The 1986 smash “Top Gun” was both a movie and a pop cultural moment.
Given the atmosphere of the moment, the latter meant more. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., President Ronald Reagan lived, and his assurance lifted the country. Pop songs like “Take My Breath Away” and “Danger Zone” dominated the Billboard charts, and rightfully so.
The film’s star, Tom Cruise, couldn’t be more movie-star handsome or powerful within the industry — even if 1985’s “Legend” showed his commercial vulnerability.
“Top Gun” was the right movie at the right time, even if the film itself was far from great.
So where does that leave “Top Gun: Maverick?”
The oft-delayed sequel can’t replicate that Reagan-era optimism or the original’s rah-rah patriotism. This is 2022, and cheering on a straight white male military hero is problematic to the small but vocal minority that runs the culture.
Don’t tell that to Cruise.
The ageless star is in full control of his film destiny, and he clearly helped “Maverick” avoid most, if not all, of the culture war booby traps.
No hand wringing over military might or extended emasculation of its rugged hero, for starters. No lectures on America’s imperfect past or gender inequality.
And, suffice to say, “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t woke in the slightest. It is, though, a testament to American excellence and the ability to achieve a goal no matter the odds.
How retro. How … refreshing.
Cruise is back, of course, as Pete Mitchell, far better known by his call sign, Maverick. He’s been kicking around the Navy for some time now, never rising above Captain status.
Maverick doesn’t play by the rules, in case you weren’t paying attention.
Still, he’s tasked with his most formidable assignment yet – training the latest class of Top Gun graduates to take out a nuclear enrichment facility in an unnamed country.
Yes, once again a “Top Gun” movie wages war against an unknown foe. It’s odd and oddly welcome given our tribal times.
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On paper, Maverick is not a teacher. He is an unmatched pilot and the greatest of the best. That does not apply to someone who spends hours reading user manuals and instructing children in dogfighting. Additionally, Rooster (Miles Teller, terrific), a Top Gun graduate, is the son of Maverick’s late friend Goose (Anthony Edwards), who perished in “Top Gun.”
That guilt hasn’t ebbed in the past 30-plus years.
“Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t shy about tracing the ’80s-era blueprint.
- The leather jacket
- The signature shades
- The testosterone-fueled sing-a-longs
- The beach scene with tanned skin aplenty
Nor does it hold back on nostalgia, from endless photos of Goose and co. to a heartfelt reunion with Iceman (Val Kilmer). Try to hold back that lump in your throat during those sequences.
“Top Gun” flame Kelly McGillis didn’t make the reunion, but Jennifer Connelly capably anchors the romantic subplot as another woman from Maverick’s past. She’s strong and feisty, but she’s here to keep her old beau’s ego in check while making him a better man.
This isn’t the cocksure Maverick of yore, and that’s understandable. He’s older, and his arrogance has evolved in ways that make the character more engaging.
The cocky baton is passed to Glen Powell, the most arrogant of the new recruits. He’s a pretty boy with attitude to spare, but the film recognizes he’s not the center of attention.
It’s Cruise, grappling with his past and Rooster’s future.
Director Joseph Kosinski, who previously teamed with Cruise for the intriguing “Oblivion,” leans hard into the sequel’s IMAX possibilities. We’re treated to several flying sequences, each superior to the last. Few films are as tailor-made for summer-time viewing as “Maverick.”
There’s humor here, too, enough to puncture some of the assembled egos and give the sequel a sense of humanity. This might be a glossy blockbuster, but the potential loss of life gets sizable attention.
That “Fast & Furious” franchise should take some notes.
— Top Gun (@TopGunMovie) May 11, 2022
We’re given not one but two authority figures for Maverick to torture. Ed Harris gets too little screen time in that role, with Jon Hamm taking over early as Col. Rules & Regulations.
The Top Gun graduates acquit themselves well, but the story doesn’t give any one pilot enough time to pop.
The anomaly? Rooster of Teller. The ebullient third act is propelled by the gifted star leaning into his anxiety and the conflict between him and Maverick.
Even though Cruise refuses to get older, time is never far from view. Maverick’s detractors refer to him as a relic and a product of the past. They are not mistaken. They and Hollywood are shown in this fantastic sequel by Cruise’s Maverick that a hero should never be written off.
Whether it succeeds or fails, “Top Gun: Maverick” is the ideal type of sequel. It welcomes the inspiration and enhances it whenever it can. Long live Maverick’s flight.