More than anything, 1986’s Top Gun was a pop culture lightning rod. Regardless of the underlying character-based subtext or its effect on turning audience members into new recruits, the film delivered what director Tony Scott set out to achieve – pure escapism. 36 years later (following numerous pandemic-related delays), Tom Cruise has put back on his aviator sunglasses and bomber jacket in an attempt to recapture that magic in Top Gun: Maverick. Director Joseph Kosinski was tasked with revisiting Fighter Weapons School and delivering even more inventive aerial action sequences. Were the two of them, along with a carefully chosen crew of filmmakers and performers, successful? Well, this trip back into the danger zone certainly seems like something special.
From a plot standpoint, much like the first Top Gun, Maverick is a fairly straightforward film. Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) has found himself in a position where he has to return to Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, CA, to teach a group of highly skilled pilots how to successfully complete a dangerous mission. This means pushing this younger group beyond the limits of their proven abilities, which may be particularly hard for Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late best friend and wingman, Goose.
While it’s never been a favorite, what impresses me about the original Top Gun is how it sustains a vibe. The aerial photography was innovative for its day. Combined with Scott’s music video editing style, a splashiness allowed the film to emphasize its style over substance. With that in mind, so much of the film has become, from its 9x-platinum soundtrack to the bevy of memorable quotes. Sure, it’s an action film, but it’s also a buddy comedy and a romantic melodrama.
Kosinski and writers Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie (Cruise’s main guy these days) also tap into this mood. For the first two-thirds of Top Gun: Maverick, yes, there are cool jet stunts made better by knowing just how real it all is (and not being able to tell when it isn’t), but this movie still understands how to play into what worked about the original film. Does that mean that many of these scenes will become iconic or constantly meme’d? Not necessarily, but there’s a steady hand at play in balancing the nostalgic callbacks while also showing what it is to have a Cruise pulling off his role of Maverick nearly four decades later.
Neither film will ever be confused with ones containing deep characterizations (these are incredibly stylish action blockbusters, after all), but credit goes to Cruise, whose level of commitment is always on screen. Top Gun: Maverick rarely pulls focus away from its star, and the interactions and confrontations he has with the rest of this cast do the job of having us understand what makes Mav different from Ethan Hunt or Jerry Maguire.
With Teller’s Rooster, it’s about Maverick knowing he has to live with the death of his best friend, yet understanding that he can’t keep punishing himself for it. Jennifer Connelly portrays Penny Benjamin, a former flame of Maverick’s, showing him what it means to be an adult. Jon Hamm’s “Cyclone” is the authority Maverick wants to challenge whenever he knows the best way to deal with a situation.
Then there’s Val Kilmer’s Iceman, now an admiral who helps Maverick whenever he can. He’s in this film to continue reminding Mav of all his potential, regardless of being the best fighter pilot the Navy has to offer. Kilmer has recently been quite public about how cancer has affected his life, and the way this film utilizes his character is quite touching.
Of course, as fun as it can be to revisit the past the way this film does, seeing the choices made as far as what to update paid off as well. Sure, there’s only so much to say about this new group of pilots played by Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Monica Barbaro, and Jay Ellis, among others. Still, I can’t say I was expecting more, in the same way that only a few core characters actually matter in the previous film. The character types are clear, and it comes down to what Teller and Cruise can do together when considering what that relationship is and how it will apply in the sky.
Now, I’ve buried the lead on this a bit, but there really are some spectacular sights to see regarding the aerial combat in this film. Since Cruise is not the kind of entertainer willing to say “stop” or “slow down,” we now have a film that takes every opportunity to put himself and others in jets. Sure, there’s all kinds of movie trickery at play for certain sequences, but there are also a lot of scenes that required Cruise and the other performers to be faced with the actual G-force that comes from being in a cockpit of a jet.
This solves one of the first film’s problems. As fun as Top Gun is, its third act action pales compared to everything that came before it. Top Gun: Maverick takes the opposite route. While I had fun hanging around with Maverick and the crew, the final third of this movie is pretty exhilarating. Having seen the work done to get the characters to this point, the construction of this series of final action sequences have so much going for them that I can’t really picture not being excited by all the twists and turns taken by the jets as well as the story.
Kosinski already proved himself worthy of the job based on his track record. Between the stylish nature of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion (where he met Cruise), and the depiction of heroics in the underseen Only the Brave, it came as little surprise that Kosinski found the right rhythms to deliver on the spectacle that Hollywood’s most dangerous movie star demands for his films.
Once again working with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Kosinski also proves he knows the ins and outs of what Tony Scott was going for. While there are some direct visual references, Top Gun: Maverick manages to feel like the next evolution of what the original was going for. Characters are bathed in light to get them looking their best, silhouettes are mounted against superior aircraft, and wide shots convey plenty as far as the film’s scope. This is just excellent blockbuster filmmaking in terms of what can be done to fill an IMAX screen appropriately, let alone respect the audience with a film that knows how to pace itself properly.
One does wonder if there’s more that could have been done when considering what these Top Gun films have to say. Maverick does appear to come up short in building off any significant commentary from the first film. At the same time, so many of Tom Cruise’s post-2000s action films are more concerned with analyzing the actor’s state of self.
Does Top Gun: Maverick’s choice to play as another version of self-reckoning really hurt it though? Honestly, I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to care, especially when this movie banks on making sure the audience is having fun. I mean, not only does this movie find a way to include another high-energy beach sports scene, but it makes it feel necessary to the plot. That the whole experience is now rendered more wholesome makes me feel as though Cruise is happy to save the more serious commentary for another film as he continues to age out of pulling off his action-man routine.
I don’t think Top Gun: Maverick is pulling off a miracle. The consistent quality of Cruise productions had me more than confident this film would succeed. With that in mind, following up a movie so iconic to audiences with a sequel that is, in many ways, better than the original is no small feat. With its daring stunts, slick visuals, and sense of fun, having an always-committed Cruise meant delivering the pinnacle of what an aerial-themed action drama can be. Whether or not the return of Maverick takes your breath away, it’s pretty great having this film hold your hand and bring you along for a wild ride.