Time has given this series a chance to reflect — even as it excels at showing how planes go vroom real good
(Consider this your spoiler warning for Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick)
A lot of Joseph Kosinski’s record-breaking Top Gun: Maverick recreates sequences from Tony Scott’s original film. Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is taken to task for stunts in an aircraft by a stern, bald-headed superior officer before being told he’s expected at Top Gun, the elite training school for Naval aviators. While there, he races jets on his motorcycle on the runway, has a number of charged exchanges with a beautiful woman who works there, and encounters conflicts of personality before experiencing personal loss and being thrown into a life-or-death conflict that will put all his skills to the test.
Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
But for all the new film’s reverent recreation of Top Gun’s story structure, the 36 years since the original unavoidably weigh on every facet of the story — and since you’re not going to make a Top Gun movie without putting Tom Cruise in a fighter jet, the film has to reckon with why Maverick would still be flying fighter jets nearly four decades later. In doing so, the film not only makes smart use of the intervening years to keep the world and characters familiar but not trapped in amber while also addressing a few of the shortcomings that the original film papered over with style.
The original Top Gun isn’t a great film, but it is a great vibe. Magic hour, slow motion, F-14s going real fast, guys exchanging sexually-charged banter in locker rooms and glistening in the sun as they play beach volleyball — the sense of time can be as nebulous as the intentionally-vague MiG-bound antagonists that bookend the film. A lot of the film almost seems to be arguing with itself, positioning Maverick as a careless hotshot sorely in need of a lesson while also insisting that the tragic accident that is positioned as the fulcrum of said lesson wasn’t actually his fault. Val Kilmer’s aloof rival pilot Iceman comes off like an ’80s high school bully for much of the film, but everything he’s saying about Maverick’s attitude is on point.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily matter if the vibe of Top Gun works for you, because Anthony Edwards is genuinely great as Goose; he and Cruise have awesome chemistry to make you feel for Goose’s death. Meg Ryan is Meg Fucking Ryan, so even though she has a nothing role as Mrs. Goose, she owns the frame from the minute she enters and the Bradshaw family is etched indelibly into the audience’s memory. Kilmer is also ludicrously effective—it’s no accident that this film gave him the same superstar bump it gave to Cruise—so that when it comes time for the “rivals team up in Act 3 to kick ass” finale, the audience wants to ride the cathartic high of that aircraft carrier embrace for another three movies.
Obviously, various factors kept getting in the way until, I’m assuming, 2015, when Tom Cruise saw Creed and The Force Awakens and asked “Okay, why don’t we just do both of them in the same movie?” If there’s a major knock against the movie, it’s that it’s so clearly engineered from the approach of doing ‘the garbage will do’ as the grand finale. However, the quality of said engineering is pretty impressive, especially in how it turns the fact that it’s been so long since we last checked in on everyone into some unexpectedly strong lemonade.
I’m a big fan of movies that feel like they had a whole other movie happen before them that we just never got to see (see: Scream, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Cabin in the Woods), and Top Gun: Maverick shows us a world that’s three or four movies worth of material later. While it feels silly for the movie to treat one-off lines from the original with the same reverence as later Star Wars films without having other actual films codifying them as fandom incantations, even Cruise is starting to show the years alongside the mileage, and the movie leans into that. The movie’s awe-inspiring test flight sequence introduces Maverick as “the fastest man alive,” but he’s still flying in place. The world has moved on while he’s still just a captain — both out of a desire to stay an active pilot for as long as possible and to keep those depending on him in the air alongside him.
The movie also argues that Maverick is just kind of a fuck-up outside his very narrow skill set of “flying fast planes real good.”
I wasn’t expecting the return of Tom “Iceman” Kasanzky to carry the emotional weight of the film. Aside from positioning Iceman as one of the few people who’ll still vouch for Maverick when he screws up, the movie also reassures you that all those buddy movies with Maverick and Iceman that you imagined definitely did happen and were awesome—hence the reason that the Navy calls on Maverick when they need pilots with air-to-air combat experience when tasked with destroying a hostile nuclear facility entrenched in dangerous enemy terrain. It’s a bit of a narrative cheat, but the actors sell the relationship with aplomb and the story uses it just enough to garnish the rest of its genuinely effective emotional beats.
