Well, I didn’t expect that!
I must confess that Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) never really did it for me. Unlike most of the rest of the world, I didn’t get off on the high-octane, testosterone-fuelled showcase for military hardware and beefcake. I struggled to find a coherent narrative that made sense, beyond the macho competitiveness between thinly drawn characters and the over-emphasis on the ’need for speed’ (although I will concede that the aerial photography and stunt flying was pretty impressive). And that song? Don’t get me started!
That’s why, when the trailer first came out for Top Gun: Maverick (was that really in 2019?) it was not high on my list of ‘must-see-must-review’ films for that year. Consequently, the five pandemic-postponements over the next three years were less of a disappointment to me and more of delaying of the inevitable: I mean, you have to see it, don’t you. So, with my mind prised open and my subjective, judgemental bias checked at the ticket box, me and my objectivity, along with some popcorn and a choc top, entered the cinema and took our seat. Wow!
I was so engrossed in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, that it took me that long to realise how much I was already enjoying the ride. It begins with a good old-fashioned action-thriller sequence of Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise), better known as ‘Maverick’, putting his courage, tenacity and self-belief (not to mention his physical safety) on the line to prove a point to the hard-nosed, stick-in-the-mud military whose not-so-hidden agendas are getting in the way of what Maverick and his team have set out to prove... that they can fly a new experimental plane really, really fast. It’s a classic set up and reminds us that, like Captain Kirk and the Kobayashi Ramu test in Star Trek (old, re-booted and recent editions), there’s always a human element that can’t be factored into the establishment’s formulaic parameters.
After getting chewed out for this stunt by Rear Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain (Ed Harris) Maverick seems destined to be grounded for good until Hammer is overruled by his superior – Admiral Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer) who has a sensitive top security mission that needs a hot shot pilot. But, no, Maverick isn’t that pilot. He’s heading back to NAS North Island in San Diego (better known to fans as Top Gun School) where his mission isn’t to fly the mission; it’s to train a handful of the top Top Gun graduates (the best of the best) so that they can fly the mission. And guess who’s in that elite group? None other than Lieutenant Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) whose death in Top Gun (sorry for the spoiler) provides one of the few genuinely emotional scenes in the original film and sets up the underlying emotional gravitas that fuels much of this one. Top Gun: Maverick is one of those movie conundrums where, for me at least, the sequel is a far better film than the original but only because of the way it makes use of character and narrative elements from its predecessor. And that points to the screenplay. It’s a cracker.
Obviously, our hero and a couple of other characters along with key backstory elements belong to the originators, Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. But there’s a new writing team which includes Ehern Kruger (writer of some not-great movies like Ghost in the Shell, Dumbo and three of the Transformers franchise), Eric Warren Singer (writer of some pretty good movies like The International and American Hustle) and maybe most importantly, Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, as well as several films with Cruise including a few Mission Impossibles, Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow and –, dare I say it – The Mummy) all working from a story by Peter Craig (writer of some very good films like The Town and The Batman) and Justin Marks (creator of the very good TV series Counterpart).
Sometimes a litany of screenwriters is a red flag for trouble ahead, but in this case the mix seems to work. Our new team of ‘top guns’ is more diverse, more developed and more interesting than the original gang, and the dynamic they create on the ground, in the air and off-duty is compelling and highly engaging. In addition to Rooster, the new crew includes feisty, gutsy ‘Phoenix’ (Monica Barbaro) egotistic, loudmouth ‘Hangman’ (an excellent performance by Glen Powell) and endearing, hapless, funny ‘Bob’ (Lewis Pullman – Bill’s little boy). These new characters work well both individually and as a group; they are competing with each other but simultaneously have each other’s backs. Plus there’s a bit of depth to them which always helps.
