The 1986 smash “Top Gun” was both a movie and a pop cultural moment.
The latter mattered more, given the tenor of the times. President Ronald Reagan lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW D.C., and his confidence buoyed the nation. Pop hits like “Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away” crushed the Billboard charts, and rightly 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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Maverick is no teacher, at least on paper. He’s the best of the best, a pilot without equal. That doesn’t translate to someone who pores over user manuals and lectures kids on dogfight techniques. Plus, one of the Top Gun graduates is Rooster (Miles Teller, excellent), the son of Maverick’s old buddy, Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died 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 exception? Teller’s Rooster. The talented star leans into his angst, and the tension between him and Maverick is the dramatic fuel that powers the dizzying third act.
The passage of time is never off-screen for too long, even if Cruise refuses to age. Maverick is dubbed a relic, a creature of the past by his naysayers. They’re not wrong. What Cruise’s Maverick does in this marvelous sequel is show them, and Hollywood, you never count a hero out.
HiT or Miss: “Top Gun: Maverick” is the very best kind of sequel. It embraces the source material and improves on it whenever possible. Long may Maverick fly.