Top Gun: Maverick soars higher than the original

Tom Cruise accepts the mission to revisit his iconic, star-making role, both paying homage to a fondly remembered classic and outdoing it in just about every way possible.

Tom Cruise stars in a scene from the movie "Top Gun: Maverick." The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13. (CNS photo/Scott Garfield, Paramount Pictures)

Top Gun: Maverick is more than a nostalgia sequel or legacyquel; it is almost more than a movie. It is a manifesto and a monument, a defiant time capsule and a swaggering IMAX spectacle without precedent or peer. People will say they don’t make movies like it anymore, although they never did, and never could, and never would have, if not for the obsessive drive and visionary determination of Hollywood’s last action star.

The opening sequence features Navy test pilot Captain Pete Mitchell—call sign “Maverick”—breaking the rules and doing the unprecedented, expanding the limits of what is possible, to the awe and jubilation of observers. It’s a supremely confident metaphor for the movie that follows, and also (as more than one critic has noted) for Tom Cruise’s career. Who but Cruise could return so triumphantly to an iconic, star-making role from a standalone blockbuster after more than three decades and create a towering crowd-pleaser outdoing the original in just about every way possible?

If Maverick, in that opening sequence, proceeds to court disaster by pushing further than he has to or ought to, perhaps that’s partly to distinguish him from the actor’s now even more iconic action role, the superheroic Ethan Hunt of the Mission: Impossible series. (Strengthening the connection, the opening sequence features Maverick in a pressurized helmet rimmed with interior lights—like Hunt’s helmet in the HALO jump in Mission: Impossible – Fallout—so you can see it’s really Cruise in the cockpit.)

Hunt, like Maverick, is the best of the best, and often pushes himself not just to his limits but beyond—but if and when Hunt goes to 11, so to speak, it’s only because 10 wouldn’t do. Maverick may be just as willing to lay everything on the line for the mission, but the element of hotshot flyboy ego and daredevil grandstanding that defined his arc in Top Gun isn’t entirely gone. In other words, Maverick has a bit of Cruise that Hunt doesn’t.

Maverick also finds Cruise confronting his age in a way that he hasn’t yet as Hunt. As hard as Cruise has fought to defy time, and as robust and vital as he still is, now in his late 50s the toll of the years is telling—and, while Hunt wouldn’t stop to think about it, Maverick can’t help doing so. After all, his one-time rival, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), is now a four-star admiral in failing health. (Kilmer, who lost much of his voice to throat cancer, has a poignant, brave scene well incorporated into the story.) Mav is surrounded by a new generation of Navy pilots, one of whom—Lieut. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller, Whiplash)—happens to be the alienated son of his late wingman, Anthony Edwards’ Goose.

Air power for these new hotshots involves dropping bombs or firing missiles from miles away, and they aren’t always clear on the fine distinctions between, say, the Korean War and the Cold War. (“Different wars, same century…not this one.”) And Mav’s love interest—an old flame named Penny (Jennifer Connelly, stepping into a role that was only a punchline of a name in the original film)—is a single mom with a teenaged daughter named Amelia (Lyliana Wray). Maverick burdens Cruise with father-figure concerns and regrets in relation to both Rooster and Amelia. “I wish I would have done it better,” he confesses at one point. Does Cruise have regrets like that? He knows Maverick should, at any rate.

Maverick is a paradox: both a supremely gifted living legend and a dated relic. “The future is coming, and you’re not in it,” one of the film’s two antagonistic authority figures (Ed Harris) snaps, while the other (Jon Hamm) is even more unsparing: “The time has come. Your kind is headed for extinction.”

“Maybe so, sir,” replies Maverick/Cruise. “But not today.”

I’ve often said that the difference between the normal sort of sequel (usually made within a few years of its predecessor) and the kind of belated sequel now called a legacyquel is that while a sequel normally asks “What happened next?”, with a latter-day sequel the question is “Where are they now?”

With this altered question come, usually, diminished expectations, for good and for ill. Nobody supposes the belated fourth installments in the Indiana Jones or Die Hard franchises will live up to the standards set by their predecessors. Nobody expects Rocky Balboa or Bad Boys For Life to be in any way essential or revelatory. If the movie is pretty good, it will be like a reunion with old friends; if not, we didn’t need it to be anyway. There is at least one magnificent outlier: George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a masterpiece from a daring auteur with a knack for bold, vital sequels. (Words cannot fully express my loathing for Babe: Pig in the City, and yet on some level I understand why some people love it.)

