Top Gun: Maverick
The legendary Maverick returns to his old stomping grounds to prepare the next generation of ace pilots for an impossible mission in Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick.
Top Gun enjoys undisputed cult status with its quotable lines, iconic imagery, signature soundtrack and the unforgettable Beach Volleyball scene. It’s a film beloved by many with the desire for a sequel echoing through the decades since its release. After a long wait Top Gun: Maverick is finally upon us and has a lot to live up to.
“Legacy sequels” are often criticised for having largely the same issues. Many of them are plagued by an overreliance on nostalgic callbacks so that a connection with the audience can be forced. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a relevant recent example where reverence for the original film stopped the new iteration from truly coming into its own. There was a strong possibility that Top Gun: Maverick might suffer the same fate.
Early on it looks as if Top Gun: Maverick is heading down that road with obvious winks and nods to the original film such as Maverick’s signature jacket and his motorbike along with shots that are direct copies of their counterparts in Top Gun. Throwing this at the viewer early on actually works really well because it firmly establishes this as a Top Gun sequel and gets much of the expected referencing out of the way so that the film can actually begin. It’s performative but a necessary evil in order to appease fans who are there to see those things.
In many ways, this film is an interrogation of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s (Tom Cruise) legacy and, with him the legacy of the original film. Maverick is presented as a man stuck in the past. An early scene where he is chewed out by a superior officer (Ed Harris) establishes that he should be a much higher rank and Maverick doesn’t have a concrete answer as to why he hasn’t moved on though context shows that he is haunted by the death of his former Wingman and doesn’t want to accept promotions that will take him away from flying planes. As the film begins he is in the role of a test pilot where he gets to fly experimental aircraft that allows him to reach speeds no other living person has while endangering nobody but himself. Survivor’s guilt follows Maverick through the film and informs many of the choices he makes while contributing to his stagnation.
This works brilliantly on a meta-level as much of the audience won’t be coming to see Tom Cruise play Maverick in a leadership role who doesn’t get in the cockpit; they come to see Maverick the hotshot pilot unequalled in the sky. Maverick sees himself that way and has deliberately kept himself in the warm embrace of his glory days which has prevented him from moving on and doing different things with his life. He’s lonely and haunted while clinging onto a reputation that he no longer has. Cruise performs this brilliantly with charming arrogance radiating from him while there’s just enough self-doubt behind the eyes to imbue him with the humanity required to carry his arc. His age is an asset here with the focus on him being a relic that still has plenty to offer much like the reputation Cruise enjoys as a movie star.
Crucially the stagnation doesn’t mean that he’s out of step. His reputation is earned and a lot of effort is made to show that he’s as sharp as he ever was. He formulates a way to accomplish the impossible mission within seconds of being presented with the details and confidently declares that even when rusty on the plane required to do it he is more than capable. Those briefing him know it and believe it but his ego is challenged when he is ordered to perform in the capacity of instructor only. This brings up the question of his relevance in the modern era and whether there is a place for people like Maverick any more. Drones are brought up but this is more about his age and the era of pilot he comes from rather than technology leaving him behind.
The candidates for flying the mission are what Maverick and his colleagues were decades ago; the best of the best. He is constantly confronted with memories of the time he was in their place and forced to examine the attitude that has carried through his career since that point. They’re a reflection of who he is or was and not one he initially enjoys looking at. The self-examination and introspection is handled brilliantly as a counter to Maverick’s professionalism and natural compassion motivating him to ensure those chosen for the mission come back safely.
One of Top Gun: Maverick‘s few problems manifests in the other pilots. Twelve of them are introduced which means there isn’t time to develop most of them beyond baseline personality traits. As a group they’re fun and all are believable as ace pilots that have no equal outside of those among them but there are too many of them; an issue that is even more glaring when the film declares that six of them won’t make the cut. There’s limited reason to invest in any of them being selected over anyone else.
