardians of the Galaxy”).

The strain is showing everywhere. From TikTok to the latest binge-worthy series; from the steps of the Met Gala to the carefully choreographed PDAs of paparazzi-prepped It Couples, the culture is awash in try-hards who don’t care if we can see them sweat. Seeing them sweat is the point. Meanwhile, over in real life, we’re working just as hard merely to keep it together amid war, pandemic, economic downturn and crushingly metronomic violence, a grind that has reduced all of us to knots of tense determination to not lose it, Lord, at least not today.

Next to this grim form of mindfulness, the breezily modest self-assurance of “Top Gun: Maverick” feels like a balm. And, of course, its easygoing mix of action, drama and lighthearted humor can be traced to one man: its producer and star, Tom Cruise.

Cruise seemed born for the camera when he became a star in 1983′s “Risky Business.” He became massive in the first “Top Gun,” his sharp-eyed gaze and signature grin becoming part of what looked like a billion-dollar brand. Still, underneath the cocky arrogance of his character, the viewer could detect a young actor working hard at seeming not to be working at all. It was in his successive roles — “The Color of Money,” “Rain Man,” “Born on the Fourth of July” — that Cruise’s single-minded ethic of drive and focus came into their own in toes-up, thoroughly inhabited performances.

He displayed just as much commitment when he subverted his own screen-idol persona by delivering astonishing turns in “Magnolia” and “Tropic Thunder.” Whether in comedies or dramas, action adventures or sci-fi fantasies, Cruise has mastered and keeps refining the art of appearing thoroughly relaxed and in command. This is why his “Mission: Impossible” franchise — the latest trailer of which can be seen before “Top Gun: Maverick” — became so much more reliably entertaining than the dour, adamantly un-playful Bond movies featuring Daniel Craig.

It’s also why Cruise’s most notorious off-screen moments have been so jarring. When he jumped on Oprah’s couch in 2005, professing his love for Katie Holmes to the point of protesting too much, it was one of the few times the actor let the aw-shucks veneer slip. His involvement with Scientology, which has been exposed as a dangerous and destructive cult, gives the lie to the off-handed demeanor he has cultivated over decades.

Of course, Cruise himself is anything but off-handed: Just watching him tirelessly work rope lines, press scrums and royal pomp during the global marketing push for “Top Gun: Maverick” makes that clear, as does his well-publicized insistence on doing his own stunts, even as he approaches his 60s. If Cruise’s obsessive focus, practiced professionalism and calculated image seem at odds with the unforced ease of his work on screen, that should come as no surprise: He’s a natural. So is his movie. Which makes it feel … just right.