Fury Road aside, even unusually ambitious legacyquels (Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; Scott’s own returns to the world of Alien) generally have a sort of apocryphal or afterthought vibe. Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski put it well when he said they didn’t want to make a “cover-band version” of Tony Scott’s Top Gun. Kosinski’s directorial debut, Tron: Legacy, was another legacyquel of an iconic 1980s movie for which I was the right demographic, but somehow never captured my imagination. Tron: Legacy wasn’t necessarily a cover-band version of Tron, but it didn’t work any better either.

There is one overt cover-band moment in Top Gun: Maverick: the prologue montage, a direct homage to the original, consisting of glowing slow-motion footage of the deck of an aircraft carrier, with planes landing and taking off and crew members throwing hand signals while the Top Gun theme fades to a brief flourish of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.” After that, though, “Danger Zone” isn’t heard again, and Top Gun’s other big Top-40 earworm, “Take My Breath Away,” is absent—though there is an emotionally fraught reprise of diegetic communal singing of “Great Balls of Fire.”

Soaked as it is in nostalgia for the original and the 1980s cinematic world it represents, Top Gun: Maverick stands just fine on its own. What’s more, while it should leave fans of the original in paroxysms of euphoria, it’s also a blast if the original didn’t take your breath away—or even if you never saw it.

I was about the right age, in 1986, for Top Gun to be the defining experience that it was for many of my generation, but I found its glossy, high-octane militarism underwhelming from the start. (I much preferred the outer-space Marines in James Cameron’s Aliens. Nine years later, Scott’s other Navy movie, Crimson Tide, was one of my favorite movies of the year, and remains my favorite of Scott’s films.) Revisiting Top Gun a few weeks ago for the first time since the 1980s, I was struck, not in a bad way, by the ambling slackness of the plot and what now seems the leisurely classicism of the editing. (Mostly, though, I enjoyed my older kids’ MSTing of the sillier, more dated elements.)

The conceptual and practical challenges for Top Gun: Maverick are significant. Dogfighting aerial combat was already old-fashioned (a “lost art,” as the opening titles put it) decades ago. There are fleeting references here to Bosnia and Iraq before unveiling a very specific mission calling for mid-20th-century skills, one with more than a bit of Star Wars in it.

As with the Mission: Impossible movies, a big part of the film’s persuasive power comes from Cruise’s passion for doing it for real. It’s no surprise that Cruise did his own fighter-pilot flying, but he also put his young costars through boot camp and flight school. Elaborate, custom-built camera extension systems gave the crew unprecedented IMAX-quality access to the F-18 cockpits in mid-flight, capturing actors’ faces and bodies responding to the pressures of real g-forces they had learned to tolerate.

All the aerial sequences were carefully storyboarded and each day’s actual flights meticulously planned and reviewed. Kocinski claims they may have shot more footage than in the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with 30 seconds of key footage from a day of filming for 12 hours or more. Thanks to improved filming techniques and Cruise’s passion, as well as the efforts of Kosinski, Chilean cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi), and editor Eddie Hamilton (the last two M:I movies), the aerial sequences are both more dynamic and more lucid than in the original.

Why does Cruise do what he does? What drives someone to make movies this way? It’s possible I don’t want to know the answer, at least completely. I would trust Ethan Hunt with my life and whistle doing it, but here, certainly, Cruise himself is another story. As hard as he’s worked over the last dozen years or so (oh, how hard he’s worked!) to win his way back into viewers’ good graces, the sense of weirdness around his personal life (including but not limited to his strong identification with Scientology and a series of media disasters) lingers.

People are complicated. Cruise may or may not contain multitudes, but there are definitely a few different dudes in there. One of them knows how to make rip-roaring, non-numbered action sequels that are endlessly rewatchable. That guy is one of my favorite dudes working in Hollywood today.


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About Steven D. Greydanus 30 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of DecentFilms.com. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.

28 Comments

  1. I love that you casually threw in the “MSTing” reference, without explaining it. Those who get it deserve that little joke. I want to show the original to our teens but will have to zip through a couple scenes to do it.

  2. Hmm. Doesn’t Keanu Reeves count as a Hollywood action star? I definitely agree that movie stars are a dying breed. Cruise is one of the few that’s left.

