There’s a moment early in Tom Cruise’s first film in four years where his character must lay everything on the line and push himself beyond all the limits to save his team.

It’s a constant theme in the nearly 60-year-old actor’s latter career as Cruise constantly strives to top himself for the sake of blockbuster cinema, attempting to save theatrical releases by dangling from tall buildings, freefalling from heights unfathomable by anyone who isn’t a stuntman and literally flying fighter jets to show his face in the cockpit at Mach speeds.

Cruise’s endless bravado – a seemingly equal balance of boyish charisma and belief in his own invincibility – propels every choice he has made as an actor the past decade and a half, culminating in a death-defying Mission: Impossible franchise and now the resurgence of his 1980s classic Top Gun.

Director Joseph Kosinski reteams with Cruise for the first time since 2013’s “Oblivion” to modernize the aerial combat action drama, taking full advantage of cinematography advancements and Cruise’s obsession with creating unbelievable movie moments. Top Gun: Maverick puts Cruise back in the cockpit as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a former ace pilot called back into active duty to train the next generation of combat aces for a practically incompletable mission.

As with every film he attaches himself to these days, Cruise carries the weight of the entire project on his back from start to finish as audiences play co-pilot to Maverick’s rebellious nature that makes him the world’s premier dogfighter and rubs most of those around him the wrong way.

It’s a role Cruise has played many variations on over the years, but this return to the character is more self-reflective and emotional than one might expect as viewers can feel the weight of unrealistic expectations Maverick places on himself in Cruise’s face. Although there isn’t as much character work done on the post-traumatic stress that Maverick clearly hasn’t totally worked through, it’s easily overlooked thanks to Cruise’s relentless energy and charisma.

The film’s ensemble cast does well to work around the gravitational pull that the last true movie star brings to Top Gun: Maverick and the next generation of pilots led by a very nuanced turn from Miles Teller as a pilot with ties to Maverick and Glen Powell as his cocky rival help draw viewers into the larger story.

Val Kilmer’s return to Top Gun provides the most emotional impact in the film and his performance is incredibly bittersweet and poignant despite the lack of heavy drama surrounding Maverick’s PTSD amid the burdens he carries.

Fervent fans of the original film will find a lot of similarities in this legacy sequel, from near identical opening credits and orchestral themes to the flight school rivalries and shirtless sporting events that mirror the 80s classic.

Where the biggest changes are, however, are in the visuals.

The most arresting moments of Top Gun: Maverick come in the lengthy, spectacular aerial combat sequences, filmed practically with several IMAX cameras attached to the cockpit and nose of F-18 fighter jets that capture both the dazzling maneuvers flown by true elite Navy aviators as well as the genuine reactions and performances of the actors who are in the planes themselves and not acting in a green screen environment.

Aerial combat has never felt as real and dynamic on screen as it does here, far surpassing the limitations of technology in the 1980s original film and creating a level of harrowing, yet magnetic cinema that viewers could easily watch several hours of regardless of a storyline.

Hundreds of hours of footage captured by these Navy pilots both with the actors and through external jets following the action are meticulously edited into a crisp, supersonic freight train of exhilaration that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats and vault Top Gun: Maverick into contention for the year’s best film.

Though there will likely only be room for one, perhaps two, early blockbusters come awards season, Top Gun: Maverick has the firepower cinematically to edge out The Batman and Everything Everywhere All At Once as the first half of the year hit to earn a Best Picture nomination and it’s all but certain to receive nods in editing, sound and best original song for Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” which plays over the end credits.

Top Gun: Maverick has absolutely everything one might expect from a Cruise-led movie: Tom riding a motorcycle, Tom running at full speed, Tom grinning like he just stole something, everyone else around him in awe of Tom being Tom. Cruise’s magnetism and the dynamic thrills of the aerial artistry make this summer hit one of the best blockbuster films of the last 10 years and something cinephiles need to see in the biggest screen possible.

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