Top Gun: Maverick and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
It’s true that I’m getting to this one pretty late, but it’s also true that the darn thing is still the biggest movie at the moment so I guess I can still call this review somewhat relevant. I guess it’s no surprise that one of the most enduring classics of the eighties finally getting the sequel everyone always wanted would hit like a meteor full of money, but it’s still pretty surprising just how much this has eclipsed everything else around it. Even MCU movies which are supposedly so ubiquitous that we should all be sick of them don’t manage to have the kind of staying power that this movie has! So what is the secret formula that turned this into a license to print money? Is it actually as good as its box office would suggest, or has nostalgia once again suckered us all into giving money to a movie that was better off being remembered than revived? Let’s find out!!
Captain Pete Mitchell, better known as Maverick (Tom Cruise), has been bumming around the Navy since the glory days of Eddie Money and Leisure suits, and it’s landed him a gig as a test pilot for experimental aircraft. Of course, Maverick being Maverick, he manages to screw that up by ticking off Admiral Ed Harris and is only saved from a dishonorable discharge by his old friend Admiral Tom Kazansky who was once known as Iceman (Val Kilmer). Instead, he gets sent to teach the next generation of hot shot pilots which just so happens to include Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Goose who died while flying with Maverick back in the first movie. His assignment, should he choose to accept it, is to get these Millennials in tip-top fighting shape for a ridiculously complicated and ludicrously dangerous bombing run to destroy a uranium enrichment facility, and there’s no one better than Maverick for making the impossible merely improbable! Can Maverick finally put his ego in check and be the teacher that these pilots need? What happened between him and Bradley that left him feeling so bitter, and is this Maverick’s last chance to make things right? Was waiting nearly forty years to make a sequel just a flex on Tom Cruise’s part to show how little he’s aged since then?
For the type of movie this is, it’s darn near perfect and is clearly resonating with a lot of people. I myself enjoyed this quite a bit, certainly more than the first one which suffered from a meandering script, but it has one flaw that dampened my enthusiasm immensely and ultimately undercuts whatever message it was trying to go for. The movie is so tied to the first film that it undercuts its own narrative trying to preserve the memory of it which leads to a movie that feels both liberated in its sheer scope and grandeur and severely hampered by its obligations. Given how much money the movie has made and how well the film is put together, it’s probably a losing battle to try and point out how stiflingly cautious this movie is and how it’s a worse movie for it. It’s perfectly satisfying for what it is and is certainly better than a lot of other nostalgia-bait movies out there, but you can’t achieve greatness if you’re not willing to take a few risks and I hope I’m not breaking too many hearts by saying it falls short of that.
Make no mistake that there’s going to be a big discussion about what this movie gets tragically wrong at the end of this, but until then let’s gush about all the great things in here and how it comes oh so close to reaching those lofty heights! First and foremost, the action is fantastic and manages to modernize the movie significantly. Cruise was in a jet in the first movie, but even then the action felt kinda staged and, at least for me, underwhelming. Here, they’ve perfected those techniques with Cruise and company having a much more convincing cockpit view that feels more connected to the action on screen, and the scenarios they come up with are genuinely intense and exciting to watch. The goal itself is the kind of ludicrously complex and impossible to pull off missions that would feel more at home in a Star Wars movie (complete with a tiny exhaust port that blows everything else up), but Top Gun was never the most grounded film out there and frankly, it works better as a drama than it would a more straightforward and po-faced military actioner. The whoops and hollers from the pilots are as integral a part of the action as is the hardware and special effects to create set pieces that are both visually spectacular and emotionally gripping which is sure to bring a smile to even the most jaded summer blockbuster filmgoer.
Along with the action, the movie manages to cultivate a new cast of interesting characters, and while it echoes way too much of the first film, it at least has a compelling narrative that builds towards something worthwhile. It’s a simple setup to be sure with a bunch of headstrong newbies looking to make their name under the guidance of a similarly headstrong teacher, but it manages to give just enough depth and fun little quirks to the pilots to keep them from feeling like cardboard cutouts. They definitely aren’t the focus of the movie, not with Tom Cruise going through his old-man crisis and the action scenes being such fantastic showstoppers, but I definitely felt more for everyone in this movie than I did in the first one. The pilot with the most to do here is of course Miles Teller as the son Goose, and while he’s not the most compelling actor out there (nor is this the most compelling role in the world), he manages to do what he needs to and holds him own whenever he’s in the same scene with Tom Cruise. Frankly, there’s enough going on here with the new pilots and the updated status quo that I would like to see the franchise continue with these characters, but there’s a big elephant in the room that we need to talk about. One that looks remarkably good for his age, but I digress.
The big problem with this movie is Maverick, and by extension, Tom Cruise. I’ll elaborate in more detail which will include a few spoilers, but suffice to say that he can’t help but overwhelm everything else in the movie; especially the other characters who can’t get a word in edgewise whenever Maverick is on screen. I get that the movie is named after him and that Tom Cruise is one of the most bankable stars out there, but it’s to the film’s detriment the lengths it goes to keep him front and center. To go any further is where we start to run into spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything specific than skip ahead to the next section for the star rating.
We good? Alright, so it’d be one thing if the movie wasn’t trying to do something with Maverick’s character and was just a mindless action film. If they wanted to bring Maverick back and give him a ticker-tape parade as he jets his way through battle (this would be the Rambo: First Blood Part 2 route), I probably wouldn’t like it but I’d get what they’re doing. The first two-thirds of this movie however constantly interrogate Maverick’s motivations and choices; perhaps not a particularly tough interrogation as the movie wants to keep things light, but nonetheless, he’s written to eventually have a realization that his time is past and that he has to be willing to pass the torch. The movie even goes so far as to have one character tell him to “let it go”, so the trajectory of his arc is pretty darn clear… and yet the movie balks in the third act and makes him THE HERO. Despite everything in the movie up to that point telling us otherwise, he ultimately gets everything he wanted with no consequences. He’s not forced to let go and his ego gets boosted even higher as he proves to be the best of the best of the best; even among those who are half his age and supposed to be learning from him. There are of course perfectly legitimate business reasons why you keep your biggest star in the movie for the climactic mission at the end, but to me, it also read as just an ego thing. Cruise is a producer on this and from the sound of it he got to run a good chunk of the show here, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers either didn’t want to fight or were more than happy to roll over to keep him front and center. It’s the kind of film that ends up being a metaphor for it itself as what we ended up seeing on screen reflects the lack of ambition behind the camera to move past the eighties and give us something to care about now. Then again, the movie made an astounding amount of money, so maybe this is what the people want; sixty-year-old Tom Cruise muscling his way in front of the youngsters to remind everyone who’s really in charge.
I’m only harsh on it because I wanted to like it even more than I did. As I said, it’s a sizable improvement over the last film in that it has a clear arc for its characters and a story with a concrete goal, but the ways that it drops the ball feel particularly irritating given everywhere else they improved on. If you aren’t bothered by this being the Tom Cruise Show and just want to revisit an old classic, then there are few movies that have done it better than this. I’d almost be inclined to compare it favorably with Evil Dead 2 as far as a sequel just being a better version of the original film, but the fact that it teased us with being more than that before pulling the rug out from under us is what really stuck with me more than the amazing action scenes and the decently constructed story. This is certainly encouraging if it’s the starting point for a new franchise, but only if they are ready to start moving forward instead of looking back.