Once again, audiences will feel the need! The need for speed! So thank god Tom Cruise exists. There’s no stopping the nearly 60-year old supersonic super star. And even after a generation of iconic roles and box office hits, he still keeps on soaring.
Top Gun, for those Tik Tok Gen-Zers who had no idea this movie existed, was about a cocky hot shot fighter pilot at the best flight school in the country and starred Cruise, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards (ER), and Kelly McGillis. It featured several high-octane aviation and dog fight scenes inside of an F-14 Tomcat, along with a great deal of shirtless volleyball scenes for some reason (presumably because sex sells). It was the highest grossing film of 1986, and became an iconic cinematic classic. Which begs the question, why did it take so long to make a sequel? The answer is simple: they were waiting for the right film to live up to the legacy of the movie. And that film, without a doubt, is Top Gun: Maverick.
Top Gun: Maverick is a blast from beginning to end. It’s very much a zippy, feel-good, mainstream blockbuster with fun, fast, high-flying, adrenaline pumping flight scenes. Thereby making it a much more accessible film than some of the other, more challenging blockbusters out there tied to shared universes. It’s a straightforward action romp for old-school moviegoers looking for Jerry Bruckheimer action. Which makes it a perfect summer film. The thing that separates it from other brainless Bay-inspired blockbusters of its kind though, is that it still contains a good amount of character growth and heart.
Essentially, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) has spent his life without ever being promoted beyond Captain. He’s still a cocky fly boy at heart, but lives wallowing in the mistakes he’s made, traumatized by the death of his former wingman Nick Bradshaw, aka Goose (Edwards in the original movie), and the strained relationship with Nick’s son, Bradley (Miles Teller) aka Rooster. After almost getting himself discharged for defying orders and going Mach 10 in an experimental jet, he’s reassigned as an instructor back at Top Gun, the academy for the best fighter pilots in the country. Maverick has three weeks to train a team of cadets, including Rooster, to complete a highly dangerous, seemingly impossible task of destroying a uranium bunker in highly guarded enemy territory, surrounded by mountains. Unfortunately this also means he must patch things up with Rooster for the mission to succeed.
Cruise is in top form in this film. He delivers on action and stuntwork in ways that only he ever could, bringing his experience as a pilot with him on every fabric of this film. The jets and battles are primarily done practically, with minimal use of CG which is a change of pace from much of the typical work fourth-time director, Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) is used to. But the movie benefits so much from this because it makes the stakes real, and every action scene much more exciting.
As a performer and actor, Cruise has not missed a single beat about what made Maverick such a devilishly roguish and charming character. He’s funny, cocky, and defiant. But there’s a softness to him, and Cruise injects so much heart into the character, particularly when it comes to his scenes with Teller. The relationship between Rooster and Maverick is one half of the beating heart of the movie in the same way the Goose and Maverick’s relationship was in the first film. And the second half of that beating heart is between Maverick and the returning legend, and former rival-turned-admiral and BFF, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky. Kilmer’s spirit and essence are felt in this, even when he’s not on camera. And the relationship between Maverick and Iceman has grown and matured gracefully along with this franchise and these actors. There’s so much heart in Cruise’s performance and his chemistry with his cast, and it just comes from a place of passion and a desire to do this franchise and these characters justice.
Teller’s performance as Rooster, is soulful as well. But he leads an impressive supporting ensemble of terrific young actors including the delightfully devious Glen Powell, picture perfect as Rooster’s rival, Jake “Hangman” Seresin, and the warm and welcome presences of Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Danny Ramirez, and Jay Ellis as “Phoenix,” “Bob,” “Fanboy,” and “Payback.” That being said, one of the flaws this movie has is really not giving this crew, outside of Powell and Teller, a whole lot to do in the film. But they make the use of the screen time they have, providing bursts of comic relief and heart when afforded.
