Top Gun: Maverick is the ultimate legacy sequel, and a thrilling ode to the fading era of true action movie stars.
Slotting squarely into the recent formula of every new Tom Cruise movie going even deeper than the last as a subtextual referendum on his superhuman screen persona, Top Gun: Maverick is a blistering piece of pop art, an all-timer Dad movie stealth masterpiece, and maybe the ultimate legacy sequel.
Pete “Maverick” Mitchell apparently flamed out as an instructor after the events of the original film 36 years ago, but now he’s a test pilot, and in the opening sequence becomes the fastest man alive in an experimental fighter jet pulling just over Mach 10 before flaming out again when the jet explodes. Having burned almost every personal and professional bridge over the years, he’s given one last chance. Come back to Top Gun and train a new crop of pilots for a secret and incredibly dangerous mission. Among the trainees is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Mav’s former co-pilot Goose, who, you’ll recall, died tragically in the first film. Rooster is an even more hesitant pilot than his old man, and now it’s up to Maverick to both infuse him and the other pilots with the necessary confidence they’ll need, as well as resuscitating relationships both with Rooster and with old flame Penny (Jennifer Connelly).
Maverick manages to infuse some simple, sincere emotion into the on-the-ground scenes, with Connelly specifically providing a nice foil for Maverick’s swagger, and Jon Hamm making a suitable Navy hardass for the necessary scolding of Mav’s unorthodox training rituals. There’s also plenty of room for rehashing iconic sequences from the original, like a beach football game or simply the gorgeous golden-hour aircraft carrier opening sequence (“Danger Zone” included). But the roster of pilots is welcomely diverse, and even the attendant jingoism of a movie about military action has been tamped down to a somewhat more acceptable degree.
But enough about all that shit. We’re here to watch some fighter jets. Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) has his work cut out for him; the original augmented its soundstage cockpit scenes with some legendary aerial photography. But the Cruise of today could only get into a real FA-18 Super Hornet, and the result is some absolutely jaw-dropping aerial stuntwork, the likes of which have basically never been seen before and likely never will again. Certainly the action sequences have been heavily augmented with digital VFX, but almost completely seamlessly so. What’s more, there’s nothing but delight in store for gearheads. If you’ve got a hardware fetish, you may need to prepare yourself: pardon the digression, but one particular moment in which a Sukhoi SU-57 Felon stealth fighter executes a dogfight move called a Pugachev Cobra made my fucking brain shoot out of the top of my head. It’s one of the sickest things to ever grace a movie.
Tony Scott’s 1986 original showed off an entirely galvanic aesthetic. Contemporaneous Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production Flashdance was an advertisement for a sexy babe, and Top Gun was similarly a commercial for the Navy making a man out of you. But it didn’t have much of a narrative; mostly, it was one gorgeous (and, of course, overtly homoerotic) tableau after another. Maverick actually has a story to tell, albeit a simple one, about Mav perhaps aging out of his legendary arrogance to become a mentor and by extension a better man. But Maverick is also an avatar for Cruise himself, and it’s impossible to not see the film as an ode to maybe the last true action movie star. The movie couldn’t be clearer about its message: If you’ve got an impossible mission, you have to get the best there is.