*****AIRCRAFT CARRIER-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
1986’s “Top Gun” isn’t exactly one of my favorite movies, to put it charitably. Back in the late 1980s, I thought it was a dumb, jingoistic US Navy recruitment film smothered in a slick coat of Hollywood production values. “Top Gun” wallowed in action movie cliches and shallow characters; ignoring any semblance of US Naval realism. The movie’s climactic dogfight over a nondescript desert country with an undefined, all-black clad “enemy” was little more than an insufferably macho exercise in American might. Personally, I preferred the 1991 “Top Gun” parody “Hot Shots” which at least featured well-placed intentional laughs in lieu of its predecessor’s boorish clunkers. I much preferred star Tom Cruise’s performances in Oliver Stone’s “Born on the 4th of July” (1989), or even his controversial but earnest turn as the Vampire Lestat in the stylish “Interview With The Vampire” (1994).
I also remember reading an early 1990s Playboy interview with Tom Cruise where he said making a trigger-happy sequel to “Top Gun” would be irresponsible of him at that point in his career. So, needless to say, when I heard about the imminent release of “Top Gun: Maverick,” I had less-than-zero interest in seeing it. However, word of mouth from trusted friends can be persuasive, especially like-minded friends whose opinions you value. Several such friends of mine were praising “Top Gun: Maverick” to the point where I couldn’t ignore it anymore. So for the price of two movie tickets, I bought an HD digital copy on YouTube, and pulled out my home digital projector and Bose sound system. So, after 30-odd years, I went back into the ‘Danger Zone‘ to watch a sequel to a movie I’ve long despised…
“Top Gun: Maverick.”
The story of “Top Gun: Maverick” begins with forever-Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) test-flying a scramjet-powered supersonic aircraft up to Mach 10 over the Mojave desert, flying against the orders of Admiral Cain (Ed Harris, in a memorable cameo), who wants to shut the expensive program down in favor of unmanned drone flights. Maverick, for the good of his flight control team’s careers, has faith in the scramjet, and takes it up for an unsanctioned test flight. Being the same arrogant prick we saw back in 1986, Maverick unwisely powers the expensive prototype past its Mach 10 limitations, and obliterates the plane (along with the flight team’s dreams), barely parachuting to safety himself. Admiral Cain arrives on the base just in time to see Maverick make this ‘successful failure’ of a test-flight. Unimpressed with Maverick’s heroism, the admiral tells the surviving rogue pilot that, against his better judgment, he has an assignment for him; a return to the US Navy’s “Top Gun” combat flight school at Miramar, in San Diego–Maverick’s alma mater.
Note: The opening prologue of Maverick’s scramjet test flight reminded me, both in scope and presentation, of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) similar high-altitude test flight at the beginning of 2018’s “First Man.”
Maverick, despite being in excellent shape, is a dinosaur. He’s been an un-promotable, rule-breaking captain for decades, only because he’s still the best pilot on active duty, despite his reckless reputation. Maverick’s new assignment is one totally unsuited to him; he has three weeks to train a group of Top Gun graduates (all top of their respective classes) how to fly a dangerous mission into a vaguely-defined ‘enemy’ country below their radar, through narrow canyons (an altitude of only a few hundred feet), in order to fire missiles into a uranium enrichment plant before it can manufacture nuclear weapons. The new top dog at Top Gun, Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), is immediately at odds with Maverick’s no-rules style (not a surprise), and admits that he didn’t want Maverick for the job. In an effort to better understand what he’s getting into, instructor Maverick decides to meet these young new pilots at the local watering hole…
Note: One thing that repeatedly popped me out of the movie was the sight of Maverick riding around San Diego on his motorcycle without a helmet. As a former motorcyclist myself, I know that California (where the movie takes place) has a helmet law that’s been on the books for 30 years now–a law that saved my life when I was nearly killed by a random drunk driver 28 years ago. Granted, there was no helmet law when the first film came out in 1986, but times have changed, and I’m dismayed to see a PG-13 movie (with the potential to reach young impressionable audience members) giving a seeming pass to break the law and risk death. Granted, Maverick is established as a rule-breaking ‘rogue’ early on, but there’s a difference between acceptable risk and stupidity. Maverick’s willful ignorance isn’t charming anymore–it’s dumb.
