Top Gun: Maverick comes such a long time after the original film – 30something years – that a quick introductory “previously on Top Gun” wouldn’t go amiss.
Instead, new director Joseph Kosinski (who worked with Tom Cruise on Oblivion) puts us at ease with an opening sequence that’s a homage to Tony Scott, director of the original Top Gun – machines and processes fetished, a high tech something in silhouette, steam escaping from somewhere. A racing motorbike on a long flat road. “Hell, yeh” masculinity. Long lenses. Heat shimmers. It’s a “previously on Top Gun” as a mood board.
And then we’re in to a story that wastes no time in letting us know that Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is, all these years later, still carrying the rank of captain, on account of how he won’t yield to authority and all, though his days of living the life he wants to lead – flying navy planes very fast – are numbered. For his swan song “Maverick” is detailed to train a crack team of ace pilots so they can undertake a mission impossible – the taking out of a nuclear enrichment facility in never-specified enemy territory. This involves popping a payload where no one expects one to be popped, as in Star Wars and that ventilation duct.
For emotional resonance there are two side stories. One involves Miles Teller as Rooster, son of Goose in the original film. Goose died back then and Rooster has a beef with Maverick about it, so he and Maverick walk stiff-legged around each other while we wait for the dam to break. The other involves Jennifer Connelly as a bar owner Maverick used to have a bit of a thing with, and might do again. Think of her as a kind of Kelly McGillis stand-in, if you’re determined to relate things back to the original movie, and Top Gun: Maverick seems to be nudging us that way.
There’s also an extended cameo for Val Kilmer as Ice, now something high up in the navy and Maverick’s guardian angel, the one who’s keeping him on the active duty he cherishes while the likes of Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Wilson (Jon Hamm) do their damnedest to get Maverick canned. Yes, absolutely everyone has one of those callsign names – Hondo, Warlock, Hangman, Payback, Halo, Phoenix etc etc.
Kilmer’s voice is shredded thanks to throat cancer and his appearance is shocking, as if he were the portrait Tom Cruise has had locked in his attic all these years to keep him young.
I remember reading a review by British film critic Alexander Walker about 20 years when he touched on the subject of Tom Cruise’s advancing age – whither the middle-aged action star, kind of thing – and here Cruise is decades on still doing it, and plausibly. That said, the storyline here appears to be broaching the subject of Cruise’s impending retirement from this sort of role. “It’s time to let go,” the voiceless Ice types on his keyboard when he and Maverick finally meet. Kosinski’s camera holds hard on Cruise’s face as Maverick replies, “I don’t know how.”
With two more Mission: Impossible movies already in the works, and a Live Die Repeat sequel also rumoured (writing this in August 2022), “not yet” appears to be Cruise’s more considered position.
Though things have moved on a touch – a female pilot in the shape of Monica Barbaro as Lt Natasha “Phoenix” Trace – some things are very familiar. David Bowie and The Who are on the soundtrack. A beach football scene re-ignites that meme about Top Gun’s homo-erotic subtext. It features a Magical Negro (to use Spike Lee’s term), in the shape of Charles Parnell’s Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates, “Cyclone” Simpson’s wise right hand man. It’s billed as a Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films production – the producer duo behind the original film, as wells as Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys and any number of other films where cocaine should have had a screenwriting credit. This partnership broke up in 1995 and Simpson has been dead since 1996, so this credit has a sentimental, tokenistic power. There are half-hearted gestures towards diversity, but really this is a film about whooping white boys doing heroic stuff. In its heart this is a 1980s action movie.
All that – the cast, the callbacks to the original film, the production side of things, the stock characters, the improbability of Maverick still working, the side stories involving Jennifer Connelly and Miles Teller (both underused), Val Kilmer, Jon Hamm and Charles Parnell, none of it really means anything if the action sequences in the air are no good. And no matter what your feelings are about everything else, these sequences covering the training and the subsequent mission – planes whooshing through impossible spaces, dogfights at ten o’clock, ejector seats, mid-air explosions – really do, to borrow a phrase, take your breath away, while the legs clench and unclench uncontrollably. Mission accomplished.
Apparently the US military wanted “buy in” and got it and in return helped out with these bits – real aircraft, barely any green screen, stunt doubles avoided whenever possible. Top Gun: Maverick is corny but also as thrilling as hell and it must also be the best and most expensive recruitment advertisement for the US armed forces ever made.
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