Welcome back to the danger zone. You might not think you need a sequel to the best movie of the 80s, butit’s way more fun than it has any right to be. Top Gun 2 reboots the original film’s heart-pounding aerial action, infectiously cheesy character drama, and don’t think too hard about military fetishism in a triumphant cinematic escapist spectacle.
It’s been more than 35 years since the release of the original Top Gun, in which Tom Cruise used his biggest smile as a US Navy aviator with something to prove and a child’s joy in playing with high-speed toys (which just happen to be built to kill people, but whatever). The sequel grossed over a billion dollars in theaters and was released digitally on August 23rd, with 4K, Blu-ray and DVD to follow on November 1st (that’s your dad’s Christmas present sorted).
Cruise has reportedly resisted sequels for decades, but it turns out that if you wait long enough, a story will emerge. He returns to the cockpit as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, still feeling the need for speed no matter what the boss says. And now enough time has passed since the death of his co-pilot Goose in the original film for Goose’s son to be a fully grown man.
He plays, the son is a chip from the old lap, flying with the navy under the call sign Rooster. When Maverick is called in to train the next generation of cocky kids on a Dambusters-meets-Death-Star suicide mission, the pair are stranded on an intercept course. “And here we go,” one character wryly notes of Maverick’s anti-authoritarian antics, but he could be talking about fully recreating the glitzy thrills of the original film.
From the moment you hear the instantly recognizable ringing of the synth bell in Harold Faltermeyer’s rousing Top Gun Anthem, it’s as if the last 30 years never happened. The opening credits describe Maverick, like the original, as a Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production, even though Simpson died in 1996. The opening text credit explaining the concept of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School uses the same wording as the first film. And all the time, Directorand cinematographer Claudio Miranda faithfully recreate the late Tony Scott’s cinematic style, from the backlit bustling flight deck to the straight-rod silhouettes clustered in the hangar. This new version even starts by dropping you into the controlled chaos of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck, recreating the first film’s iconic intro frame by frame (presumably).
That flight deck sequence has zero connection to what comes next, but it’s still a pretty cool introduction that immediately immerses you in the familiar feel of a movie you may have seen many times or haven’t seen in years. And more importantly, they feel real, the film sets up its stall from the very beginning: It’s about real things like fighter planes and sailboats and good old-fashioned stunts, not fake things like drones and phones and computer-generated spectacle. Marketing makes a big deal about how the actors actually got on the plane, though there’s no doubt a lot of unseen CGI —— at least almost every shot feels as if it were being done for real. Unlike recent blockbusters (ahem, Marvel movies) that distance you from the action with clearly impossible camera angles and over-the-top CG effects, Top Gun: Maverick uses the visual language of the original, the camera stuck claustrophobically in the cockpit or shaking. trying to keep up with the jet screaming past.
Of course, making this explicit connection to such a beloved film is a risk. The first film was crammed with iconic moments and quotes, and the sequel does little more than rearrange the planes on the flight deck. Still, it’s pretty tight-lipped with passwords and callbacks. Yes, Maverick’s leather jacket and motorcycle have their own themed twist. But the fighter jets and aircraft carriers provided by the United States Navy aren’t the only formidable weapon deployed in the sequel: The best weapon in Top Gun’s arsenal is Cruise’s ever-explosive charisma.
While the film again strains credulity with its deification of Maverick and his godlike flying abilities, Cruise’s secret weapon is always his willingness to look silly. So the over-the-top action is balanced by appealing humor and even a bit of pathos in Cruise’s relationship with the younger airmen and his rekindled romance with the bar owner. She’s played by Jennifer Connelly, another star who rose in the 80s (look who’s singing on the jukebox when she first appears). With Connelly as his old flame and Teller as his surrogate son, Cruise’s aging Maverick provides just enough heart to keep things moving as he grapples with the prospect of staying permanently grounded. A bittersweet scene in which Cruise reunites with the original film’s actor, the ailing Val Kilmer, is also a touching and surprisingly funny moment.
It cannot be denied that a large part of the story is a rehash of the original. For example, Cruise takes on the role of Kelly McGillis, just for fun. But while it’s all about a life-and-death mission, the stakes aren’t as immediate as they were the first time. The original film was driven by the feeling that Maverick was genuinely dangerous to those around him, but this new model doesn’t capture the same headlong rush into the danger zone. Partly because the younger models look more like models than warriors. But the main problem is that the mission is so implausibly specific to the needs of the plot. The g-force of narrative silliness starts to crush your brain, especially when a late-stage twist fires the afterburners and jets into an absurdity that might tempt you to eject.
There are certainly reasons to dislike a film like this, whether it’s Cruise’s personal life or the film’s unquestioning stance on war. Matthew Modine and Bryan Adams were among the 1980s stars who refused to be involved in the original because of its jingoistic tone, a post-Vietnam affirmation of American military (and male) strength. Even Cruise avoided a sequel because he didn’t want to glorify war. Strangely enough, Top Gun: Maverick is so bloodless and unconcerned with ambiguity that it hardly feels like a war movie. They’re just guys with toys.
There’s a vague plot about Jon Hamm’s pencil neck in the tower making sure the pilots complete the mission, not so much that they return alive, but that just makes the express disdain for unmanned combat drones a bit confusing. In fact, a much truer sequel to Top Gun: Good Kill was made a few years ago, in which Ethan Hawke plays a Cruise-esque fighter pilot exiled to drone duty and losing his mind in a metal box in the Las Vegas desert..
Meanwhile, Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t even tell us who Tom is fighting. There is an unnamed faceless adversary, bogeys and black-helmeted boogeymen, stripped of sovereignty or even humanity. The eternal enemy, somewhere out there, is doing vaguely defined, bad-sounding things that need to be blown up by rockets, helicopters, and aircraft carriers. Your tax dollars at work.
But who cares? This isn’t Saving Private Ryan, this is Top Gun. Don’t ask who the synthesizer tolls for, because the synth chime plays for everyone who loves a great popcorn action movie that’s as enjoyable as it is ridiculous. Top Gun: Maverick is a blast. The film still insists that this is Maverick’s last entry, but this polished action movie powerhouse is a fun way to ride off into the sunset.
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