Making its bow 36 years after the 1986 hit that made Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible, Magnolia) a superstar, the much-anticipated Top Gun: Maverick hits local cinemas today. With Cruise back in his iconic role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Val Kilmer as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, and blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, The Rock) presiding over a brand-new cast of up-and-comers, read on to learn how this film doesn’t just follow in the original’s footsteps — it blows it out of the sky!
It’s rare when a film that so perfectly encapsulates the zeitgeist is able to transcend its era to become a classic, beloved by audiences decades after the fact. While 1986’s Top Gun is one such film, one would be hard-pressed to defend it as being any sort of objectively “good” movie, even when it was released. Shamelessly jingoistic, cheesy, and packed with no end of technical, factual, and continuity errors, this MTV-inspired ode to the military-industrial complex remains a massively enjoyable film that has no qualms about delivering a good time.
Anchored by Cruise’s already-obvious star power, Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott’s (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire) depiction of naval aviators as the jocks of the armed forces (complete with topless volleyball and locker room scenes) won over audiences while splitting critics. Bolstered by ace cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball’s (Wild Things, The Expendables ) bravura aerial photography, and a hitherto unprecedented level of cooperation from the actual U.S. Navy, Top Gun struck a chord with a generation.
Unlike the original film, which was a loose collection of vignettes about the goings-on at the Top Gun fighter pilot academy with a tacked-on romance between Maverick and his instructor (Kelly McGillis, Witness, The Accused), the sequel features a somewhat credible plot that could have been ripped from the headlines: when an enemy nation is seen to be developing nuclear weapons, the Unites States’ best pilots are called upon to cripple them in a mission so dangerous and foolhardy, that the only one who can prepare them for it is the one man who (probably) shouldn’t.
As Maverick returns to his old stomping grounds, he discovers that the more things change, the more they stay the same, as he reignites a romance with a former flame, Penny (Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind, The Rocketeer). But even as he embarks on what could very well be his last official assignment, Maverick will learn that he can’t run from the shadows of the past.
While studios have spent the last decade-and-a-half milking ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia for attempts at kickstarting dormant franchises, it was only a matter of time before they got around to Top Gun. While most nostalgia bait leverages recognizable titles and concepts to introduce youth and diversity with support from a legacy character or two, Top Gun has something far more potent than mere nostalgia up its sleeve: Tom. Freakin. Cruise.
The most powerful man in Hollywood
To be honest, it’s mindboggling: Cruise has been active and successful for so many years, he’s lasted long enough to be in his own nostalgia-based property. Even more remarkable is that, in the almost-four decades that have passed, Cruise has evolved his career — from smiling pretty boy and dramatic powerhouse to human stunt machine — to the point where he isn’t just Hollywood’s biggest movie star, he’s (pretty much) the last.
Today, when brands and franchises hold more sway with studios (and their streaming platforms) than any individual actor, Cruise is (arguably) the only one left who can open a blockbuster based solely on his name being on the poster.
What you’re seeing is real
True to (Cruise’s) form, Top Gun: Maverick’s marketing has hinged on the fact that no green screens were involved. While the actors may not necessarily be flying their own F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, they were absolutely shot in the cockpits mid-flight as professionals handled the white-knuckle acrobatics. The aerial footage here is nothing less than jaw-dropping, and one understands just why the studio and star were so willing to wait out the pandemic rather than release it to streaming in Summer 2020.
As someone who knows the original practically by heart, Top Gun: Maverick outdoes it based on the mere fact that nearly all of the flying we’re seeing is REAL, and one doesn’t have to be a cineaste or connoisseur of any sort to appreciate it. If the original gave audiences intense dogfights and views from the cockpit, the sequel makes us feel like we’re doing the flying; between the technological advances in cinematography, Cruise’s commitment to authenticity, and the script informing us of the mission details in the first ten minutes, we’re able to follow along with the action as viscerally as if we were there ourselves, with multiple sequences eliciting feelings of speed and motion that Vin Diesel can only dream of.
Maverick grows up
Thankfully, the film’s got more up its sleeve than just strapping Cruise (and friends) into jets and having him zip around the skies like no time has passed. Good thing, too, as Maverick’s role is no mere cameo – pretty much the entire story is about him! For his part, Cruise wears the part of elder statesman infinitely better than his character, who’s retained enough of his trademark cockiness for us to buy that this is the same guy we remember. This time around, however, cracks have begun to show in his formerly indomitable persona, and Cruise plays to his age beautifully.
Aged 56 when the film was shot three years ago, Cruise pushes the boundaries of the Navy’s mandatory retirement somewhat, but neither he nor the script sidesteps the passage of time; this may be a film about honoring the past while shaping the future, but it never forgets to acknowledge that its hero’s best days could very well be behind him. Smartly, Cruise builds on the vulnerability that he’s allowed to seep into his leading man persona over the last couple of Mission: Impossible flicks, and it absolutely works. Maverick may still be the best pilot in the sky, but he’s grown enough to (mostly) let his actions speak for themselves, while still bearing the burdens of his own past failures.
Maverick’s greatest failure rears its head in the form of Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Whiplash’s brilliant Miles Teller, with an amusing mustache), the son of his best friend, who perished in the original film during a freak training accident. Forced to train the young man for a mission which he may not survive, Maverick will have to confront his demons — whether he likes it or not.
Nods to the past, roads to the future
For as much as the film leans into its new narrative, director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Only the Brave) peppers it with little Easter eggs and homages to what came before which, for the most part, are unobtrusive. From the opening titles to the end credits, fans will have fun spotting the references, but newcomers who haven’t seen the original won’t be lost, as there’s more than enough dialogue and flashbacks to fill in the blanks.
Of the new cast members, Jon Hamm (Baby Driver, TV’s Mad Men) stands out as the latest in a long line of exasperated commanding officers to find out just why Maverick never made it past the rank of Captain. The scenes where he and Cruise butt heads are worth the admission, as the two go at it like an experienced pair of fencers. And honestly, when the acting is this good, one can almost forget about the planes (almost).
Equally good are the new recruits, with Glen Powell (Hidden Figures, TV’s Scream Queens) playing “Hangman”, whose cocky attitude puts him at odds with both the new instructor and fellow pilot “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro, TV’s Unreal). The recruits’ interplay with each other and Cruise is amusing for just how much of his own medicine Maverick gets to taste from when he was in their shoes.
A soundtrack to fly by
Inspired by the success of their previous films’ soundtracks becoming bestsellers, Top Gun’s producers paired the ’86 film with an album designed to top charts. With now-classic hits like “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins and “Top Gun Anthem”, the album remains one of the bestselling soundtracks of all time, with “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin going on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
The new one is no different, featuring no less than Lady Gaga, with a new track, “Hold My Hand”, in addition to her working with composers Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, and Harold Faltermeyer on the score. There are even a couple of old favorites in here, in addition to a ridiculously satisfying use of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as Maverick schools his pupils.
The bottom line
Raising the bar for practical, vehicle-based action in an age when CGI-based spectacle is the norm, this sequel is a shot of cinematic adrenaline to the heart that most moviegoers probably didn’t realize they even needed. Delivering on nearly every level, Maverick doesn’t respect the theatrical experience so much as it demands it.
So head on out to the biggest screen you can find, hold on, and let the movie work its magic. Despite having a story you’ll likely be able to predict from the get-go, Top Gun: Maverick soars in its execution, with the result being not just one of the best legacy sequels ever made, but one of the best blockbusters, period.
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