The most effective of these combines three elements nominally carried over from the original, but all used with clarity and craft. Where Top Gun was basically a sports movie where the pilots are competing to win points towards a trophy, only to be called up for a rescue op because Act 3 needed explosions, the mission in Maverick looms over the entire film. A lot of the film functions as a “teacher movie” where Maverick is trying to feel out which of the best-of-the-best pilots have what it takes to fly the mission — including whether or not to send out Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, Goose’s son.
The easy (and wrong) call for shake-and-bake character conflict between these two would just be to have Rooster hung up and blaming his dad’s death on Maverick, but the film zigs instead of zagging. Those rad Maverick and Iceman movies that never happened also evidently had a lot of “being close with young Bradley” scenes in them, because Maverick gives these two a history of closeness that ended much more recently. Rooster’s pissed that Maverick stood in the way of going to the academy and training as a pilot, adding “replacement father figure” to the list of things Maverick has attempted and screwed up while also presenting the question: Was Maverick right that Rooster wasn’t ready yet?”
The third element that sends this film hurtling into the finale with high stakes is Jennifer Connelly’s Penny Benjamin.
Screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie take a brief mention of an admiral’s daughter in the first movie and create an on again/off again Beatrice to Maverick’s Benedick. Connelly goes toe to toe with both Cruise’s smoldering smile and his ability to wear nice jackets while looking cool as shit, and casually walks away with huge chunks of the film. She’s also a reminder of how relationships are yet another thing Maverick never figured out, and the hints that he may finally be working up to addressing this, which makes the tension for the finale razor-sharp when he’s picked as team leader for the mission.
We’re used to Cruise’s smile and intensity, but something that he brings to Maverick is a genuine weariness and melancholy. Maverick is still a grinning hotshot when he’s on his motorcycle racing jets, but he’s also been sobered by a lifetime of near misses. He knows he’s on borrowed time, not just because remote pilots and drone aircraft are being presented to him as the inevitable future, but also because shit happens “if you fly jets long enough,” and he’s been flying them a long time indeed. It’s not likely to win him an Oscar, but Cruise’s commitment comes with the considerable acting chops he’s developed over the decades, and lets him say a lot even when Maverick isn’t speaking at all.
Act 3 is also where the film gets to finish showing off how far its aerial photography has come from the original. No disrespect intended to the late great Scott, but the technology of the time led to a lot of closeups on actors’s faces and fighter plane business that only kinda makes sense thanks to skillful editing. But because Cruise is a crazy person and got the military to let him and the other actors strap IMAX cameras to F-18s, things are a bit different this time.
Easily the best reason to see this film in theaters is the sheer spectacle of being inside the cockpit of a fighter jet while the mountains go whizzing by in the background. I’m a huge proponent for visual effects artists doing what they do so that actors and stunt people don’t have to put themselves in danger unnecessarily, but what everyone (including the digital artists) pulls off here is spectacular. Watching the actors not only react to the speed the aircraft is going, but also using more of their bodies in acting out the piloting maneuvers makes a world of difference.
Top Gun: Maverick taps into something primal, the infamous “need for speed” fulfilled on an insane canvas with simple but crystal clear personal stakes and just enough turns of the “How will they get out of this one?” screw. Top Gun: Maverick is not a reinvention or even a major overhaul of what made the original such a success and an enduring cultural touchstone, but a slick tune-up that nudges all the right parts into place. It’s also playing fair, so that even brazenly pandering moments like “Chekhov’s Tomcat” work as a payoff in spite of how much you want to roll your eyes.
In addressing its predecessor’s shortcomings, Maverick gives you the Top Gun movie you remember, and confidently sticks the landing on the highway to. . . well, you know.