SPOILERS AHEAD for Top Gun: Maverick. You’ve been warned.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 36 years since the original Top Gun (1986) came out – especially for those of us who were around at the time and now find ourselves 36 years older. It’s a stark and sudden realization that time moves on, no matter what – and we’re all growing old, no matter what. That’s one of, if not the central theme that resonates throughout the long-awaited sequel, Top Gun: Maverick.
Here’s the funny thing about the original flick, though, which I think we old folks can all look back and agree on – it’s actually not very good. It’s a giant cheeseball that relies almost completely on style over substance. But the late, great director Tony Scott’s style is extraordinarily powerful – from the sun-bleached cinematography to the groundbreaking aerial stunt work to the music and the cliché yet oh-so memorable dialogue. It all comes together in such a perfect way that it made the flick a legitimate phenomenon at the time and makes it a classic now.
So in case you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know the basic story, it goes like this: a young, hotshot pilot named Pete Mitchell (callsign “Maverick”), with a flair for pushing boundaries and getting in trouble, gets sent to the Navy’s training school for their best pilots, known as Top Gun. Maverick butts heads with his superiors and all the other pilots while competing for the winner’s trophy. But in the ultimate attitude adjustment, he gets involved in an accident that kills his best friend and radio intercept officer, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw.
Maverick has a hard time dealing with the loss and the trauma and considers quitting the Navy entirely. But then he’s called to actual duty and regains his confidence, along with the other Top Gun pilots, who all learn the important lesson that the only way to fulfill the mission is to put their massive egos aside and work together.
So now, in Top Gun: Maverick, it’s 30 years later, and our hero Mav (Tom Cruise), instead of being an admiral by this time like he should be, has chosen to stay at the lowly rank of Captain so that he can keep flying as a test pilot. But he’s still got that talent for pissing off his superiors, as he insists on taking off with a new plane that his new commander, Admiral Cain (an all-too-brief appearance by Ed Harris), wants grounded.
After Mav does a spectacular job of pushing past Mach 10 and then destroying the plane, a furious Adm. Cain reminds Mav just how obsolete he is. He hasn’t been kicked out of the Navy because one of his old friends, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), has been protecting him. But now Maverick’s been ordered back to Top Gun to train a group of young hotshots in the dying art of aerial dogfighting.
When he gets there, Maverick meets his new superiors, Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Admiral Bates (Charles Parnell). While Bates is more gracious, Simpson’s not a fan. But he can’t deny that Mav is the best of the best, and to complete the crazy mission they’re about to undertake, he’s exactly who they need.
Later that night, Mav heads out to the local bar and reconnects with an old flame, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). In the original, she never actually appears. She’s just a name tossed around as the “admiral’s daughter Mav went ballistic with.” But now, she’s a single mom and owns the bar. She playfully gets Mav into trouble so that he has to buy a round for everybody in the joint – including the youngster pilots he’s going to be training, who, of course, don’t realize who he is.
But then one more pilot shows up, and Mav’s stunned when he realizes it’s none other than Goose’s son, Bradley (Miles Teller), aka “Rooster.” The bar’s crowded enough that Rooster doesn’t see him. But Mav sees him – and when Rooster takes to the piano and starts belting out “Great Balls of Fire” the way his dad used to, it’s a seriously haunting moment for Mav.
The next day, all the youngsters are shocked and mortified to learn that the guy they kicked out of the bar the night before is their instructor. Mav lays out the mission – bombing a uranium enrichment plant in some purposefully unspecified part of the world. It’s basically the Death Star trench run, and the mission’s success depends on their ability to fly at extremely low altitudes at high speed and then pull some major G-forces on a steep climb – and to do it all in less than three minutes.
Nobody’s convinced it can actually be done, especially in this day and age, where they’ve all come to rely much more on technology than flying ability. But once Mav does the run by himself and pulls it off (barely), everyone from the top down realizes that they need to up their game.
At first, the youngsters can’t get over their egos enough to really respect Mav’s extensive experience. But that all changes once they’re up in the air and practicing for the mission. Mav schools them all, showing them moves they never thought possible – showing them that even though they’re considered the elite, they still have a lot to learn. And there’s an incredible montage of the youngsters having to do 200 pushups every time Maverick “kills” them in the air.
And while all this is going on, Mav has to contend with Rooster’s deep resentment of him. It’s well-deserved – not only was Mav involved in the accident that killed his dad, but Mav also prevented Rooster from entering the Naval Academy and set his career back several years. Of course, unknown to Rooster is the fact that Mav did it as a way to keep a promise to Goose’s late wife that he would keep Rooster safe and make sure he never flew.
On top of all that, Mav has to face his deep-seated fear of being responsible for the lives of his students. In the hands-down best scene in the flick, Mav sees Iceman – who’s in the late stages of cancer and has almost completely lost his ability to speak. But he manages to impart the solid (albeit very basic) wisdom that Mav needs to let go of the past and do what needs to be done. And it isn’t long after that Iceman passes away, another stark reminder to Mav that he’s part of a dying breed.
So then it comes time to fly the actual mission. Mav and his youngsters not only have to contend with successfully completing the bombing run but also the enemy fighters that start coming after them. Mav gets shot down, and in a surprise turn, Rooster decides to go after him even after they’ve been ordered back to the carrier. The only way Mav and Rooster can escape is to hijack an enemy F-14 (the same planes they flew in the original). But the enemy soon realizes who they are and starts going after them – and in a nice twist, it’s one of the other youngsters who comes to their rescue.
In the end, everyone gets back to the carrier safe and sound. All’s forgiven between Mav and Rooster, and the youngsters feel the swell of pride at completing a nearly impossible task. And Mav flies off into the sunset – and a happier future – with Penny, in the old World War II fighter he’s restored. Aww.
Before the flick starts, there’s a message from Tom, thanking the audience for coming out to the theater to see the movie and for our patience in waiting so long. Not only for the flick to be made but for the COVID-related delays that pushed the flick’s release back an additional year and a half. He also says that “we made this for the fans,” which pretty much tells you all you need to know.
Top Gun: Maverick is fan service, plain and simple, done in the best possible way by building on the characters we know and love. The scene with Mav and Iceman alone makes the flick worthwhile, adding depth the original movie definitely didn’t have. It’s a refreshingly emotional scene, delving into the fear of responsibility and the insecurity that comes with getting older, as they both question their relevance in a world that seems to be leaving them behind.
And then there are the flying sequences, which are absolutely incredible. Director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), Cruise and company made sure to go farther, faster and crazier than they were ever able to in the original. The resulting scenes will leave you as breathless as the actors must have been sitting in those cockpits, pulling those G-forces. So while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s Best Picture material, Top Gun: Maverick is the rare, worthy sequel, loads of fun, and here and there, surprisingly affecting. So go see it, and see it on the big screen. It’s money well spent.
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Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Release Date: May 27, 2022
Run Time: 2 hr, 11 min
Distributor: Paramount Pictures