    • With John Wick 4 slated to come out next year, it seems fair to say Keanu is still an action star. Last year’s The Matrix: Resurrections didn’t do well at the box office, though, so John Wick is Keanu’s last viable action franchise, for now. Bill & Ted Face the Music has become a sleeper hit on VOD, but that’s not in the action category.

  3. I was just starting Navy flight school as a Marine first lieutenant when Top Gun was released. Talk about a perfectly timed motivator! Much as I am no fan of Tom Cruise I am looking forward to Top Gun: Maverick as a love letter to aviation. It is the flying scenes that I want to watch.

    • They’re amazing, Joseph! The movie is an unprecedented love letter to aviation, and if you love the flying scenes, in a way you are a Tom Cruise fan, because only he could have made them happen!

  4. Now if Tom Cruise would only convert back to the Catholic Church. He was raised Catholic and thought about being a priest. He was even in a high school seminary for a while.

    • While he’s never played a priest in a movie, James, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt does impersonate a priest in a Vatican City op in Mission: Impossible III. As I wrote in my review:

      Cruise may be an outspoken Scientologist, but for exotic appeal you don’t see him breaking into some Church of Scientology headquarters somewhere. The sight of Cruise in a cassock and biretta alone has a certain blink factor; Hollywood anti-Catholicism being what it is at the moment, just having a sequence set at a Vatican soirée without any gratuitous swipes at the Church or the clergy is a refreshing change.

        • Right you are, Gary. Looks like I was unclear on the terminology in 2006, and yesterday I just copied and pasted the text without reading it closely. It took 16 years for someone to make that catch! Thank you.

      • I saw Mission Impossible III, I vaguely remember that scene. I think Sean Connery did the same thing in one of the old James Bond movies.

  5. Breaking my heart with the reality of last action star. Keanu as well. Imagine if Tom really followed through becoming a priest! Anyway, you’ve peaked my interest to see this despite the fact I was holding out for the next Mission Impossible. I can only handle so much TC action as I am well aware I am aging, too. Just not today.

    • A priest?! Always delighted to be reminded that so many superlative achievers in society have some connection to the Church somewhere along the line…

  6. I had a heartbreaker recently, not about Tom Cruise but about his Top Gun gal, Kelly McGillis. I came across on Amazon Prime a 2017 movie called An Uncommon Grace. She plays a minor character, I think a grandma. Her face is as beautiful as ever, but to be kind, I just want to say the size of her clothes has changed considerably. She is no longer the babe that broke Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun.

    • At 64 years old, McGillis is five years older than Cruise. About not appearing in Top Gun: Maverick, she said bluntly:

      I’m old and I’m fat and I look age-appropriate for what my age is, and that is not what that whole scene is about. But … I’d much rather feel absolutely secure in my skin and who and what I am at my age as opposed to placing a value on all that other stuff.

      To which I say: Bravo to her.

      On another note, she has reportedly been diagnosed with AAT deficiency, which causes lung and liver damage.

      • And…? We should boycott her movies or something? Why are we having comments about how an actress who isn’t in Top Gun: Maverick is fat and gay? Why is this relevant?

        FWIW, before making Top Gun, McGillis costarred in one of my favorite movies of all time, Peter Weir’s Witness, starring Harrison Ford. She played an Amish widow named Rachel. One of the best Hollywood treatments of religious community and nonviolence (in a violent R-rated film!) I’ve ever seen.

        • She is no longer the babe that broke Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun.

          McGillis announced in 2009 that she is a homosexual.

          Why is this relevant?

          Why isn’t it relevant?

          That’s a reason to pray for her conversion and the overwhelming majority of her Hollywood colleagues as well, including Tom Cruise. Just another reminder that what takes place on the silver screen is make believe and more often than not, separated from reality by several orders of magnitude. Mental illness effects even those on the red carpet amid all of the bright lights, paparazzi, glitz and glamour. Her “marriage” to another woman didn’t turn out well and neither did any of Cruise’s three “marriages”, did they?

          Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.

          • The Church has a well-developed moral tradition regarding calling attention to an individual’s faults, sinful dispositions, or other information that would not reflect well on the individual to people receiving that information where there is no valid reason to do so.