There’s also the neat trick of a new ‘former’ love interest, bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) and her daughter Amelia (Lyliana Wray) who are written in a way that makes you believe the relationship between Maverick and Penny must have existed in the previous film, even though it doesn’t. As with most of the narrative undertone of this film, this is more than a two-dimensional pit stop between stunts and volleyball games; there’s something deeper going on with these two characters that carves out some space for Penny to be a more believable character than Kelly McGillis’s Charlie Blackwood in the first film, and elevates both the new film, and Maverick’s story. And speaking of volleyball games, there’s a nice nod to that famous scene with a game of touch football on the beach but again, it's there for the narrative and for the character, not just for the eye-candy.
Even the unexpected narrative detour at the end of the third act where the film suddenly feels like its veered off into Alastair MacLean territory, still works despite it implausibility.
But, for me, the most affecting scene in the film is between Maverick, the hot shot who just couldn’t conform and bucked the system in a way that denied him the career advancement he might have been due, and Iceman, the hot shot rival who found a friend in his competitor but who also found a way to channel his ambition into a path that led him to a top-ranking Admiral’s job. But like Kilmer himself, Admiral ‘Iceman’ is sick and can only speak with Maverick via a computer screen. (if you don’t know the story of Val Kilmer’s career-ending illness, then watch the excellent doco Val, directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott streaming on Prime). Seeing Kilmer on screen again, sick as he might be, is a highlight of the film and cements the bond that lies between the original and sequel whilst demonstrating the brilliance of the way a far superior story has been crafted from the bones of lesser work.
And then, of course, there’s Tom himself. Love him or hate him, there is no disputing that Tom Cruise is one of a small handful of old-school Hollywood movie stars and in this film, he’s in the sweet spot of that role. It’s thirty-six years since the original Top Gun and Cruise is still front and centre of the frame when it counts on making the action seem real. He’s always been one for doing his own stunts, especially when it comes to vehicles, and with Top Gun: Maverick, he shows little or no sign of slowing down. Granted, he wasn’t actually allowed to fly the F/A18 Super Hornets (they cost about $67.4 million bucks each) but he comes as close to that as he can. Those planes are two-seaters, one behind the other, so Tom’s not actually up front (that’s where the real pilot is), he’s in the second seat, shot over the real pilot’s shoulder to make it look like the real thing. But his pretend-flying is still taking place at those unbelievable speeds and g-forces. The result is it looks like the real thing because it’s as close to the real thing as movie-making can get and in the era of CGI that’s something to be admired... plus it pays off.
But as a counterpoint to these show-off moments of old-guy-physical-prowess, Cruise seems not to feel the need to dominate the screen the whole time. Yes, it’s hard not to be drawn to him when he’s in the scene (and he's in almost every scene in this movie) but in this older version of Maverick, he’s a bit more sanguine than he was as a young man and, in a similar way, Cruise seems willing to make space in the narrative and on the screen to allow others to be seen in their own right. It’s something that makes an obvious ‘star vehicle’ often feel like an ensemble piece.
Of course, there are still weaknesses in the film. Jon Hamm is mostly wasted as Maverick’s superior officer Admiral Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson. He’s the most two-dimensional character in the film, barking orders and standing scowling in the background for no apparent reason. And Miles Teller, who is so good as Al Ruddy in the current Paramount+ series The Offer, just doesn’t seem quite right here. Yes, there are spooky moments where Rooster looks the dead spit of his dad, Goose, but Teller’s overall performance seems to be missing something in the way his anger at Maverick for the death of his father and for the way he interfered in his career is played. Instead, there’s an aloofness in the way his emotion is expressed that doesn’t quite connect with the power of the rest of the storytelling.
These things aside, Top Gun: Maverick is a great movie (I can’t believe I said that) and deserving of the squillions of box office dollars it’s been generating around the world. Hats off to director Joseph Kosinsky for pulling this massive, trepidatious project together. He’d already proved himself adept at working with Cruise in 2013’s Oblivion and that pre-existing relationship seems to work a treat here. Maybe Top Gun: Maverick is even good enough to forgive Kosinsky’s other current film project - the execrable Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller effort, Spiderhead on Netflix. Maybe Kosinsky is just better on the big screen. Most certainly, that’s where a film like Top Gun: Maverick belongs... and most certainly that’s where you should see it.