Top Gun: Maverick
★★★☆☆
Long before we had enough of them to require the term “legacyquel,” Tom Cruise starred in one of the first three films to attempt a thirty-years-later follow up to a classic Hollywood movie. And, boy, was the bar set high for those sequels. Psycho II (1983), 2010: The Year We Made Contact (1984), and The Color of Money (1986) seemed like outlandishly foolhardy sequels to attempt because the quality, stature, and singularities of the original films were so impossibly high. Amazingly, all of those '80s sequels, though nowhere near as great as their '60s progenitors, are terrific movies. Today, the legacyquel is as commonplace as any other film or TV show based on a preexisting property, yet Top Gun: Maverick was far more highly anticipated than any previous example of this lucrative but creatively dubious practice.

All the excitement may seem a little odd when you consider that Top Gun, while it was the biggest grosser of 1986, is not exactly a film held in high regard by cinephiles or the current movie-going generation. (I don’t know many people under thirty who have even seen it.) Tom Cruise is still a huge star, but he’s not exactly America’s most beloved celebrity. The jingoistic, hyper-macho, military-recruitment-commercial style of the original picture hardly seems like a winning formula in an era where half the country is sick of war and guns and toxic masculinity, and the other half is sick of Hollywood. However, Top Gun: Maverick delivers almost everything that’s been missing from blockbusters for decades. Almost.

The new film is not only a nostalgic callback to the first Top Gun, but it’s also a paean to the first hundred years of cinema. The main enticement for going to the movies used to be the movie stars, not the fictional characters they now interchangeably play. We use to go to a big-budget spectacular because it was going to show us something we’d never seen before, as opposed to providing exactly what we expect to see. Perhaps most significant to Top Gun: Maverick, the majority of what’s on screen, in that earlier century, had to be created through practically unimaginable conditions and techniques, rather than by sitting at a computer. Complex aerial photography goes back to the days of silent pictures when filmmakers like Howard Hughes and Elmer Dyer spent countless weeks flying around in planes capturing exciting footage of aircraft simulating dogfights, stunts, and crashes.

That style of production was building to its apex in 1986 when director Tony Scott was chosen to make something special from a thin screenplay penned by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., based on a rah-rah article in California magazine titled "Top Guns." Mega-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer had by then perfected their formula for small-scale, quick paced, slick looking pictures with killer soundtracks through the runaway hits Flashdance (1983) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Though made on a surprisingly low 15 million dollar budget, Top Gun was far bigger in size and scope. Scott channelled his commercial chops, making each sun-kissed shot look like something out of a glossy magazine. From the long lenses he used to ogle the shirtless, glistening, muscular bodies of the young male stars playing volleyball on the beach, to the magic hour shots of aircraft carriers on the ocean that capture the foreplay (cough) preparation of the jets for their risky missions, he fetishized each image and made the navy look like the sexiest job in the world.

Hundreds of jokes, dozens of think pieces, and one memorable Quentin Tarantino monologue have been written to extol the homoerotic subtext of 
Top Gun, but there can be no doubt the film’s appeal did not rest with women and gay men alone. This was a fantasy aimed squarely at young, impressionable straight dudes like me, and I ate it up! It was an exciting, if mindless, night at the movies—followed by several afternoon repeat viewings. Sure, it was pure style over substance, but what style! I recently happened to see, within the same week, excellent prints of both Terrence Malick’s critically lauded Days of Heaven (1978) and Scott’s critically derided Top Gun. I know my fellow cinephiles will resent me for saying this but the two films are of identical merit and have the exact same strengths and weaknesses—they’re just made for different audiences.

The way Scott, along with his cinematographer and editors, captured and created the scenes of aerial combat was as exciting as action movies got in 1986, and those of us who were teens and young adults flocked to it over and over again. We’re in our fifties and sixties now, and I’m sure we’ll flock to 
Top Gun: Maverick. It ironically may be the film that finally gets the greying, middle-aged crowd that used to support movies made for adults “back into the sodding cinema!”

While I can’t give 
Top Gun: Maverick a rave, I can say it’s well worth the trip, especially if you can see it in IMAX. The film opens with the familiar strains of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Top Gun Anthem,” and a reprise of the original’s opening titles (with the same font and many of the same names). A rush of nostalgia hits as we’re instantly transported back to a time when movies had opening credit sequences and catchy theme music that you hummed for weeks afterwards, rather than just crashing, ominous Hans Zimmer tones—though this film also has plenty of crashing, ominous Hans Zimmer tones. The IMAX shot aerial photography is thrilling. Everything looks so clear and comes at you so fast. The immersive photography makes everything seem far more tangible and immediate than in the '86 movie. The real world environment feels infinitely more lifelike and exciting than the cartoon fantasies that all but define the modern blockbuster.

