Before we get into Top Gun: Maverick, I will dispel any mystery about my feelings toward this movie by saying I didn’t just like Top Gun: Maverick, but it’s now just one of my favorite movies. (TO the point I spent money on a poster. I never do that for new movies.) Not “of the year,” but ever. It’s literally one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Put it this way: I saw Top Gun: Maverick at a press screening in a large theater with about 15 other people where everyone was pretty spread out because there was so much extra space. These are usually quiet affairs, no matter the movie. (Press screenings can get animated if they are crowded. When it’s just a few people, they are not.) I honestly can’t recall another instance, under these conditions, where people at this type of screening were applauding and cheering. But that’s what happened. This movie is infectious. It’s the definition of a crowd-pleaser. Honestly, Top Gun: Maverick kicked my ass. What a movie.
Is the original Top Gun good? Look, I was 12 years old when that movie came out and it’s ingrained into my being. I, personally, think it’s awesome. Tony Scott created a vibe with that movie that is inherently its own thing. Criticisms of Top Gun aren’t necessarily wrong, they just don’t really matter. Top Gun is Top Gun. There’s really no other movie quite like it and there really couldn’t be. Top Gun kind of exists in a bubble that made Tom Cruise into a huge star and it became the biggest movie of 1986. Top Gun isn’t just part of popular culture, it is popular culture. (Strangely, Crocodile Dundee was second. 1986 was kind of a weird year.) Having said all that, if Top Gun: Maverick relied mostly on imagery – where the first movie thrived in the 1980s – it would be laughable today. Tom Cruise isn’t a cool young kid anymore. Top Gun: Maverick knows that and is a better movie than Top Gun.
When the film opens, Pete Mitchell, call sign Maverick (Cruise), now (only) a Captain, is a Navy test pilot assigned to a remote outpost where his job is to fly planes as fast as they can go. When an international crisis emerges (it’s unclear who the offending country is supposed to be, only referred to as “the enemy”), an old friend of Maverick’s (and ours) requests him personally to train a new group of hotshot pilots who will carry out a strike against this enemy. That’s right, Maverick … is going back to Top Gun. (Over the course of the film Maverick is introduced to other winners of Top Gun and Maverick is quick to point out that he finished second.)
When Maverick gets to San Diego, there are a few problems. One is the presence of an old flame named Penny (Jennifer Connelly) who owns the local watering hole where the pilots hang out. The other is one of Maverick’s trainees is Bradley Bradshow (Miles Teller), call sign Rooster, the son of Maverick’s old buddy Goose. (Teller is surprisingly good, in that I never could picture him as the son of Goose, but he pulls it off.) Rooster does not like Maverick for the obvious reasons, but it goes deeper than that in that Maverick made sure Rooster was initially denied from the Naval Academy as a favor to Goose’s widow (Meg Ryan in the original movie, the character does not appear in this sequel) in an effort to stop him from suffering the same fate. Another pilot, the best in the class (just ask him), Hangman (Glen Powell), quickly figures out the relationship between Maverick and Rooster and points out that, you know, maybe this is a problem? (By the way, Powell plays the cocky Hangman perfectly, with shades of Val Kilmer’s Iceman in that, yeah, he can be a jerk, but he’s also not wrong. This will be a big movie for Glen Powell.) Oh, also, Maverick’s new boss, Cyclone (Jon Hamm) hates him. And makes it clear that if Maverick didn’t have friends high up the ladder, he wouldn’t be at Top Gun again. These two butt heads.
My goodness there’s something to be said about a simple plot. Almost every “blockbuster” movie today is convoluted. There are so many people involved, so many opinions from so many parties, it feels like a lot of movies just throw the kitchen sink of plot details at an audience hoping something sticks. Top Gun: Maverick is the opposite. It truly feels like the brain trust of Cruise, director Joseph Kosinski, and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie kept it between themselves how this movie would operate. (Having Cruise’s influence in that regard certainly helps.) But the plot of Top Gun: Maverick is literally: Here’s the mission, now we will spend the whole movie training for the mission, then at the end we will do the mission. The team trains for this mission so many times, with so many unbelievable aerial stunts, by the end there is absolutely no confusion what the final mission entails. At no time will you be thinking, wait, what’s going on? And it all just looks so sharp. There are no moments when I was thinking this looks like a CGI cartoon, like so many “blockbuster” movies do today. It all looks so real my stomach was in knots the whole time. Again, this is how it’s done.
Also, it’s hard not to notice that the third act of Top Gun: Maverick has a lot to owe the original Star Wars. The team is basically trying to blow up a Death Star (the base they are attacking is underground, between two mountains, and it involves a trench run and hitting a small target on the base that will start a chain reaction. If I’m not making myself clear, I am very much in favor of all this. There are more comparisons, but we would be getting into spoilers. It would be like if Star Wars were about Red Leader and the whole movie was about all the X-Wing pilots training for the attack on the Death Star. That’s basically the plot of Top Gun: Maverick. And you know what, it’s awesome.
It’s been 36 years since Top Gun. Top Gun: Maverick feels like a movie that is looking back on its younger self, noticing how brash and cocky it is. There’s some regret in those eyes about some of the choices made. But, also, yeah, that movie was also pretty cool. What if we take what we know now, and use that reflection on the past to make something even better? But, also, keep a good helping of all that cool? That’s Top Gun: Maverick. A movie that totally didn’t need to exist, but my goodness I’m glad it does. This is how “blockbuster” movies should be done.
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