Top Gun: Maverick
When it takes to the sky in astonishing aerial sequences, this Tom Cruise-starring, 36-years-later sequel will take your breath away.
May 25, 2022
As dripping with jingoism, machismo, militarism and sweat as cinema gets — and there really was oh-so-much sweat — 1986's Top Gun was a dream of a recruitment ad. The US Navy's aviation program couldn't have whipped up a stronger enlistment campaign in its wildest fantasies. Even if it had, getting Hollywood's gloss, a star who'd still be box-office catnip four decades later and Kenny Loggins' second-best movie tune (slipping in behind Footloose, of course) probably would've felt like a one-in-a-billion longshot. But all of the above, plus a lurid sheen and homoerotic gaze, didn't make Top Gun a good film. Loggins' 'Danger Zone' remains an earworm of a delight, but the feature it's synonymous with took a highway to the cheesy, cringey, puffed up, perpetually moist and aggressively toxic zone. The one exception: whenever Tony Scott's camera was focused on all that flying, rather than a smirking, reckless and arrogant Tom Cruise as a portrait of 80s bluster and vanity.
Gliding into cinemas 36 years after its predecessor, Top Gun: Maverick is still at its best when its jets are soaring. The initial flick had the perfect song to describe exactly what these phenomenally well-executed and -choreographed action scenes feel like to view; yes, they'll take your breath away. Peppered throughout the movie, actually shot in real US Navy aircraft without a trace of digital effects, and as tense and spectacular as filmmaking can be in the feature's climactic sequences, they truly do make it seem as if you're watchin' in slow motion. Thankfully, this time that adrenaline kick is accompanied by a smarter and far more self-aware film, as directed by TRON: Legacy and Oblivion's Joseph Kosinski. Top Gun in the 80s was exactly what Top Gun in the 80s was always going to be — but Top Gun in the 2020s doesn't dare believe that nothing has changed, that Cruise's still-smug Maverick can't evolve, and that the world the movie releases into hasn't either.
Early in the film — after Harold Faltermeyer's famous Top Gun anthem plays, text on-screen explains what the titular elite pilot training program is all about, a montage of fighter planes kicks in and then 'Danger Zone' sets an upbeat tone; that is, after the flick begins exactly as the first did — Captain Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell (Cruise, Mission: Impossible — Fallout) is given a dressing-down. Still as rebellious as his call sign makes plain, he's just wantonly disobeyed orders, flown a ridiculously expensive hypersonic test plane when he's not supposed to and caused quite the fallout. "The future is coming and you're not in it," he's told, and Top Gun: Maverick doesn't shy away from that notion. As its opening moments show, along with a touch too many other nostalgia-steeped touches elsewhere this sequel hasn't wholly flown on from the past; however, it actively reckons with it as well.
Still hardly the navy's favourite despite his swagger, megawatt smile, gleaming aviators and unfailing self-confidence — well, really despite his need for speed and exceptional dogfighting skills in the air — Maverick is given one last assignment. His destination: Fightertown USA, the California-based Top Gun program he strutted his way through all those years ago. There's an enemy nation with a secret weapons base that needs destroying, and his talents are crucial. But, to his dismay, Maverick is only asked to teach. Given a squad lorded over by the brash Hangman (Glen Powell, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood), and also including Coyote (Greg Tarzan Davis, Grey's Anatomy), Payback (Jay Ellis, Insecure), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro, Stumptown), Bob (Lewis Pullman, Outer Range) and the frosty Bradley 'Rooster' Bradshaw (Miles Teller, The Offer), he's tasked with training them to fly like he does, navigate a Star Wars-style impossible path that zips speedily at perilously low altitudes and, ideally, still survive the supremely dangerous mission.
Yes, Bradley Bradshaw is a real name this franchise has given one of its characters. And, he's the son of Goose (Anthony Edwards, Inventing Anna), Maverick's beloved wingman in the original movie, whose death he hasn't come to terms with. Also, stressing that chip-off-the-ol'-block link via Hawaiian shirts, a moustache and a barroom 'Great Balls of Fire' singalong is among Top Gun: Maverick's clumsiest and most needlessly wistful moves — second only to its shirtless team-building beach football scene. Luckily, it's easy to excuse some such blatant nods backwards when interrogating why Maverick is like he is, what cost that's extracted from him and those in his orbit, and how he might climb beyond it is one of the film's main concerns. Plus, one of the feature's other blasts from the past, Maverick's reunion with his ex-adversary Iceman (Val Kilmer, The Snowman), couldn't be more movingly handled. Again, recognising that Maverick's heyday, and everything it instilled in him, has long been and gone proves as crucial in this sequel as those sensationally balletic jets swooping and spiralling above.
Cruise's heyday as a mega movie superstar isn't yet behind him, though, and Top Gun: Maverick is also better for knowing that his hyper-committed showmanship is now rare. So, Kosinkski leans heavily on the Tom Cruise of it all — aka the spectacle that's a given when he's in action mode — while unpacking the Maverick of it all. That's how the film zooms deeper than the initial flick, especially into its protagonist, with screenwriters Ehren Kruger (Dumbo), Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) and Christopher McQuarrie (the last two and upcoming two Mission: Impossible movies) imparting a convincing sense of human drama. Top Gun: Maverick still sports patriotism and militarism so thick it'd show up on radar. It's still sweaty, albeit not as much as the Fast and Furious franchise these days. And it still has a thin but charismatic romance, this time with Jennifer Connelly (who gets a winning music moment if you know what she was starring in back in 1986). And yet, it also faces the fact that flag-waving patriotism and testosterone-fuelled bravado are relics.
Even better: while Top Gun: Maverick's exploration of loyalty, duty, camaraderie, bromance and facing your mistakes to be a better person comes second to its stunning aerial scenes, none of those themes completely fade from mind when the movie hits the sky. They're meant to up the stakes, and genuinely do. Indeed, Gun: Maverick's underlying emotions feel as authentic as the astonishing visuals that repeatedly defy gravity. With the latter, it comes as no surprise that Kosinkski's TRON: Legacy cinematographer Claudio Miranda does the honours, again delivering an astounding sight. Similarly, that such edge-of-your-seat sequences are stitched together by McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible editor Eddie Hamilton won't raise an eyebrow. Action cinema rarely gets more thrilling than this — and an action movie that's this visibly wondrous and entertaining, knows it's walking in familiar footsteps but puts in a bold effort to make this return trip mean something is electrifying and, yes, breathtaking.
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