At the bar, Maverick reunites with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) with whom he’d had a fleeting romance with years earlier. It’s strongly implied she was that same “admiral’s daughter” who nearly cost Maverick his career in the first movie. Now a middle-aged mom with a teenaged daughter, Penny still very much enjoys life to the fullest; driving a Porsche and enjoying sailboating on her days off. While we never learn whatever became of Maverick’s romance with “Charlie” (Kelly McGillis), it’s clear that the movie is setting up Penny as the eternal bachelor Maverick’s permanent love interest.
Note: Sadly, this middle-aged romance takes place under the shadow of Hollywood ageism. Tom Cruise, either naturally or not, looks remarkably young for his current age of 60. Kelly McGillis, who is 65, has let herself age naturally, and isn’t very active in Hollywood these days. So when casting Maverick’s love interest, he’s set up with a fifty-something actress who’s aging just as gracefully as Cruise. On the one hand, middle-aged me appreciated seeing a central romance between two characters from my AARP age bracket, but on the other hand, I hated that yet another actress was probably not hired because she didn’t look “hot” enough for the admittedly still-virile Tom Cruise. Pick your battles, I guess…
Maverick is somehow roped into buying rounds for all the pilots in Penny’s bar, where he gets a look at his new class; all Top Gun graduates who are reuniting in a pool to be selected for this dangerous mission. These pilots include (by callsign) “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro), “Payback” (Lewis Pullman), “Fanboy” (Danny Ramirez), and the two best of the best; “Hangman” (Glenn Powell), an arrogant douche who is essentially a young Maverick, and Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). Maverick has a history with Rooster, as Rooster’s dad was Maverick’s copilot (WSO, RIO), “Goose” (Anthony Edwards). Maverick also tried to keep Rooster from entering the Naval Academy over the guilt he felt from Goose’s death during a training accident in the first film. The young Rooster bears a strong resemblance to his old man, especially when he plays “Great Balls of Fire” on the bar’s piano. Hearing that song played by his late friend’s son still stings Maverick, thirty odd-years later.
Note: The bar scene early on is our roundtable introduction to the key players; we meet Penny, and we meet the pilots, including Rooster, who will be the most important people in Maverick’s life in the weeks ahead. I appreciated the more diverse casting in this film, as well; a far cry from the almost entirely white cast of the 1986 movie. I also appreciated the attempts to give these pilots more traces of personality, such as “Fanboy” having his callsign emblazoned on his helmet in classic Star Trek font (nice that Paramount owns that property, too). The casting of Miles Teller as Rooster is a plus, as well; I have great new respect for this actor, especially after seeing him in Paramount+’s recent miniseries “The Offer,” based on the tumultuous making of 1972’s “The Godfather” (one of my favorite movies). If I had any issues, it’s that Teller’s dyed hair and added mustache almost make him look too much like Anthony Edwards, if that’s a negative…?
