Top Gun: Maverick

Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger and Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie (story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks; based on characters created by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr.)
Stars: Tom Cruise (Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell), Val Kilmer (Adm. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky), Miles Teller (Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw), Jennifer Connelly (Penny Benjamin), Bashir Salahuddin (Wo-1. Bernie “Hondo” Coleman), Jon Hamm (Adm. Beau “Cyclone” Simpson), Charles Parnell (Adm. Solomon “Warlock” Bates), Monica Barbaro (Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace), Lewis Pullman (Lt. Robert “Bob” Floyd), Jay Ellis (Lt. Reuben “Payback” Fitch), Danny Ramirez (Lt. Mickey “Fanboy” Garcia), Glen Powell (Lt. Jake “Hangman” Seresin)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2022
Country: U.S.
Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick

In 1986, the same year he played Maverick, the ace naval aviator at the center of Tony Scott’s Top Gun—a career-defining role if ever there were one—Tom Cruise also starred in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, a 25-years-later sequel to Robert Rossen’s antihero classic The Hustler (1961). In the earlier film, Paul Newman played a young, brash, and arrogant pool shark named Fast Eddie Felson; in the sequel, he is older and wiser and plays mentor to Cruise’s Vincent Lauria, who is every bit as cocky and dangerous and charismatic as Eddie was in his younger days. How appropriate, then, that in the long-in-the-years sequel to Top Gun, Cruise essentially plays Maverick as the older Fast Eddie, with the character’s cock-sure edges sanded down by time and life and loss. Still insubordinate when necessary and willing to take risks that others won’t, Maverick is nevertheless now an elder statesman of dogfighting who, as the film opens, is largely alone in the world. Rebels always ride solo to some extent, and that was very much the case in Top Gun, but here it feels more solemn and poignant, expressing in no uncertain terms that there is an underlying sadness to not fitting in, even when it’s because you’re such a badass.

It has been 36 years since we last saw Cruise in the pilot seat of an F-14, and when the film opens, he is working as a test pilot for the military, having never advanced significantly in the ranks. Nevertheless, Maverick feels he is exactly where he should be, in the pilot seat of an experimental plane that is designed to reach Mach-10. The program is in danger of being shut down by Radm. Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris), one of a long line of repressive military officers who fail to appreciate what Maverick has to offer. Maverick successfully reaches Mach-10, but he can’t help but push the envelope a bit further, resulting in disaster. The fallout is short-lived, though, as he is summoned back to the infamous Navy Fighter Weapons School, aka “Top Gun,” where he is tasked with training a group of hotshot young pilots to navigate a particularly dangerous mission in an unnamed hostile country with nuclear ambitions.

One of those hotshot pilots is Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Goose, Maverick’s reel and best friend in the first film who tragically died when ejecting from their plane. Although the end of Top Gun suggested that Maverick was able to overcome his guilt and sense of loss through aerial heroics and blowing bad guys out of the sky, it turns out that he has carried that weight for decades, made all the worse by the fact that Rooster not only blames him for his father’s death, but is also angry because Maverick attempted to keep him from enlisting in the Navy. Thus, there is all kinds of tension and bad blood to be surmounted, especially since Rooster is not one of the top pilots in his class and therefore may very well not be equipped to fly the mission.

Thus, Maverick must contend with the difficulties of his own past, which are embodied by the young pilots and their collective bravado. What was once Maverick’s defining characteristic, he must now beat it into submission, which he does firstly by showing them just how little they actually know about dogfighting. Like Fast Eddie in The Color of Money, Maverick must contend with his own former self in the face of another by marshalling all that he has learned and endured over the years. This gives Maverick the opportunity to demonstrate the verities of age and experience and Cruise the opportunity to reassert his alpha movie-star status (it helps that none of the young pilots are played by well-known actors; they may be pretty, but they hardly have name-above-the-marquee status). And woven throughout all the training and build-up is Maverick’s chance for interpersonal redemption, first via a restored surrogate father-son relationship with Rooster and secondly through his romance with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), a character who was mentioned briefly in the first film as a punchline (“And one admiral’s daughter!”), but here embodies the comforts of middle-age steadiness. No mention is made of Kelly McGillis’s Charlie from the first film, which is unfortunate because Maverick’s romance with Penny feels more like a check-box than a necessary component of his character arc.

And, if Top Gun: Maverick struggles anywhere, it is in separating itself from its iconic predecessor, which at times it copies almost verbatim, including the opening credits sequence, which are all but indistinguishable from the first film, right down to the use of the “Top Gun Anthem” and the artsy-hazy shots of preparations on an aircraft carrier. We also get an updated version of the “Playin’ With the Boys” beach volleyball scene, except now it is beach football. And, for all that he is his own character, Maverick is essentially playing Tom Skerritt’s role here, guiding a young hotshot with a tragically lost father. Val Kilmer shows up as “Iceman” Kazansky, Maverick’s nemesis-turned-friend from the first film who has helped his career over the years as he rose to the position of admiral. All the echoes of the first film are best when they are distant and somewhat vague; the more it apes the original, the less effective it is.

Thankfully, director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed Cruise in the moody sci-fi thriller Oblivion (2013), is mostly determined to make Top Gun: Maverick his own, just as he staked his own aesthetic claim in his feature debut, the long-in-the-making sequel Tron: Legacy (2010). The aerial battles are rightly thrilling and rely heavily on real aircraft in actual airspace, rather than computer pixels, and the screenplay by Ehren Kruger (co-writer of multiple Transformers sequels), Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle, Only the Brave), and Christopher McQuarrie (writer/director of the last three Mission: Impossible films) from a story by Peter Craig (The Batman) and Justin Marks (The Jungle Book) has a few clever twists in the end that take the seemingly well-known parameters of the mission in new directions. This allows Maverick and Rooster more space to bury their respective hatchets, and it gives Maverick the otherwise unlikely opportunity to get behind the stick of an old F-14, which is now the aerial equivalent of a Ford Model T. Action is certainly king in the film’s second half, but it has surprising weight because so much work was done early on to establish the dramatic grounds on which it is waged. Top Gun was a mostly shallow exercise in winner-take-all swagger that nevertheless stands as a near-perfect distillation of its ethos. Top Gun: Maverick bears some residual traces of its predecessor, but it also shines in its own right, bringing to its title character a surprisingly effective sense of gravitas and emotional endurance.

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Overall Rating: (3)

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