Released in the year 1986, Top Gun was the highest grossing film of that year. The critical response was fairly average however; most praising the action sequences, but lamenting the lack of plot tying them together. Contrary to critical opinion, the public audience loved it. Over the intervening years this love has grown further and now Top Gun is seen as one of the most popular films of the 1980’s. Given the financial success of the film, it is strange to think that its sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, comes a whole thirty-six years later. Originally the wait wasn’t meant to be quite so long – the pandemic saw it delayed several times – but it is now finally here, was it worth the wait?
The answer to this question comes as soon as the opening chords of Harold Faltermeyer’s Top Gun Theme begins to play over the Paramount logo. This instant jolt of nostalgia will immediately get fans of the original onside, speaking directly to their younger selves that fell in love with the 1986 film. Director Joseph Kosinski (who takes over directing duties from the late Tony Scott) doesn’t stop there as the theme quickly morphs into the iconic Kenny Loggins’ song, ‘Highway to the Dangerzone’. The on-screen opening sequence mirrors that of the original as it focuses on the pit teams, and the jets that are in their care. It’s a direct callback, the first of many to come, that sets up the mood and tone perfectly.
Next comes the introduction to everyone’s favourite headstrong and cocky Naval aviator, Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. Tom Cruise returns to the role that helped make him the megastar that he is today and for much of the film it’s hard to know where the fictional character ends and Cruise begins. Although having almost fifty credits to his name, it is arguably the combination of his roles as Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt and Maverick that are most synonymous with the actor. Being about to play Hunt for a seventh time, the link to that character makes sense, however, Top Gun: Maverick marks only the second time that he has stepped into the well-worn jumpsuit. The reason it stands out so well on Cruise’s impressive resume is because it’s clearly a part that spoke to him, the movie having introduced him to his great love of flying planes whilst granting him a role that he could filter all his young actor bravado into.
Cruise’s return to Maverick shows that not a lot has changed for the character; he’s still pushing limits and ignoring orders, having made a career out of causing trouble that necessitates the now Admiral Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky to get him out of. Over the intervening years he has risen to the rank of Captain, but his disregard for playing by the book has seen him remain at that level. Along with his dismissive attitude to authority, the other aspect of Maverick that remains is his love for his former flying partner, Goose (played by Anthony Edwards). Goose tragically died during a training exercise during Top Gun, and despite being cleared of any malpractice, the death still weighs heavily on his conscience, to the point where his living environment has what could easily be termed a shrine to his fallen colleague.
Whereas in Top Gun, Maverick was flying against the ghost of his father (a deceased Naval pilot who had a bad reputation), here the ghost of Goose is omnipresent. The plot of Top Gun: Maverick, which sees him tasked with training a team of young pilots for a covert mission, hones in on his grief further by placing Goose’s son, Bradley, call-sign Rooster (Miles Teller), under his charge. For many the first Top Gun was just a collection of amazing aerial cinematography sequences linked together by a weak story of competition and ego, the scenes existing only to set-up the next flight. This time around, more attention has been paid to the narrative and emotional side. There’s still far more scenes in the air, but Maverick feels more whole in this version. The interplay between Maverick and Rooster is handled well, even if it gets confusing due to just how much Teller resembles Anthony Edwards. Teller pushes Cruise, and vice-versa, the two putting in some great performances. Teller is especially good at channelling his inner Goose and from the Hawaiian shirt, an ability to play a certain song on the piano, and an affinity for moustaches makes Rooster a perfect Goose 2.0.
It’s not just Rooster that Maverick is in charge of though, as there’s a whole team of aviators in need of his guidance. The collection of pilots hearkens back to those in Top Gun; a healthy amount of respect and ridicule of one another playing out on screen. This new group capture a similar magic to the collection of Slider, Iceman, Hollywood, Goose and Maverick, though offer their own modern spin. On appearances, the group are more inclusive, and importantly the one female pilot, Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), doesn’t feel like a token role. Gender isn’t an issue here, with all pilots afforded the same respect. Whilst many of the group present some freshness, Kosinski and his writing team (Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) haven’t forgotten those dynamics that made the first film such a success. Playing against Teller’s Rooster comes a heady mixture of both Iceman and Maverick in the guise of Glen Powell’s Hangman. For years, Top Gun has been viewed as a romance between Maverick and Iceman; Hangman presents a nice representation of what their child might have turned out had they gotten together and raised one.
