I recently had a wise person tell me that nostalgia is for those who are afraid to face the present, and I tend to agree with that. By that token, those walking into a sequel are more than likely looking for more of the same or at least as many familiar callbacks to previous films as possible. I’m cut from a different cloth—not a better or worse one, just different—that is looking for growth and expansion beyond what has come before. How can characters I now care about develop and grow beyond their humble beginnings? How can the filmmakers set them on a new adventure that gives us new insight into the characters’ abilities?
So, where does Top Gun: Maverick fall on this spectrum of nostalgia mining? It’s essentially like the filmmakers consumed the 1986 original, chewed it thoroughly and then threw it back up on the screen. The original bites aren’t all in the same order, and the resulting product may not look exactly like the original, but there is so much Top Gun flavor and aesthetics that it can hardly be called a new movie. For example, if you told me the opening credits sequence (once again set to Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”) of fighter jets taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier during the golden hour (the film’s aping of original director Tony Scott’s style is shameless throughout) was recycled footage from the original Top Gun, I wouldn’t have questioned you for a second. Still, my hopes were high that this mini-tribute would be the end of the carbon-copying of a film that was always high on style and light on story or character development.
Director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, Oblivion) has studied the first film with an electron microscope, and a series of writers that includes star Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (as well as Ehren Kruger and Eric Warren Singer) have pieced together a story that beat-for-beat matches sequences and character types of the original to a degree that it’s somewhat alarming. There are flashback sequences to the first film that make it seem like nothing else has happened to Peter “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) aside from those brief weeks featured in that movie. It’s been 35-plus years since Top Gun; has this man not had a life since then?
There’s a shirtless beach sporting event once again, bonding moments in the same local bar, and familiar rivalries among pilots who should all be working toward a common goal rather than squabbling about nonsense. Perhaps most importantly, there is the son of Maverick’s late flying partner Goose, a young man named Rooster (Miles Teller), who still resents Maverick—not for his father’s death but for holding back his application to the academy, something that waylaid his career for several years. There’s also the film’s big cameo moment, the return of Iceman (Val Kilmer), now a Navy admiral, slowly dying of cancer, who has been protecting the outdated Maverick from getting sidelined in recent years while other more progressive Navy leaders and new technology are threatening to push him to the side.
We’re told Maverick has resisted getting promoted because it would take him out of the cockpit, but early in the film, he’s transferred by his commanding officer (Ed Harris) back to the training facility known as Top Gun to teach the best pilots the Navy has to offer for a very specific mission. Not to get sidetracked, but the fact that the film never names or even hints at who the “enemy” is in this story is not only blatant, it’s distracting, especially when we see the enemy pilots are wearing tinted visors, so we can’t even see their faces. They really don’t want to alienate any potential ticket buyer, do they? Maverick may be there at the behest of Iceman, but that doesn’t stop the mission head (Jon Hamm) from resenting his being there. Still, Maverick being Maverick and Cruise being Cruise, he has the stuff to not only make pilots better but turn these flyers into a cohesive team capable of carrying out this mission, seemingly under unsurvivable odds.
To help lighten the mood, Jennifer Connelly is tossed into the mix as bar owner Penny Benjamin (who is referenced in Top Gun as a former love interest of Maverick) as a potential rekindled flame. Connelly has grown into such a strong actor in recent years that being in this movie feels like slumming for her, but it also makes her the real heart, soul and voice of reason in a film about characters far too often ruled by impulse and emotion. The things that are wrong with Top Gun: Maverick are in no way her doing.
We’re also given a handful of young pilots, the most memorable of whom is Glen Powell’s Hangman, who is effectively taking over the Iceman rivalry, with Rooster being the new Maverick. I also liked the partnership of the sole female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and her nerdy flying partner Bob (Lewis Pullman), if only because they don’t look and act like all the other pilots. The film deals with nearly every other major character from the first film you might expect to show up (though Meg Ryan’s Carole, Rooster’s mom, is dead, while Kelly McGillis’s Charlie is just gone, presumably having aged out of Maverick’s rotation).
Of course, the one thing I haven’t addressed are the flying sequences, and that’s because there was never any doubt in my mind that they would be the showcase of this movie. Both the training sequences and the final aerial mission are spectacularly filmed by director Kosinski, in terms of both the visuals and the geography of the mission and ensuing battle. The aerial acrobatics may turn your stomach, but they are breathtaking; they also mark the only true departure the film takes from Top Gun, feeling more like actual action scenes with stakes and not just recruiting footage for the U.S. Navy. I understood the mission, the terrain, the requirements of the pilots, and the fighting tactics, all of which would have been very easy to get wrong. It takes a long time to get there, but once we do, it’s spectacular and clearly meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Top Gun: Maverick isn’t just about flying antics, G-forces or staying cool under pressure. It’s really about Tom Cruise, who allows himself to show his age here (he turns 60 in July, which is difficult to fathom). There are a few tight close-ups on his face where we clearly see wrinkles, leathered skin, and perhaps even a hint of the wisdom that comes with age. Maverick is not a wild man any longer, but he’s not ready to be put out to pasture either. The film is about how a guy well past middle age can still kick ass, and this is a message that Cruise wants to deliver as loudly as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Message received. I just wish it had been in a better movie. I guess I’ll have to wait to receive said message in a year with the new Mission: Impossible movie.
Top Gun: Maverick opens theatrically on Friday.
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