It seems fitting that Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick was delayed by a bewildering three years since it completed shooting. It finally reaches cinemas around the world this week, set back first by an extended post-production and then by the global pandemic. Of course the very idea of a Top Gun sequel is running more than three decades after the fact, having been repeatedly turned down and refused by star Tom Cruise for being a redundant exercise. Cruise had a point then, and arguably that point still stands. There is a story in Maverick about redundancy, getting old, and facing one’s mistakes, but it is efficiently buried under a mound of glossy action sequences and never sits comfortably with Cruise’s ever-green man-of-action persona. What the film does well it does spectacularly, but it does lack a narrative reason to exist.
The film picks up three decades after the original. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is a decorated test pilot for the US Navy, having never settled down nor been promoted beyond the rank of captain. When a crisis develops that requires an urgent military strike, Maverick is transferred back to “Top Gun” to train a new generation of elite pilots in how to complete a seemingly unwinnable mission. That generation includes Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former partner Goose.
It is pretty clear that what tempted Cruise back to Top Gun was the chance to fly jet aircraft for real – part of a decades-long apparent death wish that has included hanging from aircraft in takeoff, clambering over helicopters in flight, and undertaking real-life HALO (high altitude low opening) jumps, all in service of his action films. To Cruise’s credit, the footage of Maverick behind the controls of a jet fighter is extraordinary stuff. It gives the action sequences an edge and a visceral realism that Tony Scott’s 1987 original could only dream about.
The film looks great, and moves at an efficient pace. It handles a combination of humour and drama well, and seems guaranteed to find an appreciative mass audience hungry for an adrenalin rush that doesn’t have a Marvel superhero attached to it. Sure it lacks a particularly pressing narrative reason to exist, and what is written is superficial and under-cooked, but this is a big screen confection for a populist audience: the planes are fast and loud, and broadly speaking the jokes land. The preview audience with which I saw it were clearly having a great time with it.
Joseph Kosinski seems just the right director for the job, having previously undertaken a highly similar assignment with 2010’s Tron Legacy. That film knew exactly how to make this sort of “twenty years later” sequel. Kosinski was smart enough to know he wasn’t competing to match Steven Lisberger’s original Tron (1982) but rather the audience’s popular memory of it. He undertakes an identical approach here. There is no need to rewatch Top Gun (1987) to enjoy its sequel, because Kosinski sticks firmly to the bits the viewer will already remember. Cruise smiles a lot. Navy pilots sing around pianos in beachfront bars. They are all fiercely competitive with one another. If you think you are the sort of person who would enjoy a Top Gun sequel, you will almost certainly enjoy this. If you want fresh ideas, look elsewhere. There is a suspicious sense that what original concepts were intended for Maverick were judiciously pulled out during production. Don’t get too invested in Ed Harris, for example, playing a rear admiral aggressively pushing to replace live pilot with robotic drones, because the plot thread doesn’t survive the first 15 minutes. Likewise much-anticipated tension between Maverick and Rooster doesn’t so much resolve as evaporate.
The cast do an excellent job of playing broadly developed roles: archetypes when it works, stereotypes when it doesn’t. Cruise is rock-solid. Miles Teller and Jennifer Connelly work their characters like professionals, while Jon Hamm drinks a little too enthusiastically from the fountain of “you’re outta line!”. Val Kilmer makes a glowing impression in a brief return as former pilot “Iceman” Kazansky.
There is always room for a slick, competent popcorn flick, and Top Gun: Maverick does a fine job of it. Its action and flight scenes are genuinely impressive, and deserve every success. Some early viewers and critics are going so far as to claim it’s better than the original – it’s not. Kosinski is a master of playing on your nostalgia though, and if you come away with that sense that what you saw bettered the original it simply means he has done his job.