Uncomfortable in his new post, Maverick begins his first day of teaching by letting this pool of Top Gun graduates know they’re being screened to go on a dangerous mission to destroy an illegal uranium enrichment facility which will go online in three weeks (the movie’s ticking clock). Intelligence shows the target to be a three-meter shack at the bottom of a crater that can only be accessed via a narrow trench through a dangerous ridge of mountains, below enemy radar. Any higher than the mountaintops, and their jets will be spotted by enemy radar and anti-aircraft batteries. Modern stealth fighters aren’t viable options either, due to potential jamming of their systems. This unnamed ‘enemy’ also has their own latest generation fighter jets standing by, as well. Once the Top Guns drop a missile onto the target, they will need to execute a 10-G climb–a stress on the body that causes most people to blackout. To begin training his pilots, Maverick asks the obstinate Admiral Simpson for permission to fly “below the hard deck” (under 5,000 feet). Simpson denies permission, of course, citing danger to the local population, etc. Maverick insists. To be continued…
Note: Okay, if the mechanics of this mission feel somewhat…er, familiar? It’s because it’s almost identical to the Death Star trench run in the original “Star Wars” (1977). Hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best…
Training begins. Maverick will act as an enemy aircraft while his student take turns flying practice sorties at an approximation of the enemy target, recreated on the grounds at Miramar. One-by-one, Maverick coolly picks off these ‘best-of-the-best’ students, proving that they each have a lot to learn about aerial dogfighting—a skill that’s been weakened by over-reliance on drone strikes and other technological developments over the past four decades. Even “Hangman”, arguably the best of their best, gets schooled by Maverick when he hears the familiar target-lock sound (aka ‘tone’), just he’s being ‘killed’ in simulation by his teacher. So, it’s back to basics for this class. During the simulation, Maverick forces his pilots to fly below the hard deck–an act that again draws the ire of Admiral Simpson (along with a threat of a dishonorable discharge).
Note: I’m a big fan of actor Jon Hamm, as “Mad Men” (2007-2015) was, and is, one of the best television series of the 21st century. Sadly, most of Hamm’s roles in larger movies since then have been in supporting roles, such as Admiral “Cyclone” Simpson. Few major movies to date have fully exploited the range of this amazing actor. To his character’s credit, Admiral Cyclone Simpson isn’t always wrong, either; many of his reasons for not trusting Maverick’s leadership abilities make perfect sense, in fact.
After his blowout with Admiral Simpson, Maverick gets a text from his old wingman, and now senior admiral, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). Maverick is having doubts about his ability to teach these new hotshot pilots the necessary skills they have to complete the mission. Insisting that they meet face-to-face, Maverick and Iceman are reunited, as the old friends warmly hug. Iceman’s wife tells Maverick that his throat cancer has come back with a vengeance, and that his prognosis isn’t good. Nevertheless, Maverick is still glad to see his friend, despite the circumstances. At first, Iceman uses his computer to “speak” to Maverick in large text on a screen, but he then chooses to vocalize (which causes him great pain) in order to more effectively reach his friend. Maverick begs Iceman to send him on this suicidal mission instead of his students. Iceman tells Maverick that he needs to build trust within his group. Iceman’s pep talk, as well as his confidence in Maverick, genuinely help. The two even share a joke over “who’s the best pilot” (a running gag from the original). Maverick leaves, resting assured that his old friend and senior officer still has his back after all of these years…
Note: It’s truly lovely that the film was able to work in actor Val Kilmer’s own debilitating battle with throat cancer in such an organic way. The actor’s own life was saved via a tracheotomy, which has permanently altered the way he speaks. Having experienced a loss in my own family recently due to cancer, this cameo by Kilmer greatly humanized these formerly cartoonish characters from the original “Top Gun”. In that way, it reminded me of the return of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and an embittered Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in the recent “Creed II” (2018), which similarly reformed the Cold War stereotypes seen in 1985’s “Rocky IV” (one of my least favorite movies in the “Rocky” canon).
On another front, Maverick’s reignited romance with Penny begins to accelerate, as he gets to know her teenaged daughter, Amelia (Lyliana Wray), as well. They’re soon enjoying a day of sailboating off of San Diego together, with ironic sailing novice Maverick being instructed by Penny (“Now you’re in the Navy,” she teases). Penny only makes one caveat; this relationship can’t be like one of their earlier flings, as both of them are too long in years to play games. The middle-aged couple finally get horizontal as well, only to have their coupling interrupted by Amelia, who comes home early from a sleepover after her friend gets sick. Penny forces Maverick to awkwardly climb out a back window, yet he is spotted by Amelia, who is, of course, already wise to their relationship.