There’s no mistake about it. The spirit of the ’80s is still very much present in the DNA of this movie. Some parts feel dated and cheesy. But despite my reservations on cheese, I can happily say it suits this movie like a finely crafted flight suit. The movie really plays up the “lone hero out of retirement back for one final score” trope to its fullest potential, allowing for Maverick to evolve as a character and get closure for his failures, but ensuring he stays the focus and the hero of this movie nevertheless. I don’t think Cruise would want it any other way. He has to be the front man of the band.
However, there’s something of a tropey, dated Mighty Ducks feel to this movie, complete with clichés like the stern admiral (played by Jon Hamm) reprimanding the defiant cool coach, as he teaches his kids about how to work as a team and how the most important thing about flying is bringing everyone home safe. And really all of that sounds like a dig at well-worn tropes (and they totally are well worn) but there’s still a heartwarming charm to all of it that just makes you root for this ragtag group of underdogs and their over-the-hill captain to succeed. It’s like cheese and Top Gun pair like cheese and an aged fine wine.
The only unsuccessful part of this cheese is really the superfluous love subplot between Maverick and on-again, off-again bar owner, Penny, played by Jennifer Connelly. Don’t get me wrong, watching these two terrific-looking actors swoon over each other as they ride motorcycles and boats is cute enough. And there’s a bit of comic relief to all of it as well. But it just felt like one subplot too many, and served as a vehicle for forced romance to transparently get the rom-com crowd into seats. I can’t deny Connelly and Cruise have terrific chemistry, but it’s not anything I actively rooted for, and it just takes away from screen time that should be devoted to fostering the relationships between the central relationship of the film, which is Maverick and Goose, or more of the terrific action scenes that really propel this movie into the stratosphere.
Speaking of which, on a technical level, the cinematography is amazing. There are cameras all over the cockpit, really immersing the audience into the cockpit of these jets to give them a first-hand account of what it feels like to fly along with these soldiers during a mission at these exotic locations, from the deserts of California to the snowcapped mountains of enemy territories. It gives everything that we’re seeing in the action sequences a sense of urgency as we hold our breath rooting for our heroes to complete the mission. Never once does the action feel tacked on or boring, and it’s because they really make you feel like you’re flying along with this crew.
The music in the film is also quite breathtaking. Hans Zimmer, naturally, lends his gifts to the movie, adapting the iconic themes of the first film’s composer Harold Faltermeyer. Zimmer’s work does give every sequence an elevated sense of tension, as he always does, but also riffs off the ’80s feel of the original. Things like his love themes, or the musical cues during character-driven moments give the movie a much more nostalgic feel. It really makes it feel like you’re watching a blockbuster from the early ’80s, but without making things feel super archaic. Yet he pulls out the patented “Zimmer” dramatic action riffs for the explosive dogfight and flight sequences, which add to the ride.
Another thing I really appreciate about this franchise is, despite the militant nature of the subject matter (US fighter pilots vs. the enemy) both movies smartly avoid any sort of overtly patriotic “America First” propaganda. The first film did this, and Top Gun: Maverick continues the trend of not identifying the enemy nation. The movies strictly keep the focus on Maverick and the characters they’ve created. The enemy doesn’t really matter. It smartly keeps the conflicts between the characters which allows us to connect with them and sympathize with them deeper, without the distraction of making us vilify any specific groups. Kudos to Paramount for keeping that up!
Overall, Top Gun: Maverick is a fun, good old-fashioned summer blockbuster, with a lot of care and affection injected into the premise, characters, and action scenes. This is courtesy of Kosinski’s skilled direction, Cruise’s passion and performance, and a fun supporting ensemble of welcome (if sometimes underutilized) characters. The character growth and heart of the movie soars, but most importantly, the action is incredible. Even if things (particularly the romance) can be a bit cheesy at times, and the movie is incredibly safe (despite the return of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” theme), I have no doubt this will definitely satisfy long-time fans of the franchise, while introducing a whole new generation of moviegoers to the fun, crowd-pleasing nature of Top Gun.
Overall Score: B+
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