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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