The original Top Gun is something of a divisive movie. Depending on who you ask, Tony Scott’s action classic is a shallow tale of exaggerated chauvinism or era-defining military metaphor. Regardless of which camp you fall into, though, it’s hard to question the film’s enduring impact on both western cinema and American culture at large (lest we forget the $357 million it made at the box office, a figure amounting to well over $900 million in today’s money).
Paramount Pictures began touting ideas for a sequel more than a decade ago, though plans were reportedly complicated by Scott's untimely death in 2012. Thankfully, producer Jerry Bruckheimer vowed that he and leading man Tom Cruise were “not going to stop” until a new Top Gun project saw the light of day, and the confirmed involvement of Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski in 2017 finally got the ball rolling on those long-held ambitions.
The result, several pandemic-induced delays later, is Top Gun: Maverick, a blockbuster follow-up that smashes expectations and then some.
Raising the stakes
Plot-wise, the movie picks up some 30 years after the events of Scott’s original, with Cruise’s hotshot pilot, Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, working as a daring test pilot for what may as well be the military equivalent of NASA.
At the orders of former rival-turned-best-buddy Admiral Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer), Maverick is forced to return to TOPGUN, the US Navy’s foremost fighter pilot school, to train a group of elite graduates for a seemingly impossible mission. Among the talented recruits is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick's late co-pilot, "Goose", with whom Maverick has a frosty relationship (though not for the reason you might think).
If that synopsis sounds like a thinly-veiled rerun of the original movie’s story, you wouldn’t be far wrong – and make no mistake, there are plenty of callbacks here. Teller’s Rooster bears all the character traits of his father (right down to the mustache and drunken piano-playing), while Glen Powell’s Hangman is a gifted jock in the Iceman mold. The movie’s intro sequence is a near carbon copy of its predecessor’s equivalent, while even Maverick’s classroom entrance as a TOPGUN instructor imitates that of Kelly McGillis’ Charlie.
But beyond these superficial similarities – which are all, it must be said, deliberate and enjoyable references – Top Gun: Maverick tells a far more mature tale. For starters, the stakes involved don't only concern pride, but survival. The mission in question tasks said recruits with destroying a real-life uranium depository guarded by surface-to-air missile launchers and a fleet of high-spec enemy planes. To perform a Death Star-esque bombing run on the facility, the young pilots must fly through a narrow valley at both a dangerously low altitude and gravity-defying speed.
In Top Gun: Maverick, then, failure is fatal. Gone is the dated orange haze, camp sensibilities and overfamiliarity with Berlin’s corny ballad (seriously, Take My Breath Away drops at least six times in Scott’s original), elements replaced instead by moments of real emotional resonance that give depth to characters old and new. Unsurprisingly, Maverick himself is the biggest beneficiary of the film's refreshing maturity, and audiences left unmoved by his exploits three decades earlier may walk away surprised by how much they come to care for him a second time around.
There’s some genuinely brilliant comedy here, too. Cruise is the funniest he’s been since Tropic Thunder, while Powell’s Hangman strikes gold as the movie’s improbably hilarious a**hole. For the romantics among us, Maverick’s relationship with love interest Penny (Jennifer Connelly) is an endearing one, and the film’s shirtless beach sequence – one of the more obvious callbacks – adds some stylized machismo into the mix.
It’s Top Gun: Maverick’s first major aerial sequence, though, that reminds viewers why this sequel exists in the first place.
Good morning, aviators
As soon as Maverick, Rooster, Hangman and company take to the skies for one of the movie’s early dogfighting exercises, it quickly becomes clear that Top Gun: Maverick is an entirely different beast to the Top Gun of the 80s.
A renowned aerobatic pilot, Art Scholl, performed most of the in-cockpit stunts in Scott’s original movie – in Kosinski’s sequel, the actors on the ground are the very same as those pulling 7Gs at 40,000 feet. Cruise, ever the adrenaline junkie, put his co-stars through a gruelling training regime in order to ensure Top Gun: Maverick’s aerial shots looked as real as possible on-screen (Powell, among others, regularly threw up mid-flight) and the results are nothing short of remarkable.
The film’s F-18 fighter jets cut through the air like knives through butter, ducking and diving to Lorne Balfe’s customarily magnificent score with breathtaking precision. In today’s CGI-filled era of filmmaking, it’s a cliché to describe a movie as having edge-of-your-seat action, but Top Gun: Maverick is more deserving of the plaudit than most. There is simply nothing else like it.
For much of the 130-minute runtime, it’s easy to feel as if you’re right up there with Maverick and the other pilots travelling at speeds nearing 1,000 mph. Director Kosinski and his cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, deserve all praise for stringing these sequences together, but the actors, too, do well to give any sort of convincing performance in such unique conditions.
Top Gun: Maverick’s aerial ambitions come to a head in an excellent third act which, despite almost straying into James Bond territory, counts among the most exciting in recent memory – one particular finale stunt prompted audible gasps from several audience members in our screening – but those worried about predictability need not fear. The movie’s trailers don't do justice to the technical wizardry on show here, and other action filmmakers would be wise to learn from Cruise’s passion for the practical.
Is Top Gun: Maverick a perfect picture? It’s certainly difficult to pick holes in an experience so utterly enjoyable from start to finish. Sure, some flashback sequences are a little too on-the-nose, and a particular text messaging scene – in which Maverick communicates with ‘Ice’ – might have been better left on the cutting room floor, but neither qualm warrants more than a passing mention.
In a little over two hours, Cruise, Bruckheimer and Kosinski manage to deliver a film that both pays homage to Top Gun’s legacy and breaks new ground for modern filmmaking. Like the 1986 classic, Top Gun: Maverick demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and serves as a timely reminder of what movies can still achieve in the age of streaming.
Top Gun: Maverick releases exclusively in theaters on May 25 and May 27 in the UK and US, respectively.