‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Review: The Need for Cruise Control (SPOILERS INCLUDED)

Joseph Braverman provides a spoilers-included review of Top Gun: Maverick, starring Tom Cruise in fine form.
User Rating: 8

You did it, Joe! That’s right; director Joseph Kosinski crafts one of the very few blockbuster sequels to surpass the overall quality of its predecessor. Top Gun: Maverick is a certifiable box office hit, coming in hot on a holiday weekend honoring our fallen brave servicemen. Tom Cruise, alongside producing partners Jerry Bruckheimer, David Ellison, and Christopher McQuarrie, pour their hearts into a story that welcomes back a legend to remind the next generation of fighter pilots that training and teamwork does, in fact, yield miracles. Cruise, an undeniable one-man movie franchise of his own, hits the right chord of nostalgia while pushing the throttle forward for action cinema.

Tony Scott’s 1986 Top Gun swept up audiences with its unique blend of patriotism and pop culture affinity. It became the perfect recruitment ad for America’s youth, with Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell serving as its affable poster child. Furthermore, Top Gun cemented Cruise as a scorching screen legend and heartthrob, his tenacious energy taking our breaths temporarily away. We knew then that no one was quite like him, a thespian possessing unrivaled onscreen passion and intensity that might never flame out. Even today, millions of film enthusiasts are drawn to Cruise — not exclusively because of his participation in IP-driven content, but because his infectious nature heightens the excitement we feel at the movies. When Tom Cruise soars, so do we.

Thirty-six years later, now that the theatrical experience is beginning to fade, we need Cruise and Maverick more than ever. Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t just return to form; it whooshes to shatter old records. With a jaw-dropping opener that commemorates Maverick’s daredevil heroism (as well as Cruise’s stardom), we see how human improvisation still has the edge over automated technology. Maverick’s hypersonic flying program nearly gets shut down by Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris in a memorable cameo), but not before our favorite sky guy salvages it by achieving a speed of Mach 10.

What doesn’t kill Maverick makes him strong enough to keep on keeping on, and so instead of being court-martialed for his aerial stunt, he’s called to serve as an instructor at his alma mater: TOPGUN. The death of best friend and former co-pilot Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) during their time at the naval academy still lingers over Maverick, making this an unwanted return. However, he’s not going to disrespect a command by former classmate rival-turned-buddy Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who now runs the entire Pacific Fleet. Monitoring Maverick’s tutelage are Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Rear Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates (Charles Parnell), the former of whom loathes Maverick’s unorthodox teaching methods but reluctantly allows him to go off-book.

An actual threat of mass destruction looms on the horizon for the U.S. and their global allies if an undisclosed foreign enemy’s uranium factory remains operational. Maverick is summoned back to TOPGUN to train the best fighter pilots in the navy to take out this facility. One of the potential final six candidates to perform the demolition run is Goose’s son, Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). On top of blaming Maverick’s recklessness for his father’s death, Bradshaw also was set back four years in his career thanks to Maverick’s direct interference.

One appropriate character decision made by writers McQuarrie, Ehren Kruger, and Eric Warren Singer was to have Maverick be childless. From watching the aftermath of Goose’s shocking death, he knows how deep scars can run in families who experience these sudden tragedies. As it stands, Bradshaw is viewed as a surrogate son for Maverick, their friction stemming from the fear Maverick has of losing him to the skies just like he lost Goose. Making matters worse is that Bradshaw might just be the best pilot to handle this dangerous strike.

The mission, which Maverick has no say whether to accept or not, is basically an homage sequence to the Death Star run in Star Wars: A New Hope. This observation is not a knock but a token of gratitude for Cruise and Kosinski. To honor the most impactful blockbuster of all time in this way — and in many ways improving on such an iconic moment in film history — demonstrates immense respect for the cinema forebears who paved the way for franchises like Top Gun to exist. Even though it hits the same triumphant narrative beats as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo’s epic display of flying heroics, this two-part finale understands what it means to hold an audience in its palm and nurture their sense of awe.

While Top Gun: Maverick jettisons past the original in so many aspects, its portrayal of masculinity is somewhat regressive. Its script is so overtly heternormative as if fighting back against the homoeroticism and queer subtext associated with the first film. While excellent in her role as Penny, Jennifer Connelly — only mentioned in passing in the ’86 Top Gun — serves as the “necessary” B-plot love interest for Maverick. Intentionally writing Penny as a single mother who harbors a long-standing crush plays into the notion that Maverick is incomplete as a man unless he falls into line by embracing the “traditional” All-American family unit.