Cruise is pushing sixty now, but he looks about thirty-eight. Aside from a slightly puffier face and the faintest hint of crow’s feet around the lead actor’s eyes, this film could take place ten years after the first one, not thirty-five years. Naval aviator Pete "Maverick" Mitchell is still just a captain, flying planes to the limits of their capacity and disobeying his superiors. He’s about to be grounded when he unexpectedly gets called back to the Fighter Weapons School at Miramar, a.k.a. Top Gun, to teach a new class of “the best of the best” and prepare them for a flight into the danger zone. One of these hotshot pilots is the son of his former wingman “Goose” Bradshaw, the character played by Anthony Edwards, whose death provides the emotional center of the original picture. Miles
 Teller (Only The BraveWhiplash, The Spectacular Nowlooks uncannily like a young, muscular version of Edwards, and he brings much-needed credibility to the cliché-ridden role of "Rooster" Bradshaw. Rooster resents Maverick not so much for causing his father’s death but for holding back his own career as a pilot.

There’s no Kelly McGillis character this time out because Top Gun now has female aviators—or at least there’s one who made it to the ranks of “the best of the best,” played by a plucky Monica Barbaro. Maverick’s love interest here is Penny Benjamin, an admiral’s daughter referred to in a memorable quip in the original film. Penny now owns the bar where Maverick and Goose serenaded McGillis’s “Charley” thirty-five years ago.

Penny may be even more woefully underwritten than Charley, but Jennifer Connelly brings her radiantly to life. I must admit I didn’t recognize Connelly, who I’ve been watching in films since she and I were both fourteen. Being the same age as me, I somehow thought she looked a great deal older these days. Since I go to movies knowing as little as possible about them, I assumed that when I finished writing my review and went to read what others thought about this film, I’d be bombarded by the usual Twitter complaints about an older leading man paired with a love interest half his age. But since 
Top Gun: Maverick ends the same way as the original—with picture credits of each main character with the actor’s name—I realized I’d been watching the great Jennifer Connelly all the time. It was kind of astounding to see such an accomplished actress (she deserved an Oscar for The House of Sand and Fog in 2003) doing the kind of lightweight girlfriend part she played when she was in her twenties. She tailors her formidable screen persona to fit this film’s superficial tone and style perfectly, which is not as easy as one might think.

One way in which this picture fails to call back the blockbusters of yesteryear is the absence of a sex scene. As listeners of the current season of Karina Longworth’s “You Must Remember This” podcast have been reminded, contemporary movies are essentially sexless affairs. The same applies here. Maverick and Penny do spend the night together, but there’s no blue hued, backlit, wind-tussled, “Take My Breath Away” montage of silhouetted figures doing the deed behind gauzy, see-through curtains. Cruise has known since test audiences all but demanded the removal of his romance with Rosamund Pike in
 2012’s Jack Reacher, that the public is uncomfortable with him in love scenes. But it's too bad we don't get a good old-fashioned gratuitous '80s-style fornication montage. Especially since, as I mentioned, Cruise and Connelly are both so physically ageless it would be an extra thrill for those of us who are close to getting our AARP cards. In the brief shots of the two stars in bed together they look like platonic pals having a sleepover. It’s goofy as hell, yet kind of sweet. 

Top Gun
 was more of a bromance anyway, and Cruise & Company give Maverick’s rival in the original film, Val Kilmer’s “Iceman,” an emotionally resonant role in this picture. Since Kilmer is suffering from throat cancer that has robbed him of his ability to speak—as chronicled in the previous year’s excellent documentary
 Val (2021)—the part on paper amounts to little more than an extended cameo. But seeing the nearly unchanged Cruise on screen with the greatly weakened Kilmer provides the film with an air of mortality far more resonant than any of the narrative contrivances of the original movie. Those of us as old as these characters will be reminded that we’re now as close or closer to death than we are to the age we were when we first saw Top Gun

Director Joseph Kosinski—known for CGI-driven pictures like Tron: Legacy (2010) and Oblivion (2013)—shoots the aerial scenes with real planes in real skies, relying on digital effects for support and augmentation rather than the whole enchilada. His staging and editing are far more precise and cohesive than Scott’s just-make-it-look-slick style in the first movie. And in a major improvement over the original, the screenwriters actually take the time to make the final mission come less randomly out of the blue and with a far more understandable objective than the shoot-em-up climax of the ’86 movie—though the foreign “enemy” is even more faceless and unnamed.

