Top Gun: Maverick (PG-13)
13/06/22 20:58 Filed in: 2022
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
For anyone who’s seen Top Gun (1986), this film’s opening sequence will be an exhilarating blast from the past.
We witness jets landing on an aircraft carrier, tailhooks snagging arresting wires to bring the planes to a screeching halt. Then we see airplanes launching from the carrier; pilots are given the go-ahead hand signal by members of a highly-skilled group of technicians who serve as a pit crew for the jets. A triumphant fist pump accompanies each successful takeoff.
Then we hear the haunting strains of an electric guitar, which propels the regal power ballad “Top Gun Anthem” from the OG movie. Cue the goose bumps. The nostalgic opener culminates with a short sampling of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” a song synonymous with the 80s movie.
The story begins with Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) working on a P-51 Mustang in a hangar in Mojave, CA. Living up to his name, Maverick has nearly been discharged from the Navy several times for insubordination, but he receives orders from his friend, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), to return to the Top Gun flight school in San Diego, CA. In a top secret meeting with Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Admiral Bates (Charles Parnell), Maverick is informed that he’s been tasked with leading a mission into enemy territory to blow up an underground uranium enrichment facility.
Surprise #1: Maverick learns that his role on the mission is to teach it, not fly it.
Maverick is introduced to the elite pilots he’ll be training.
Surprise #2: One of the young men is Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s wingman Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died in a training accident in the first film.
As Maverick puts the pilots through grueling training, with occasional breaks for teambuilding fun, Navy Intelligence learns some distressing news…
Surprise #3: The enemy facility will be operational sooner than anticipated and the mission has been moved up—ready or not, the pilots will be wheels up in seven days.
So, will Maverick’s young pilots have the right stuff to complete an impossible mission (Cruise’s other alter ego, Ethan Hunt, could do it without breaking a sweat), or will they crash into a mountain or be shot down by sleek fifth-generation fighters? Buckle up! There are plenty more surprises on this wild ride.
A number of elements made the original film a crowd-pleasing classic. A callow, cocky Cruise was certainly a box office draw for many. The realistic dogfights between U.S. F-14 Tomcats and Russian MiGs created an immersive experience that appealed to the arcade/Atari crowd. The ubiquitous soundtrack generated excitement for the movie all summer long, and even people who hadn’t seen the movie (like me…I wasn’t allowed to see it) could identify the film by its chart-topping hits.
Top Gun: Maverick has plenty of things going for it as well. For starters, its storyline is a bit more complicated than the straight shot plot in the original film. A more seasoned Maverick struggles to find his place in the new Navy; hotshot young pilots and modern fighter planes threaten his obsolescence.
Rooster’s inclusion in the team of fighter pilots forces Maverick to confront the lingering ghost of Goose’s tragic death. The young pilot bears a grudge against Maverick for delaying his entry into the Naval Academy; unbeknownst to Rooster, it was his mother’s dying wish. The movie gets ample dramatic mileage from this estranged relationship.
And speaking of relationships, Maverick is reunited with long-lost love, Penny (Jennifer Connelly). Though underdeveloped, their relationship is sweet without being saccharine. Also, Cruise and Connelly have far better screen chemistry than the dubious pairing of Cruise and Kelly McGillis in the original film.
The movie’s attractive young actors deliver fine performances. Of note are annoyingly overconfident Hangman (Glen Powell), quietly confident Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), and silent techie Bob (Lewis Pullman). And what highflying film would be complete without Ed Harris? He plays Admiral Cain in a scanty, yet significant role.
Aside from its star-studded cast, the movie’s success rides on its aerial combat sequences. The visuals in Maverick far surpass those in the original film, and some of the aerobatic stunts literally take your breath away (with apologies to Berlin). But in the age of CGI, how real are the dogfights?
Much like Maverick, Cruise is well-known for pushing the limits. From the outset, Cruise insisted that the sequel should contain no green screen or CGI shots. It would be easy to cheat on the close-up cockpit shots, but even those were captured in-flight during real aerial filming sessions.
In addition to enduring a three month boot camp designed by Cruise, the young performers involved in flight scenes had to undergo g-force training to prepare them for the incredible pressures they’d experience when filming aloft. Added pressure was placed on the actors when, out of necessity, they became active participants in the filmmaking process.
According to producer Jerry Bruckheimer, “The actors also had to learn how to run the cameras because when they’re up in the jet they have to direct themselves essentially. They also needed to be taught about the lighting, cinematography and editing, as it is the once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Now that’s how you take amateur filmmaking to new heights.
Not every aspect of the film soars, though. Many could justifiably argue that the opener is a rip-off of the original and that the entire movie is a redux of Top Gun.
As with the first film, character development in Maverick is fairly shallow; other than Maverick, Rooster and Penny, most of the characters are cardboard cutouts with call signs. Also, with very few exceptions, the plot is patently predictable.
The movie’s theme of “old vs. new” is delivered with all the subtlety of an exploding rocket. In the words of Admiral Cain, pilots like Maverick are “headed for extinction.” Maverick is frequently referred to as “old man,” and one of the younger officers calls F-14s “old relics”—the inference is that Maverick resembles the planes he used to fly.
There are plenty of worn-out tropes here too, like when the motorcycle-riding Maverick races alongside a jet hurdling down a runway; a callback to a similar scene in the original movie. Another allusion is when Rooster sits down at a piano and bangs out Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” something his father had done, with him sitting on top of the piano, in the first movie.
Then there’s the slogan-happy dialog, i.e. the oft-quoted, “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” Or the Yoda-esque, “Don’t think, just do.”
One of the movie’s strangest story points is that the enemy remains unidentified. Apparently in today’s political climate, Russia and China are off-limits when selecting bad guys for a story. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised since this movie was co-funded by Tencent, a Chinese company.
In a movie focused on fight and flight, character moments often take a back seat to action sequences. An exception is the touching reunion scene in the middle of the story; it’s one of the only moments where the film slows down long enough for a meaningful conversation to take place. Iceman invites Maverick to visit his home; the latter is greeted at the door by Iceman’s wife who says, “It’s come back.”
When Maverick enters Iceman’s home office, his rival-turned-friend is having a coughing fit. Iceman can’t speak; he must express his thoughts with the assistance of a computer. Iceman inquires about Rooster. When Maverick admits he’s at wits’ end with how to deal with the young man, Iceman types, “It’s time to let go.”
This sage and selfless advice, coming from a man battling a terminal illness (the fact that Kilmer has throat cancer lends the scene added poignancy), is the heart of the film. It’s a stark reminder of the brevity of life, something the pilots in the film are all too aware of, and an admonition to make the most of every moment.
Top Gun: Maverick is a dazzling roller coaster of a movie. It’s a worthy successor to the original film and has pushed the technology and aerial acrobatics to the next level. The gravity-defying, death-daring stunts should make this a crowd-pleasing, summer popcorn flick.
It’s regrettable that the pervasive swearing detracts from what otherwise is a pretty clean film. Despite its heavy dose of foul language, the movie is an entertaining thrill ride that should appeal to a wide audience, especially those with a need for speed.
The final scene shows Maverick and Penny flying off into the sunset. Is this symbolic? Will this be the end of Maverick’s story, or will he be back in the sequel…
Top Gun: Rooster?
Rating: 3 out of 4