The long-awaited sequel to Top Gun has had its release delayed multiple times due to the COVID pandemic, and to his credit, Tom Cruise fought tooth and nail to ensure that the film would get a full theatrical release rather than going to streaming, as I’m sure its studio, Paramount, would have preferred simply for the sake of convenience. But those delays and pushbacks allowed the film to develop an ungodly amount of hype, to which I am not particularly susceptible, especially when it comes to Hollywood’s leitmotif of cashing in on legacy sequels.
As such, in last month’s edition of “This Film is Not Yet Watchable,” I included Top Gun: Maverick, noting that I was exhausted with the tactic, and that the film would likely be “the exact same package re-gifted to us in different wrapping paper,” and that “every indicator tells us that this movie will have zero substance.”
A month later, I come to you all to say, with full throat, I got this one wrong.
Now, let me be clear, some of the major concerns I brought up after seeing the trailer and making my judgments for TFINYW are still valid and do prevent the film from being truly spectacular. But the overall product was thrilling and at times genuinely affecting, belying the apparent banality and anodyne nostalgia trip implied by the trailer. I’ve gotten some degree of enjoyment out of movies I’ve put in the column before, but this is the biggest 180 to date. I do the column to make fun of movies whose trailers make it seem like the final product will be crap. Top Gun: Maverick more than defied that expectation, giving the audience a stunning visual feast and a story that almost feels essential.
If you’re not in the mood for callbacks and references, it will take you a while to be able to engage with the film, as we have to wade through a LOT of nostalgia porn before we get to the meat of the action. There are several scenes that play like shot-for-shot recreations of moments from the original, from a montage of fighter jets taking off set to Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” to Maverick (Cruise) riding his Ninja motorcycle alongside a plane, to substituting beach volleyball for beach football. There are several cutaways to archival footage of Goose (Anthony Edwards) from the first movie. Maverick’s superfluous love interest, Penny (Jennifer Connelly) is herself a deep cut reference to “the admiral’s daughter” that Goose brought up previously (she gives a fine performance, but she is literally only here to give Cruise a romantic subplot and to make us forget that Kelly McGillis isn’t here). Hell, the entire first 10 minutes is basically a recap of Top Gun with a treacle-filled tribute to Maverick’s late co-pilot.
But once you get past all that noise, the actual story has some real substance to it. Instead of teaching the next Top Gun class, as was implied by the trailer, Maverick is called in to train a dozen pilots for a covert mission against a threat to NATO (never explicitly stated that it’s Russia, but, come on, we all know). Using outdated F-18 jets, Maverick must prepare the pilots for what may be a suicide mission to fly dangerously low through a canyon and then pull insane gravitational force to hit a precision target in a valley between two mountains, all without being detected by surface-to-air missiles and next-generation enemy planes.
Of the 12 recruits, six will be chosen to fly the mission, and all of them are already graduates of the Top Gun school, meaning that they’ve all earned their egos to one degree or another. This adds a different dimension to their trash talk, itself a rehash of the first film, because these are all people who have walked the walk, so their braggadocio doesn’t seem entirely empty. Among the group is Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), Goose’s son, who goes by the callsign, “Rooster.”
Teller is another element where you have to endure some cheese before you get to the good stuff. He’s a fine enough actor, but the production went above and beyond to make him Goose 2.0, going so far as to replicate Anthony Edwards’ mannerisms, dress style (Hawaiian shirt over a wife-beater), affinity for “Great Balls of Fire,” and ridiculous mustache, to say nothing of the avian nickname. Even his presence as the central conflict in the film – he resents Maverick for surviving when his dad didn’t, and Maverick later pulled his papers when he applied for the Naval Academy – starts out fairly cliché, to the point where I feared he would be an unintentional joke. But like a lot of the elements of this movie, once the more trite moments are dispensed with, we do get something believable and genuine.
It also helps that the rest of the recruits are more than one-note antagonists like before. Characters like the smart but egotistical “Hangman” (Glen Powell), the pragmatic “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro), and the soft spoken but highly capable “Bob” (Lewis Pullman) give this group more a sense of camaraderie than before. Even Maverick’s superiors, led by Charles Parnell and Jon Hamm, make the process feel more like an ensemble act rather than a one-man show for Cruise, though of course, he has to have his moments.
The overarching theme of the film is “letting go,” and for the most part, it succeeds. Maverick has to let go of his guilt and his overprotective role as Rooster’s unwanted surrogate father. Rooster has to let go of his anger. The candidates have to let go of their personal pride for the sake of the mission. In one of the most tragic moments you’re likely to see all year, Iceman returns, but because of Val Kilmer’s failing health, the character has learned to let go of everything, including his voice, giving audiences what is in all probability his final performance. There are only two ways in which the idea doesn’t fully realize its story potential. One, Maverick begins the film purely as a teacher, meaning he has to take a back seat role for the climactic action, but we all know that’s never going to be a permanent situation. Two, Lady Gaga’s song for the film, “Hold My Hand,” outright contradicts this core idea.
It’s a shame and a missed opportunity, really, because there are moments in this film where Tom Cruise, perhaps for the first time in his career, felt old to me. Of course he ages the same as everyone else (he’ll hit 60 in just over a month), but he’s always been about maintaining a youthful appearance, either through makeup, brainwashed alien souls, or sheer force of will. But here there are moments where you can actually feel the years catching up with him a bit. This is a man who, in real life, divorced all three of his wives when they hit 33, and for the first time that I can recall, he looked his age in this film. That’s not nothing.
So the story and the performances are enough to give the film a passing grade, but where it truly excels is in the visuals. Taking the already impressive stunts and aerial acrobatics from the first film well beyond the next level, the flight scenes are something truly marvelous to behold. Cruise led the cast in three months of training to basically make it so they could almost fly these fucking planes themselves, which is just the level of insanity we’ve come to expect from him. They had to know how to handle the Gs, the hairpin turns, and the overall physical toll it would take on their bodies. And then just for good measure, they had to learn how to film themselves in the sky. The aerial sequences were shot with IMAX-certified 6K Full Screen cameras, each loaded into the planes with the actors (and several mounted on the exteriors) and formatted in such a way that there were four different angles filming the actors and the view from the cockpit at all times, with the cast adjusting the shots mid-flight. The result from more than a year of this is some of the most immersive aerial photography I’ve ever seen. I only watched the movie in a standard format theatre, and I truly felt like I was along for the ride, my heart pumping faster and faster as the action intensified. I can’t imagine how it would feel on a larger screen.
Honestly, that is something special. The film is flawed, with way too many masturbatory callbacks to its predecessor, and the story comes up just shy of being truly poignant in its explorations of age and obsolescence. But those shortcomings are more than made up for by going the extra mile to give us something that feels new rather than just polishing the old property so that it looks new. And that sort of commitment is more than appreciated. The story is solid, and doesn’t drift too often into tired repeats of previous beats. If nothing else, the fact that Maverick basically doesn’t have a partner the entire way through shows a level of maturity from the script that I wouldn’t have thought possible when the project was announced. The cast wills itself to being more than one-dimensional, led by Cruise absolutely refusing to let this just be a paycheck. Most importantly, we get truly interesting dynamics that depart from the original enough so that it doesn’t feel like a clone, which happens WAY too often in the recent run of late follow-ups. Add in mind-blowing sky action that is unique and exciting, raising the bar for such cinematography and effects for years to come, and you’ve got a movie that could easily stand on its own without Top Gun as a forerunner.
I thought this would be an empty legacy sequel. I’ve rarely been so happy to be mistaken.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite film from the 1980s? What would your callsign be? Let me know!