You can’t pin the original “Top Gun’s” success on any one factor.
Yes, Tom Cruise was at the top of his movie star game in 1986 (has that ever changed?). The soundtrack featured iconic cuts like “Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away.”
The film didn’t shy away from sexuality, from the smolder between Cruise and co-star Kelly McGillis to that shirtless volleyball scene for the ladies.
And, smack dab in the middle of Reagan’s America, “Top Gun” saluted the red, white and blue sans apology.
That kind of muscular storytelling is no more, as antiquated as other ’80s relics like cassette tapes and parachute pants.
Modern Hollywood would rather drill down on the nation’s flaws (“12 Years a Slave,” “Antebellum“), besmirch current war efforts (the anti-Iraq War films) or relive other national disgraces (films exploring the Blacklist, for example).
China’s booming film industry is aggressively patriotic, unafraid to weave pro-Communist messages into its stories. American movies? Not even close.
So where does that leave “Top Gun: Maverick?”
Yes, Cruise is back, and he doesn’t look dramatically different than he did 36 years ago. The film promises more aerial combat, and few expect Cruise and company to come out losers in whatever skirmish they encounter.
“Maverick,” repeatedly delayed by the pandemic, could shoot Cruise back to the top of the box office as well.
It won’t be the same, though.
Sequels can never fully capture the original, from the sense of discovery to the energy assembled the first time ’round. The chasm between the films doesn’t end there, though.
Each is the product of a very different American culture. The ’80s model was built on excellence, aggression and a need to compete with the “Evil Empire,” even if the Cold War doesn’t get name checked in director Tony Scott’s film.
“Top Gun” hit theaters around the same time Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled the box office, bringing so-called “toxic masculinity” to the masses.
That drew audiences to theaters in the mid-to-late ’80s as much as sophisticated stories.
Paramount worked directly with the U.S. Military to deliver authentic action sequences, and the Pentagon had the final say over how their toys were deployed on screen.
The new film also worked with the U.S. Navy, to an extent, but it’s unlikely Paramount gave total control to the U.S. government as it did before.
China’s government? That’s a different story.
Cruise’s signature “Top Gun” jacket got a makeover early in production when a Taiwanese patch got the heave-ho to appease Chinese censors.
It’s a minor detail, at best, but it’s emblematic of how much the film industry has changed since 1986.
Few have seen “Top Gun: Maverick” at this point. The film hits theaters nationwide May 27, but a sneak peek late last month at Cinema Con didn’t suggest a duplicate of the film’s patriotic fervor.
Now, the film may surprise us all, even this culture critic, and double down on the patriotism embedded in the source material.
Cruise himself suggests that won’t be the case, albeit from an interview conducted four years following the original’s release.
Gizmodo recalls a 1990 Playboy interview where Cruise condemns “Top Gun’s” rah-rah spectacle.
OK, some people felt that Top Gun was a right-wing film to promote the Navy. And a lot of kids loved it. But I want the kids to know that that’s not the way war is—that Top Gun was just an amusement park ride, a fun film with a PG-13 rating that was not supposed to be reality.
That’s why I didn’t go on and make Top Gun II and III and IV and V. That would have been irresponsible.
Cruise changed his mind about a sequel, obviously. Did anything else about his thinking evolve since that 1990 chat?
“Top Gun: Maverick” may be more than just another Hollywood sequel. It’s a perfect way to examine how American filmmaking, and culture, morphed over time.
Some elements are out of the film’s control, of course.
“Top Gun” bowed during President Ronald Reagan’s second term. The Republican’s popularity, and willingness to stare down the Soviet Union, had global consequences. A 2022 film about the man known as the Gipper will share more about his remarkable vision.
“Top Gun: Maverick” bows under President Joe Biden, a deeply unpopular leader who oversaw a cataclysmic withdrawal from Afghanistan and appears to suffer from cognitive decline.
It’s an entirely different “Danger Zone.”