You’ve got to hand it to Tom Cruise. To return to play Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the character immortalized in the 1985 Simpson/Bruckheimer hit Top Gun, some 35 years later requires a commitment to every element of the project. Not just the script (by The Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie) and the director (Tron: Legacy’s Joseph Kosinski, replacing the iconic Tony Scott), but the actor’s commitment to returning to flight school himself — specifically to Miramar, the air base where the original Top Gun was shot, and where Cruise and other actors had to undergo a full Aviation Survival Training Curriculum (ASTC) to shoot the extensive flying sequences involving Navy F/A-18s.
That’s right. Those dizzying flight scenes and dogfights were shot by the actual actors. (Though, of course, not the rigorous stunts, barrel rolls and tunnel navigation sequences.) Cruise insisted, and that’s one reason why this film has been so long in the making.
According to Cruise: “For years, people had said, ‘Can’t you shoot (the movie) with CGI?’ And I always said, ‘No. That’s not the experience.’ I said, ‘I need to find the right story. And we’re going to need the right team. This movie is like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet. I’m not playing.’”
Returning to the character also involves a little defiance of aging. The actor still pulls that off, stunt-wise and screen-wise. But even his character is sort of stuck in the past, in his youth. He’s still a top test pilot, but rather than moving naturally up the military chain of command, he’s still just a captain, for Pete’s sake. (Captain Mitchell evidently has never heard of the Naval Advancement Program.) But that’s where Maverick wants to be: in the air. Otherwise, he’d be grounded, sitting behind a desk.
The other link to his past is a certain mustachioed ghost — “Goose,” his former wingman (played by Anthony Edwards), who died in the earlier Top Gun, for which Maverick still blames himself.
We enter on Maverick heading to the air base riding his souped-up Kawasaki to pull off one of his trademark rule-defying stunts — pushing a test jet past Mach 10, the better to fend off a certain Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) who wants to do away with the Top Gun pilot program altogether and focus on unmanned drone missions. (They call him, wittily, “The Drone Ranger.”)
He’s about to get the sack for nearly destroying another $100 million test jet, but Maverick gets a reprieve from Navy Admiral Tom Kazansky (“Iceman,” played by Val Kilmer) who wants him to helm another pilot program at Top Gun academy. Unfortunately, he’ll be working under Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), who doesn’t brook any rule-breaking, and — worse — Maverick won’t be the head pilot of the program, but head schoolmaster to a bunch of young Top Gun recruits.
And in another sense, this film is about preserving Tom Cruise’s legacy, by allowing him to force himself into yet another skull-crushing physical challenge.
The new recruits are a diverse bunch, including one woman, but the most important two are Miles Teller playing Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw — son of Goose, mustache and all — and Glenn Powell as Jake “Hangman” Seresin, cocky and grinning and pitiless as his nickname (kind of a mash-up of Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer’s characters, actually).
Top Gun: Maverick quickly gets down to business, which is re-exploring the terrain of the original in minute detail, including certain beats and scenes and Tony Scott-style sunset backgrounds. In place of Kenny Loggins ‘80s hits, there’s Hans Zimmer and Lady Gaga to push the adrenaline buttons. It all actually works, truthfully. Even if you only marginally enjoyed the first Top Gun, this one goes the extra mile.
And so did Cruise, who not only insisted on flying his own scenes, but insisted that his co-actors did as well. Thanks to Tom, all the actors became intimately acquainted with G-forces, through all the training they did months in advance. It pays off in some incredible dogfight scenes and cockpit closeups. (Best viewing option: an IMAX screen.)
The sequel, while tracking the emotional/action peaks and valleys of the original, hits all the right notes. There are thoughtful interludes and montages played against a grandiose soundtrack theme. There’s even an oiled-up tag football game on the beach that’s (I’d conservatively estimate) 30% less gay than the volleyball game of the original. For heterosexual love interest (no sign of Kelly McGillis or Meg Ryan, Goose’s entertaining wife from the original), there’s Maverick reconnecting with Penny (Jennifer Connelly, looking amazing), owner of a Navy-frequented bar near the Top Gun academy. This gives us the opportunity to meet up with the new recruits, all 11 of them, and for Rooster to pull the plug on the ‘80s-only jukebox and sit down at a honky-tonk piano to belt out Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire, just like his dad. None of this is lost on Maverick, who must deal with his past, and his pledge to keep Rooster out of lethal peril (i.e., flying a mission with Tom Cruise).
As before, there’s also a menacing, unnamed enemy country (with fighter pilots bedecked in Darth Vader black — cool!) to contend with, and a mission that sounds so crazy and requires so much pilot prestidigitation and active miracles from above that you wouldn’t be surprised if one or more of the Top Gun recruits just stood up in class and said, sheepishly, “Uh, Professor Maverick? Just thinking outside the box here… Do you think maybe we could just go with the drones on this one?”
But the setup does pay off with some very awesome F/A-18 barrel rolls and fight scenes, even one involving two jets swirling around each other like a DNA double helix to a dangerously low altitude before one pilot chooses to bail. Cool.
Sure, the final half-hour or so feels a bit like a Hardy Boys adventure yarn tacked onto the story. But this is a thoroughly enjoyable action flick that knows exactly what it’s about: it’s about preserving legacy, and Hollywood’s ability to create iconic imagery on a big screen. Has that always been Hollywood’s job? No, but it’s always been a kind of underlying stealth mission.
And in another sense, this film is about preserving Tom Cruise’s legacy, by allowing him to force himself into yet another skull-crushing physical challenge. Say what you will about the actor, but he might be one of the few left who insists on pushing that particular personal envelope. (The film is explicitly billed as having “no CGI.”)
In short, this is a fan’s movie, and probably doesn’t even deserve to be as good as it is. But the connection with Top Gun fans is what comes through in every frame. “We made it for you,” Cruise tells the audience in a filmed message shown before Top Gun: Maverick rolls on the IMAX screen. Yes. But he also made it for Tom.