Moreover, the filmmakers waste an incredible opportunity to show real progress and inclusion by defining Kilmer’s Iceman (whose cameo is filmed with the utmost respect to his vocal limitations) as canonically straight. As a gay man, I admit feeling a bit deflated and disappointed seeing Iceman’s wife come to the door to greet Maverick. Given those intense stares across the room and electric chemistry between Iceman and Maverick in the first Top Gun — which generated a ton of fan speculation and film scholar debate regarding the underlying emotions felt — I figured the writers would at least own up to one of these men having feelings that surpass typical “bromancing.”

Could you imagine how proud gay and bisexual moviegoers would feel upon learning that Iceman is a member of the community, especially knowing that he was once the number one fighter pilot in the world? Taking into account the armed forces’ controversial past when it came to embracing LGBTQ+ servicemen and women, such a revelation would not only go a long way to repair their reputation but also send a message to young queer kids out there that they, too, can be the best in a predominantly straight man’s arena.

There’s also the issue of POC roles getting morsels when it comes to character screen time and narrative impact. Black actors Jay Ellis and Greg Tarzan Davis barely get a moment to shine in the cockpit as Lieutenants Reuben “Payback” Finch and Javy “Coyote” Machado, respectively. They take a backseat to Glen Powell as Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin, an arrogant Han Solo-type whose brashness becomes his charm. The same can be said for Latino actor Danny Ramirez as Lieutenant Mickey “Fanboy” Garcia, relegated to some cheeky line reads and not much else.

Even the sole woman on the team, Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace — played by Monica Barbaro — is not as much of a major presence as teased when audiences first meet her. Powell’s Hangman has pushed so far ahead of the pack in importance, but outside of recreating a parallel competitive dynamic to Iceman and Maverick, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason as to why. Any of these actors could have filled in Hangman’s role, or at the very least the writers could have divided the team between those who oppose Rooster and those who support him. To play out a rivalry trope when the incredibly talented ensemble was right there for the ripening feels like a classic Hollywood misstep. Finally, Manny Jacinto — a massive name in the world of television — being largely cut from Top Gun: Maverick only adds insult to injury.

Exclusion also extends to Meg Ryan and Kelly McGillis, whose respective Carole Bradshaw and Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood were pivotal characters in the original movie. Ryan’s Carole beamed positivity and pride, even in the face of unimaginable tragedy. McGillis’s astrophysicist Charlie was more than just a love interest — she represented authority and intelligence in a field that often denied women the opportunity to showcase these characteristics. Both were unceremoniously denied an appearance in Top Gun: Maverick, validating the fears that many Hollywood actresses have: after a certain age, the calls stop coming. Meanwhile, male actors of the same generation continue getting work.

Instead of mentioning that Ryan’s Carole died a few years back, why not have Rooster by her bedside when she takes her final breaths? The plot twist of her asking Maverick to sabotage Rooster’s naval career would still be intact, and he would continue to have no reason to resent his mother. Becoming a recent orphan would have also given Rooster more justification to show contempt for Maverick, which would only strengthen their eventual reconciliation.

Besides this extensive list of grumbles and regrettable maneuvering, Top Gun: Maverick truly is a pillar of action cinema. The dogfights are so realistic that it’s impossible to discern what is movie magic and what is aerial reality. Cruise’s passion brings us all on an unforgettable thrill ride we would happily take again and again. Suppose the Top Gun franchise can get over its fear of not being viewed as virile or heteronormative enough. In that case, it has a real shot of allowing viewers of all backgrounds the freedom to comfortably surrender to its sweet escapist release.

Top Gun: Maverick is distributed by Paramount Pictures and is currently playing in wide theatrical release.

Written by
Joseph Braverman is a 31-year-old film school alum from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Digital Media. He considers himself one of the biggest Star Wars fans in the galaxy, living by a golden rule that there is no such thing as a “bad” Star Wars movie. Joseph lives in Los Angeles, CA, and enmeshes himself in all things entertainment, though he’ll occasionally take a break from screen consumption to hike in Malibu or embark on new foodie explorations. Vehemently opposed to genre bias, he feels strongly that any good film is worthy of Oscar consideration. Joseph is also a proud member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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