Speaking of Iceman, as those that have seen the trailer will have guessed, the recipient of Top Gun’s highest accolade makes a return. It’s no secret that Val Kilmer wanted no part of the original, but his attitude toward the film has softened over the years and upon the announcement of this new film, he was one of the first names attached. During the lengthy pre-production phase, Kilmer had a health scare; a battle with throat cancer damaging his vocal chords. With this development, many were wondering how this would work in the new film and I can say that it has been handled with great care and respect from all involved. Kilmer’s son, Jack Kilmer, may have helped voice this iteration of Iceman, but the emotion and gravitas of the characters’ scenes together is garnered purely by seeing these two icons share the screen again.
Although Iceman returns, another key original cast member, Kelly McGills (who played Maverick’s love interest Charlie), does not return. Whilst this may be sad news for some, the general feeling is that the romance element of Top Gun did not work. The chemistry between the pair always felt off (especially when compared to the sexual tension between Mav and Ice) and it comes as no surprise that the couple haven’t lasted the distance. This time around Maverick circles Jennifer Connelly’s Penny, the daughter of a former Admiral who runs a bar on the Naval base. From what is told, the two have a long on/off history when it comes to their relationship, which alludes to the fact that Penny might be the reference Admiral’s daughter that got Maverick one of his first citations. It’s a super subtle nod to the original and one of many to be handled in such a way. Although a stronger pairing, the couple’s journey is pushed to one side in favour of more airtime; the bulk of their relationship plays out in montage form. It’s a shame to see a talent such as Connelly sidelined in this way, but let’s face it, no one comes to a Top Gun film for romance.
As much of an improvement as the story on the ground is, Top Gun: Maverick truly soars when it hits the skies. One of the reasons why the sequel took so long in its formation was that Cruise insisted that he would only make it were all the sequences with jets to be real and not CGI. His effort has paid off as the scenes in the air are awe-inspiring and jaw dropping. Each actor had to undertake a crash course in fighter pilot training, and whilst they aren’t actually at the helm, knowing that they are airborne, and not stuck in front of a green screen, heightens the drama and the beauty. Cruise (of course) has a more hands on role and seeing him as Maverick fly an actual jet is, to put it simply, super cool. The aerial ballet is a wonder to behold and Top Gun: Maverick really is a film deserving of being seen in IMAX. That extra admission price opens up more screen and sky and helps properly immerse the viewer with their birds eye view of battle.
Everything in Top Gun: Maverick’s arsenal combines to create a sequel that far surpasses the original. As fun as Top Gun is seen nowadays, it hasn’t necessarily aged well, but the sequel addresses those issues, corrects much of what didn’t work previously, and creates a film that sends adrenaline levels through the stratosphere. Most importantly, it enables a new audience (one not familiar with the original) to access the iconic property without alienating the fans. Nostalgia in cinema has become a recent trend and whilst Top Gun: Maverick pays plenty of fan service, it handles it in a mature manner. Rather than stuff in a load of bloated cameos (they could have easily wheeled out the likes of Tim Robbins, Michael Ironside, and Tom Skerritt), Top Gun: Maverick uses the first as more of a blueprint. The film hits the same beats, some in the same place, others not, and works in the popular aspects of the original, for example that volleyball scene, but twists it slightly, here turning it into a beach-side game of touch football. It also pays a great respect to the soundtrack, resurrecting several of the heavy hitters. Most of all though, it hasn’t changed its title character too much and for fans, watching Top Gun: Maverick is akin to having drinks with an old friend.
The summer blockbuster season is set to kick off with a (super sonic) boom with the arrival of Top Gun: Maverick, a film which builds on the legacy of Top Gun and surpasses it on every level.
Top Gun: Maverick arrives in UK cinemas on Wednesday 25th May 2022.