Note: Maverick’s bad judgment with regards to California’s standing mandatory helmet law is made even worse when he takes Penny out for a motorcycle ride, jeopardizing this middle-aged mother’s life as well. Whenever I saw Maverick irresponsibly riding without a helmet in the movie, I wanted to reach into the screen and throttle his fool neck.
Despite their ticking clock for the mission, Maverick takes Iceman’s advice to heart and decides to work on his team building skills with his officers; he stages an impromptu football game on the beach, with all pilots participating, regardless of sex. The team loosens up a bit, and learns to have a little fun with one another. During the game, we see Rooster’s former loathing for his teacher beginning to relax as well, as he even helps Maverick back to his feet after a tumble. Admiral Simpson sees the game in progress, and calls Maverick aside. Reminding his instructor that there is a narrow timetable for this mission, the admiral is told that isn’t a game; it’s a team-building exercise. Touché.
Note: To those who missed the wildly homoerotic shenanigans of the original movie’s shirtless beefcake volleyball game? Well, now there’s a little something for everyone, as the women pilots are allowed to play as well. While the beach football scene shamelessly homages the “Baywatch”-like volleyball scene from the original movie, at least it serves a point, as teacher Maverick is smartly using their lighthearted, no-score game as a vital tool for team-building. Too much work and not enough play…
As his confidence in his team begins to grow, Maverick receives word from Admiral “Warlock” Bates (Charles Parnell) that his old wingman, Iceman, has passed away. Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky is given a full honors funeral, and Maverick punches his own flight wings into the coffin of his late friend. This loss comes just as Maverick is considering sending Rooster, the son of another late friend, out on a possible suicide mission.
Note: I have to remind myself that I didn’t even like the original “Top Gun,” or its shallow characters, yet I almost wept at Iceman’s touching funeral scene. Director Joseph Kosinski (“TRON: Legacy”) and screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie truly squeeze every last drop of emotion from these former cardboard cutouts–something I didn’t even believe was possible, until I saw this movie.
After losing his teaching post following repeated loggerheads with the admiral, Maverick is relieved of his post. With no where else to go but up, Maverick takes an F-18 into the air, and in full view of the admiral and his class, does a full practice run of the entire mission sortie himself. The fifty-something Maverick even manages to avoid blacking out after pulling the 10-g climb to avoid slamming into a simulated mountainside. Proving both to Admiral Simpson and his students that the mission is both doable and survivable (even if barely), the mission is back on track. Reluctantly, Simpson adds Maverick back to the team, but a new wrinkle has been added; instructor Maverick isn’t just tasked with choosing the team for the mission–he will be flying on it as well.
Note: Forgive me for gushing, but as someone in my mid-50s, I have to say that Tom Cruise, who turned 60 this year (and was in his late 50s during filming), looks amazing in this movie. He has the face and body of a 42 year-old–if that 42 year-old worked out for several hours a day, every day of his life, with a highly-skilled trainer. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s plastic surgery, vitamins, genetics, or a hidden portrait in his attic, but Cruise looks only a few years past his 1986 prime.
At a briefing, Maverick chooses his team; he will fly lead (of course), with Payback, Fanboy, Phoenix and Bob as support. In a not-too surprising twist, he also chooses Rooster as his wingman. If Rooster fails, it’ll be the second time that Maverick has led a member of the Bradshaw family to their deaths. The rest of the Top Gun candidates will remain on the aircraft carrier as backup, with backup leader Hangman’s team standing by to launch if things get too dicey. Long-range missile strikes from the carrier itself take out most of the enemy’s airfield, before its fighters can be launched.
Note: The planning of this attack actually makes greater tactical sense (the carrier airstrike of the enemy airfield being particularly wise), unlike the uncoordinated dogfights of the first film. It seems as if “Top Gun: Maverick” had more accurate technical support and advice than the 1986 movie.
