‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is Heavy on Nostalgia and Cockiness, but it’s Fun
Heavy on melodrama. Heavy on cockiness. Heavy on fighter jets. Heavy on nostalgia. Check. Everything that we want and expect in the long-awaited sequel to Top Gun is present.
Top Gun: Maverick is a movie spectacle featuring one of the few remaining bonafide movie stars front and center, as well as breathtaking action sequences that beg to be experienced on the largest screen possible and with the highest quality audio available. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. are credited for the characters, while the new screenplay involved collaboration from Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Peter Craig, and Justin Marks. Tony Scott, the original film’s director, passed away in 2012 at age 68, and Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, 2013, also starring Tom Cruise) takes the helm.
Callbacks to the original are plentiful, and we get our first in the opening title card – the same one used in 1986 to explain the “Top Gun” training center. Of course, there is one reason we are here, and that’s Tom Cruise. He was only 24 years old in the original, and now lives and exudes the swagger of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
When the film opens, Maverick is an extreme test pilot pushing himself and an experimental aircraft to Mach 10, and yes, this goes against the wishes and orders of the program’s Rear Admiral in charge played by a curmudgeonly Ed Harris. It’s a shame that Harris only has a couple of brief scenes, but he is the one that informs Maverick of his new orders to return to Top Gun immediately. His new commanding officer is Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), who is none too happy about Maverick being back. However, the order came directly from Maverick’s old nemesis/friend, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now a highly decorated Admiral in failing health.
Maverick is disappointed to learn that he has been brought in, not to fly, but to teach a group of Top Gun graduates how to execute an extraordinarily dangerous mission involving extended high speeds at a low altitude, dropping bombs on a uranium enhancement plant protected by a mountain range, and then immediately elevating to a nearly impossible level to avoid a crash – all while being targeted by the enemies’ radar and defense system. The enemy goes unnamed so that the movie can remain timeless and avoid any type of political backlash. Plus, this film is about thrills and action, not a political statement.
Being back means Maverick crosses paths with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who was mentioned briefly in the first film as an Admiral’s daughter. She now owns the local bar, has a daughter, races boats, and still carries a bit of a torch for Maverick, although she’s quick to bust his chops whenever possible. However, it’s the pilots he’s charged with training that cause the biggest issue for Maverick. One of them is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw. Rooster is the son of “Goose” (played in the original by Anthony Edwards), who flew with Maverick as his Radio Intercept Officer (RIO) and died during an ejection mishap. Rooster holds Maverick responsible and Maverick is still haunted by his friend’s death. Goose is seen in photos and via flashbacks, and Rooster emulates his dad at the bar’s piano. The conflict between Rooster and Maverick adds complications to the mission – and a bit of melodrama to the entire film.
The newbies (and the Navy) consider Maverick a relic of a bygone era, so of course, ‘instructor’ Maverick takes to the sky to strut his pilot stuff. In addition to Rooster, the standouts in the new group include Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Bob (Lewis Pullman), and Hangman (Glen Powell), the latter of whom, along with Rooster, tries to recreate that symbiotic relationship we originally saw with Iceman vs Maverick. Teller and Powell are both solid, but this aspect never really clicks like the Rooster vs Maverick piece.
We can’t help but notice that the dramatic elements seem to be more of a focus this time around. The biggest impact comes from the scene where Maverick visits Admiral Kazansky (Iceman) at his home. Despite his well-known physical limitations, Val Kilmer delivers a memorable performance, and the two actors seem to relish this opportunity. The situation is handled with grace, and we are appreciative of Cruise standing firm in his demand for Kilmer to appear in the film. As for the love story between Penny and Maverick, it had to be a bit frustrating for Ms. Connelly to work so hard on an underwritten role, while Jon Hamm’s constant furrowed brow and barking leaves him coming across as little more than jealous of Maverick.
Obviously, it’s the fighter jets and aerial sequences that folks will come for, and spectacular and exhilarating are the best words I can find to describe what we see. I was fortunate to see this in IMAX, and if you have one near you, it’s certainly the preferred viewing format. Thanks to the Navy and the training and equipment received by the cast, there is an authentic feel that’s almost a throwback in this day and age of CGI. We sense the speed and gravity pulls, even if we are never in peril. The aircraft carrier sequences are mind-boggling, though it is the jets in the air that provide the energy jolt.
Wise-cracking and heartstring-tugging moments fill the screen, and you can relax knowing Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” is back, while Berlin is thankfully not. Sand volleyball has been replaced by some semblance of shirtless and sweaty beach football as a team-builder, and yes, we get the patented Tom Cruise sprints – three times: on a treadmill, during beach football, and in a forest. The familiar sounds of Harold Faltermeyer’s original score are back, this time enhanced by Hans Zimmer and an ending song by Lady Gaga.
Those from the original who are absent this time are the great Tom Skerritt, James Tolkan, Kelly McGillis, and Meg Ryan (whose character is mentioned as having passed away). Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is back, though his partner on the original, Don Simpson, died in 1996 at age 52. Deserving of kudos are cinematographer Claudio Miranda, film editor Eddie Hamilton, and those involved with sound, visual effects, and music. For those feeling the need for speed, this sequel delivers; just embrace the cliches and familiarity, and predictability.