            While Ms. McGillis identifies publicly as a lesbian and thus seems not regard her sexuality as compromising information, on a Catholic website the bald statement “X is a homosexual,” out of the blue and with no other context, cannot reasonably be taken as intended to elicit a charitable response from readers, and therefore does not suggest a charitable disposition from the writer. You can pretend this is untrue (tacking on a prayer intention in a subsequent comment), but everyone reading this knows better.

          • It’s important to get our facts right. She was in a civil union, not a marriage. And it was dissolved.

            It’s also worth noting that Ms. McGillis was raped in 1982. Sexual abuse often has a profound effect on one’s sense of sexual orientation. It wouldn’t hurt you to be a little more charitable.

  7. Tom Cruise is a force of nature. It must be admitted. Just the commitment to excellence and authenticity by themselves…throw in the constructive countercultural messages about family and race…a career portraying masculinity as the overarching thrill and responsibility it is.

    An artist to be respected.

    • I was thisclose to calling Cruise “a force of nature” in my opening graf, but I resisted, referring instead, referring instead to his “obsessive drive and visionary determination.”

  8. While I do plan to see the film (at daytime prices) and saw the original in the theater as a young college kid, there is no way CAPT Mitchell would still be in the Navy. While this film was made in 2018 and Maverick was an O-3 in 1986, his date of commission at the earliest would have been 1982. If a naval officer is still an O-6 after 29 years (CAPT is O-6, equivalent to COL in Army, Air Force, Marines – Coast Guard uses Navy ranks and shoulder boards) he or she is automatically retired by then and by the way gets a pretty good pension and benefits. In MOST cases if an officer is still an O-5 after 26 years (LTC or CDR) and has not been selected for O-6 (or is 60 years of age, which could apply to certain billets such as medical) he or she is automatically retired, again with decent pension and benefits.

    I also find it hard to believe that Goose’s son would just now be in flight training because he would have to be at least 33 years old now. I thought the cutoff for flight training was about 28. 30 years ago when I looked at applying to Air Force Officer Training School, the cutoff age for flight training then was 26.5 years (other billets would go up to 30 without prior service and certain specialties even higher) which applied to pilots and navigators (I could not qualify for pilot because I wear glasses but could physically pass for navigator). I did pass the physical for a commission in the Coast Guard for a non-aviation billet and applied to that branch.

    Like the television show JAG (which I did like), this Top Gun film has its share of Hollywood.

    • FWIW, Dennis, the movie does have onscreen explanations both for why Maverick is still in active duty and for why Goose’s son is behind the curve on his own Navy career. They may not completely hold water, but there are reasons. No question, though, that the movie is Hollywood, not reality!

    • WHEN you see the film, you’ll see that Rooster is NOT in Flight Training but is already a Top Graduate of Top Gun and is returning for a special mission. You’ll also see that he did not take the fast route to being a Naval Aviator and actually looks like he’s in his mid-30s (unlike some of the other Hotshots training for the mission.
      BTW, the Air Force raised the age limit to start Flight Training Years ago and as far as the 30-year limit for )-6s go, all I’ll say is “:Everything is Waivable”.

      • Robert and Steven:

        I do plan on seeing the film. I just wanted to point out that a lot of Hollywood is thrown in pertaining to military. CAPT Dan Pederson, USN (Ret) an original instructor at Top Gun said he liked the film but did note that there is much of Hollywood in it.

        Anyway I did hear that Maverick is a patriotic film and brings back the type of film that would have been made 30 years ago. That’s very positive and many people are considering going to the theater for the first time in years just to see Maverick.

  9. I just watched the film in a private screening my boss’ boss’ boss’ boss put out for us. I was surprised to see such a clean movie (profanity was as expected, and implied fornication is way above what recent movies have been pushing us). The plot is well made, and it’s a great action move with well made drama.

    Spoiler Alert
    I wasn’t surprised by the choices Cruise made of who should take the mission: nerd, woman, black, latino, and his buddy’s son. Don’t get me wrong, representation of minorities are really important, but that seemed as forced diversity and “tokenism”, especially since the three heroes that save others at the last minute are “alpha white males” (Mav, Rooster, Hangman). Why not have the black or latino guy be Rooster’s antagonist (that finds redemption at the end)? It’s a totally perfect decision to not cast the nerd or the woman doing that, sure. But were they afraid to have a nonwhite character as a semi-bad guy?

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