The group’s planes fly in below radar, within the mountain trenches, as planned. These Top Guns are all a bit more nervous in actual combat, with Rooster feeling particularly anxious about accelerating within the narrow canyons. Rooster’s slackening pace causes him to fall behind in formation–lowering his chances of escaping, as well–until a round of support from his team drums up his confidence, and he opens the throttle. After the enemy airfield is heavily damaged in the carrier attack, the element of surprise is similarly undone for Maverick’s strike team. Soon, the pilots are dodging anti-aircraft fire within the narrow mountain trenches, as they continue en route to their designated target.
Note: Yes, as noted earlier, this mission is very similar to the Death Star trench run in “Star Wars,” but in the end, it still works. It also helps that the aerial photography in this film is generations beyond what was remotely possible in Tony Scott’s original movie; with the combination of wide IMAX shots and ‘you-are-there’ cockpit camera positioning, this movie is probably as close to flying in a fighter jet as a civilian moviegoer can experience.
Maverick manages to fire a missile directly onto the target. In a retina-detaching maneuver, he and his Top Guns are then forced to pull up in a sudden 10-g climb. Some of the team experience near-blackout, including Payback, whose plane hurtles towards crashing just before Maverick smartly uses ‘tone’ (the shrill, piercing electronic whine of an enemy target lock) to revive him in the nick of time. As a few surviving enemy jets are scrambled to intercept the Top Guns, Maverick and his team max out all of their aerial combat training as their outdated F-18s are forced to take on the more advanced enemy aircraft. During the melee, Maverick’s plane is shot down. Maverick escapes the wreck of his F-18 by parachuting into the snowy surrounding woods, but his team is forced to abandon him, as emergency search and rescue teams are unable to assist, with enemy fighters and anti-aircraft cannons still active in the area. However, wingman Rooster is unwilling to leave his leader behind, and he goes in after Maverick, directly against Admiral Simpson’s recall order.
Note: Another of my nitpicks with this film is the unnamed, unspecified Eastern-European “enemy,” who are (again) kept purposefully vague enough not to upset any possible international ticket sales. We never even hear these black clad, Darth Vader-like pilots speak, because giving them a language would be assigning them a nationality as well. For a movie that wields a bit more realism and internal logic than its predecessor, it’s rather disappointing (and somewhat timid) that this otherwise smartly crafted sequel once again relies on the trope of a generic ‘enemy.’
The following sequence sees a stranded Maverick met on the ground by his loyal new wingman Rooster. Maverick’s initial response is anger at his protege for defying orders to save him, before the two of them realize they need each other to survive. Making their way to the remains of the enemy airfield, they spot an obsolete F-14A Tomcat fighter jet still remaining in an all but abandoned hangar. Using the light snow and general confusion of the scene as cover, they sneak into the hangar, where they implausibly fuel and steal the plane. With the two of them secure inside the cockpit, Maverick pulls a breakneck ascent which costs them their front landing gear, but gets the craft into air… where they’re promptly met by several remaining high-tech enemy aircraft. Despite being outmatched, Maverick and Rooster put up a heroic struggle, running out of both missiles and even bullets. With their “Goose” all but cooked, their pursuers are taken out by Hangman, who swoops in (with backup) to save them–the unwarrantedly arrogant pilot finally proving his mettle to his combat instructor.
Note: I thought that at least one of the Top Guns was going to die in this movie. Since it couldn’t be Rooster (it would’ve been too much for the movie to kill off the son of his own long-dead father), I assumed it’d be the rescuing Hangman in this scene. However, this douchey pilot needed serious redeeming, so his rescue of Maverick and Rooster was necessary to that end. So, in a rare, and admittedly implausible twist (to an already implausible climax), nobody dies in his mega-happy ending; which itself is a rare defiance of expectations by going wildly optimistic for a change. Well-played, movie…
Returning (barely) without front landing gear to their mothership, Maverick finally thanks Rooster for saving his life. Both are then met by Hangman, who’s finally proven himself in a real-world scenario. Hangman, who embodies many traits of the younger Maverick and the late Iceman, finally earns his stripes in combat, though it’s pointed out that his teacher–with five total combat kills–has earned the title of “Flying Ace.” Maverick, who’s at an age where he should be wearing his admiral’s stripes behind a cushy desk, is still a “Top Gun”… even among this next generation of Top Gun graduates.