But with everything it has going for it, Top Gun: Maverick is not a great legacyquel like the ones I listed at the top. Those films, while following a familiar character or characters into a familiar situation, are wholly original stories. Top Gun: Maverick is as much a remake as it is a sequel.
 Even more than The Force AwakensStar Trek Into Darkness, or Superman Returns, the narrative structure, character dynamics, entire scenes, and even individual shots of Top Gun: Maverick are just hi-res copies of the original film. And while the aerial sequences are a cut above what we got in ‘86, the screenplay is not. I was disappointed to find as many laughably terrible lines, and line readings, in this movie as in the film that inspired it. The characters are as paper-thin, the plot is even more contrived, and just as much of what we see on screen defies even the story’s own questionable internal logic. For example, I can understand how Maverick and his classmates had so much downtime in the first Top Gun as they were essentially at school. But here Maverick’s got just a couple of weeks to prepare these young pilots for an impossible mission. How does he have time to go sailing with Penny?

Are the hackneyed storytelling and hollow characterizations part of the nostalgia? Would this picture not be as much fun if the filmmakers put as much effort into crafting a complex, insightful narrative as they bring to staging the action? I can’t believe that’s the case. And, while any sort of political context would surely doom the movie for half the audience, the lack of any geopolitical framing in a movie about military might makes a pretty bleak statement itself.

Even more than the original, the themes of Top Gun: Maverick are dubious and even dangerous. “Don’t think,” is literally the film’s mantra. Follow your gut, break all the rules, put yourself first, and be the most awesome at all costs is the take-away. The first Top Gun, and indeed the name Maverick itself, certainly implied similar sentiments. Still, in its own shallow way, the original film is about facing the consequences of one’s actions. It explores how cocksure young men must learn to control their emotions for the sake of the greater good. There’s none of that in this picture.

Yet, while this critique is more than valid, it doesn’t overshadow the film’s pleasures because Top Gun: Maverick isn’t really about the military or America or even masculinity. It’s about movies. The meta aspects of the picture are hardly hidden away in the subtext; they are front and center. In the excellent opening sequence, which recalls the Chuck Yeager scenes that open Philip Kaufman’s magnificent The Right Stuff (1983), we discover Maverick testing a new plane when orders come down that his program is getting scrapped. An admiral played by Ed Harris (who memorably embodied John Glenn in The Right Stuff) shows up to shut things down. Nicknamed “The Drone Warrior,” this admiral favors unmanned aircraft over arrogant flyboys like Maverick, and he tells him the future of aerial combat is pilots that don’t need to eat or sleep or take a piss, and, more importantly, who always follow orders. The metaphor is impossible to miss. Maverick represents old-school marquee movie stars who work exclusively on the big screen wielding near-absolute power over their projects, and 
Cruise is arguably the last to fit that definition. The big expensive planes are like old-fashioned features that must be seen in theaters and that studios have to promote creatively since they’re not based on well-known preexisting intellectual properties. The drones are like Spiderman, Batman, and other iconic characters that can be played by myriad actors, or no actor at all, in content that can be easily consumed via a multitude of media outlets.

Top Gun: Maverick
 is the last blockbuster film to finally come out that was completed before the COVID-19 lockdown and held for release. The reason for the long wait is that star/producer Cruise would not allow his movie to premiere on a streaming service, and he waited until he was sure audiences were ready to return to theatres. His star power is the kind that’s all but gone in today’s film industry; even preeminent directors like Denis Villeneuve do not possess it. The last few filmmakers to insist on a major theatrical-only release no matter what—like Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson—probably won’t be able to hold out much longer. So when Harris’ admiral tells Maverick, “Your kind is headed for extinction,” and Cruise coolly responds, “Maybe so, but not today,” how can any ageing lover of cinema not stand up and cheer?

Twitter Capsule:
I can’t bring myself to call Top Gun: Maverick a great film any more than I could the original. But, like the 1986 picture, I will bring myself to see it several times in the cinema. And since that’s the movie’s objective, I’d say, “mission accomplished!”


Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Produced by Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie, Jerry Bruckheimer, and David Ellison

Screenplay by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie
Story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks
Based on characters created by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.
Based on the article "Top Guns" by Ehud Yonay

With: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Bashir Salahuddin, Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell, Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Glen Powell, Jack Schumacher, Manny Jacinto, Kara Wang, Greg Tarzan Davis, Jake Picking, Raymond Lee, Jean Louisa Kelly, Lyliana Wray, and Ed Harris

Cinematography: Claudio Miranda
Editing: Eddie Hamilton
Music: Hans Zimmer, Lady Gaga, and Harold Faltermeyer

Runtime: 131 min
Release Date: 27 May 2022
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color