The exception to this is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller); the son of Maverick’s former wingman. Rooster is resentful of Maverick because he prevented him from progressing in his career out of a desire to protect him. This held Rooster back and he dislikes Maverick because of this which creates tension between them that forms the basis of their connection. It is present and does receive attention but not as much as it needs to and it ends up being resolved far too neatly. Maverick seeing Rooster as an opportunity to make up for what he considers to be a past mistake does come across clearly but their dynamic gets lost among everything else the film is trying to achieve.
Similarly, Maverick reconnecting with an old flame, Penny (Jennifer Connolly) is another attempt to force examination of past decisions and question the direction his life has taken. Cruise and Connolly have great chemistry which makes the scenes they share engaging enough to watch but the progression of the relationship is formulaic and Tom Cruise no longer functions as a believable romantic lead so it’s a perfunctory element that wouldn’t be missed if it was excised.
The plot takes the form of a heist of sorts with most of the second act devoted to planning and preparing for the impossible bombing run. Every step is outlined along with the problems that can crop up so that everyone -including the audience- is aware of what is at stake and what needs to be done. Details as to the identity and location of the enemy smartly stay unspoken in order to minimise the film dating itself or offending foreign powers and the focus stays firmly on the mechanics of what lies ahead for the pilots. Various training exercises are depicted with Maverick bringing his immense skill and experience to the table in order to prepare the pilots all the while learning a lot about himself in terms of what he needs to be to his students. Jon Hamm’s Beau “Cyclone” Simpson acts as the main antagonist of sorts as a constant contrary voice to Maverick’s reckless methods. He doesn’t feature heavily but as a bureaucratic obstacle he functions well while allowing Maverick to live up to his callsign .
Top Gun: Maverick is a masterclass in set pieces. A lot of work went into practical flying sequences that look real because they are. Trailblazing camera work brings the viewer into the cockpit with the pilots to feel every tight turn, the immense speed and the impact of the g-force acting on them as they push the planes along with themselves to their limit. The training sequences are kinetic and dangerous before the actual mission is breathtaking in its command of tension.
The film does run away with itself during the third act and veers into implausible territory which stands out after firm commitment to realism before that point. It mostly earns this shift and what is delivered is flawlessly executed but it does stand out. The intent is to deliver a crowd pleasing climax which is accomplished in spades and it does feed into the established character arcs. If Top Gun: Maverick has its hooks into you by then then it will act as a thrilling climax.
An excellent follow-up to a true classic that delivers technical excellence in spades, has something meaningful to say and further enshrines Tom Cruise as a star like no other. The film acts as an interrogation of Maverick and the original film’s legacy with lots of exploration of the direction his life has taken along with his age. Questions are asked about his relevance while showing that he is as sharp as he ever was. Moving him into the instructor role works well because he is forced to learn what he needs to be for his students. The film has too many characters with six of them existing simply to not make the cut. They’re fine as a group but individually they don’t stand out. Maverick’s connection to Rooster receives attention but not as much as it needs to and the tension between them is resolved far too neatly. Similarly Maverick reconnecting with an old flame is an afterthought that could have been removed with no impact. The plot takes on the form of a heist of sorts which helps outline exactly what the objective is and how to achieve it. Top Gun: Maverick is very much a masterclass in set pieces. Trailblazing camera work compliments a flawless command of tension to deliver impressive sequences that are unequalled. The film does run away with itself during the third act and veers into implausible territory which stands out after firm commitment to realism before that point. It’s excellently executed and supports the character arcs. If the film has its hooks into you by then then it will act as a thrilling climax.
- Tom Cruse once again proving he’s a movie star like no other
- a strong arc for Maverick to follow that riffs on the first film brilliantly
- not overdoing the fan service and reverence for the first film
- a simply laid out plot with a clear objective
- technically magnificent and thrilling set pieces
- too many characters for individuals to stand out
- the unnecessary inclusion of Maverick’s old flame
- Maverick and Rooster’s connection not receiving enough attention and resolving itself too neatly
- running away with itself in the third act