Return to the Danger Zone

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is a corny and awesome sequel to an 80s classic

Both a craven fan-service victory lap and an affectionate throwback to WWII aviation pics, Top Gun: Maverick revs its old-fashioned Hollywood jet engines and soars to popcorn-picture heights, occasionally even achieving high hypersonic thrills. Expect a fetishized military-industrial flex that would engorge the C-suite at Lockheed Martin; an anonymous NATO-threatening nation-state adversary that—due to global box-office kowtowing—dare not speak its name; and last-gasp star power in the death-defying but increasingly mortal Tom Cruise.

You want a slavishly similar sequel? This one literally opens with the same music, same opening copy exposition in the exact same font, and a virtual frame-by-frame recreation of the credit sequence showing fighter planes taking off from an aircraft carrier. “Ride into the Danger Zone,” not so much: there are creative choices in this movie that feel about as risky as seat-belted autopilot. And stans of the 1986 original will positively moan at the hand-job callbacks. A speeding motorcycle flanking runway takeoffs! A “Great Balls of Fire” singalong at the local dive bar’s upright piano! Upside-down cockpit taunts! Bare-chested beach antics! Cruise even walks into a hanger-set briefing session just like Kelly McGillis did, eliciting the same “impress me” looks from the assembled pilots. Because sequel!

TOP GUN: MAVERICK ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Written by:  Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, John Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer
Running time: 131 mins

The magnetic actor famously resisted cash-in follow-ups throughout the first, non-franchise part of his career, which is why more than three decades separate the vintage original from this year’s model. And that generational difference turns these two “best of the best” propagandistic portraits of American exceptionalism into a diptych of cocky comeuppance—one ascendant, the other bereaved. The lone wolf becomes a team player, and humility wins the day. With an expected dash of defiance.

Back in the ’80s, Cruise’s iconic Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell was a preternaturally talented naval pilot in thrall to his own ego, charming enough to win over rivals and woo older women—although the accidental death of his wingman Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) during one of their maneuvers broke his heart. Now, he’s a washed-up captain with no wife, no kids, and a stalled career—can’t get promoted and won’t die. The Navy has consigned him to test-piloting billion-dollar experimental planes that can go up to Mach 10. Does he go faster? Of course. And rips apart his aircraft. Because he’s a maverick!

“You got some balls, stick jockey,” growls his commander, Rear Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), who tells him to report to Fightertown, U.S.A. on order of Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now a 4-star admiral and the commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet. Mav will be the new instructor at the titular Fighter Weapons School. Enter Vice Admiral Simpson (John Hamm), who explains Mav’s secret mission, should he choose to accept it: some baddies are enriching uranium in a secret mountain base, tucked into a steep valley at the end of a winding canyon, and only dogfight-trained pilots can get close enough blow it up. Oh, and they have 3 weeks to train for it.

Tom Cruise as Maverick, freakin’ iconic.

Recent Top Gun grads return for this aerial adventure, including Goose’s grudge-holding son Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). Mav literally throws away the rule book—there’s a close-up of the manual thumping into a trash can—and teaches his own methods. One pandering highlight: a Who-cued “Don’t Get Fooled Again” training sequence that will give Boomers boners and put snarky bro smirks on Gen-Xers’ faces. Will Mav find himself getting Rooster into potentially lethal combat? Absolutely not, he insists. But also, inevitably, yes.

Brace for cornpone sunset dialogue like “Okay, sweetheart, one last ride” and “The future is coming, and you’re not in it.” Also be forewarned that the movie basically rips off the near-suicide mission from the Death Star trench attack in the original Star Wars, which is itself a remixed homage to movies like The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron. Then again, it’s still a riveting premise for an action sequence, and Kosinski makes it into an enthralling, white-knuckled, adrenaline-spiked experience.

The raid requires Mav to think creatively about ways to get all the pilots out alive, which would entail “bending airframes” with severe G-force pressure that squeezes lungs, compresses skulls, and causes blackouts. Simpon chronically disapproves of every innovative solution that Mav proposes, to the point that he doesn’t seem to want people to live. Much jaw-clenching, head-butting, and teeth-grinding ensues. No surprise, the team doesn’t want to die, so they let Mav give them a crash-course in envelope-pushing daredevilry. Spoiler: there will be F-14 Tomcats, just like in the original.

Top Gun: Maverick is as eye-rollingly pandering as it is seat-joltingly exhilarating. But it carries some dramatic weight. There’s an unexpected poignancy in watching Mav realize how much he’s wasted his life, and how often his rash decisions have ended up surrounding him with emotional debris. There’s a love interest, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a former admiral whose role in the first movie was literally as a mentioned-in-passing dialogue aside and a pussy brag. Here she’s a flesh-and-blood reminder of Mav’s romantic shortcomings, as well as stand-in for second chances and late-life redemption, which adds age-appropriate gravitas to Mav’s personal growth. The dogfights and supersonic bravado make the film a blast, but that little bit of wisdom, repentance, and perspective actually make the whole ride unexpectedly satisfying.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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