Note: In a rare sign of humility, Maverick points out that, technically, he didn’t graduate ‘Top Gun’ at Miramar, since that honor went to his late classmate, Iceman. But given his rarified status of Flying Ace, that little ‘oversight’ can now be easily overlooked. A quick search of Wikipedia reveals there hasn’t been a US Flying Ace for generations, so that title would indeed be a rare title to bestow upon a US pilot in modern times. For a fascinating read on the last remaining US Flying Aces, check out this article from the Smithsonian.
This mega-happy ending extends to Maverick’s personal life as well, as the eternal bachelor works on his privately owned World War 2-era P-51 Mustang (a plane actor Cruise owns in real life) with his newfound buddy Rooster, when he’s interrupted by the welcome presence of Penny. We then see Maverick flying off with Penny… to the altar, perhaps?
Note: “Top Gun: Maverick” is not the first time that actress Jennifer Connelly has romanced an aviator in the movies, as she previously romanced actor Billy Campbell (her former fiancé) in the charming 1991 Disney fantasy, “The Rocketeer”; a movie I absolutely adore.
Summing It Up.
“Top Gun: Maverick”, while not perfect, is a far cry from its shallow, simplistic 1986 predecessor; plumbing its characters for dramatic depth and poignancy that I wouldn’t have thought possible. Miles Teller brings gravitas to his role of “Rooster,” otherwise known by the unfortunate name of Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (‘Brad Bradshaw?’). Tom Cruise’s return as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell redeems much of his douchebaggery from the first movie, as the now middle-aged Maverick is a man haunted by self-doubt, guilt, and even that old demon of loneliness, as his testosterone-soaked career in the US Navy has returned him to an empty bunk every night. While I was a bit miffed that actress Kelly McGillis was denied clearance for a return (presumably for ageist reasons), her replacement Jennifer Connelly still proves that playing the love interest in a summer blockbuster movie isn’t limited to actresses under 40.
It was also good to see the almost exclusively-white sausage party of the first movie finally broken up with characters who aren’t all white, or all male. Characters such as “Payback” and “Phoenix” were both welcome and memorable within the ranks of the Navy’s finest, avoiding the traps of tokenism. I also appreciated Jon Hamm as Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, a military tight-ass who isn’t entirely wrong, either; he makes a few perfectly valid counterpoints to Maverick’s more gut-driven “don’t think” approach. Few characters from the first movie stood out quite the way these characters did, save for actor Val Kilmer’s “Iceman”, who makes a poignant, heartfelt return as Admiral “Iceman” Kazansky. Iceman shares the actor’s real-life struggle with cancer (but with a less positive outcome). Kudos to the screenwriters for skillfully weaving Kilmer’s condition into the story in such an organic and powerful way. As someone who recently suffered a loss in my own extended family to cancer, Iceman’s death had a more profound impact on me than it might’ve had otherwise.
While some of the tropes and issues from the first film remain (the helmet-less Maverick, unnamed foreign boogiemen, and some wildly implausible action), they feel more like vestigial elements to a greater central story; that of a reckless, middle-aged loner who is finally learning responsibility in both his professional and personal life. In short, “Top Gun: Maverick” is about an aging ‘flyboy’ who finally learns the greatest trick of all… growing up.
Where To Watch.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is still in cinematic release, and is also, as of Aug. 23rd, now available for streaming rental/purchase from AmazonPrime, YouTube and AppleTV (prices vary from $19.99-$25.99, for standard or HD copies). I chose to buy a digital copy of the film from YouTube, as it was priced only slightly higher than renting it–either option is still less than the price of two IMAX movie tickets. My digital copy also allowed me to enjoy the IMAX version, which opens up the aspect ratio vertically from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1 during the action sequences. Watching it at home, in the dark, on my 7 ft/2 meter collapsible screen through my HD projector gave me a good approximation of the theatrical experience.