Movie Review: Top Gun: Maverick (Paramount Pictures)

“The future is coming, and you’re not in it.” Top Gun: Maverick is a 2022 film from Paramount Pictures. Shot for IMAX and directed by Joseph Kosinski, it is the […]

The future is coming, and you’re not in it.”

Top Gun: Maverick is a 2022 film from Paramount Pictures. Shot for IMAX and directed by Joseph Kosinski, it is the sequel to 1986’s Top Gun, and is based on a story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks. The screenplay was crafted by Christopher McQuarrie, Eric Warren Singer and Ehren Kruger. Starring Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm, the movie also features Miles Teller, Monica Babaro, Glen Powell and Lewis Pullman, with appearances by Ed Harris, Val Kilmer and a cameo by Anthony Edwards.

Though not a critical darling, the original Top Gun proved to be immensely popular, making an astounding $356 million dollars on a $15 million dollar budget. A hefty assist by the Department of Defense allowed the production crew to film carrier operations as well as spectacular aerial sequences shot with real jets.  Interest in naval aviation went through the roof, with the number of applicants wanting to fly for the Navy increasing by 500%. Recruitment kiosks were set up outside certain theatres to take advantage of the film’s popularity. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott were keen on doing a sequel, but Tom Cruise was cool to the idea at the time, hoping to prove himself as a serious actor. After being nominated for several Oscars, Cruise returned to making action movies, including the successful (and continuing) Mission Impossible series. Paramount began production on the Top Gun sequel in 2010, though the film was put on hold after Scott’s suicide in 2012. Kosinski was hired in 2017 and put his own spin on the script, just in time for the Covid plague to strike, delaying the film’s release further.

Following the 1986 Indian Ocean Incident that made him a hero, where he shot down three MiGs and saved Lt. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky’s (Kilmer) life, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) has stayed in the Navy, moving laterally within the branch. Avoiding the responsibilities that come with command and desperately trying to keep flying, he is a test pilot tasked with pushing new aircraft designs to the edge of the envelope. At an airfield in the deep desert, Maverick and his crew are working on a heavily modified XR-72 Darkstar with a Mach 10 capable prototype engine. His C.O., Rear Admiral Cain, (Harris) takes a dim view of the Darkstar program, preferring cheaper unmanned drones that can withstand higher G-forces than human pilots and don’t complain about them.

The Admiral is coming ostensibly to observe a mach 9 test flight, but the crew knows he’s there to shut down the project. Hoping for proof of concept, Maverick’s team “borrows” the Darkstar, and he screams into the sky as Cain arrives on the tarmac. Streaking into the thin air of the upper atmosphere, the Darkstar easily hits its Mach mark of nine times the speed of sound, making Maverick the fastest man alive. Putting the XR-72 through its paces, he decides to press on, achieving Mach 10. Still unsatisfied, (being Maverick) he pushes things, only to have the airframe disintegrate around him.

He doesn’t get court-martialed or thrown in the stockade for stealing and destroying several billion dollars worth of experimental aircraft. Iceman has his back. Unlike Maverick, Kazansky has embraced rank and responsibilities. He is now a four star Admiral and Commander of the Pacific Fleet. He’s kept Maverick from being thrown out of the service and called him back up because there is a notably dangerous mission that needs to be done and only the best of the best can train the best to be at their best. An “aggressor nation” (Iran) is enriching uranium at a hardened facility covered in SAM defenses and adjacent to an airfield with 5th-generation interceptors.  Maverick has to prime a new class of Top Gun graduates, a group of kids as willful and arrogant as he once was, for the job at hand. He must prepare them to perform an undetected incursion into enemy airspace; accomplish the mission by destroying the complex; survive on the way out; and return to ship safely. He also has to get them ready for their run on an incredibly tight time-frame.

Maverick’s Air Boss at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, Admiral “Cyclone” Simpson (Hamm) wants him to cull the pilots he doesn’t think are capable of performing the mission, but refuses to allow him to actually FLY the mission. Maverick’s only there to teach. The problem is he’s a lousy teacher who lost his gig at the Top Gun school mere months after being promoted to the post. A bigger problem is that stealth F-35s and B2’s are unavailable, so the team will have to do the run in venerable F/A-18E and F Super Hornets. The biggest problem is that one of the pilot-candidates is Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, (Teller) Goose’s (Edwards) son.

Rooster resents Maverick’s attempts to act as a surrogate father mostly because he fucked up and got Rooster’s dad, who was Maverick’s former Radar Intercept Officer and best friend, killed.  Maverick strives to do the right thing but he’s not very good at helicopter-parenting, and has stepped on Bradley’s toes repeatedly over the years. Rooster’s rival is a supremely confident pilot-candidate called “Hangman”, (Powell) who received his nom de guerre for always leaving his teammates hanging in the wind and callously uses Maverick’s connection to Rooster to undermine his competitor.

Maverick is able to rekindle a relationship with a former flame, an Admiral’s daughter, Penny Benjamin (Connolly) and her precocious girl, Amelia. They provide Pete with his only solace during the hectic dash to get his team down to size and up to speed. Penny keeps him grounded and humble. Amelia’s only request is that he doesn’t break Penny’s heart this time.  His easy comfort with Penny’s child belies his awkwardness around Rooster, who holds whole reservoirs full of resentment and blame for Maverick and his meddling in Rooster’s life.

Can Maverick get through to his students, who are post-Cold-War pilots and aren’t well versed in scenarios where they don’t have air superiority? Will he be able to explain to them how he does the things he does that make him such a great pilot, the things he does without thinking? Can he keep the good thing he has going with Penny? Will he be able to reconcile with Rooster before his charges sortie into enemy airspace, or will his history and tendency to self-sabotage trip him up once again?

So. Yes, another trip on the nostalgia-train, though in this instance nostalgia-plane would be more accurate.  Thirty six years after the fact, we’re back in the “Danger Zone” literally, as the film opens with the identical somber refrains of the original and then kicks into Kenny Loggins, albeit over new footage of a modern flight deck hurling jets into the air.

This is a film replete, nay resplendent with callbacks to the first movie. Cruise races helmetless on his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle alongside an airfield as jets launch; Cruise inverts his F/A-18 E over another cockpit and says hello; Cruise and his sweat-slicked, nearly-naked trainees play sports ball on the beach before an orange sky; Cruise visits Connelly in what looks like a double of Charlie’s cottage; Cruise makes out with Connelly, mimicking the silhouette-snog-session he had while Berlin’s song blasted in the background in the first film. So many callbacks. The good thing is that the movie is quite well self-contained despite this. The callbacks are Easter-eggs to fans of the original, but while knowledge of them enhances the film, there’s no required reading. Top Gun: Maverick totally works without familiarity with the first feature.

Themes are replayed: Maverick needs to learn the value of rules and why they exist. He must accept love. He must learn how to value teamwork. He must learn to move on from Goose and the memories of failure that haunt him. The problem with that is one of the problems the Star Wars sequels suffer from: all the characters have to unlearn and forget the lessons they learned in the previous movies for the new movie to work. At the emotional climax of the first Top Gun, Maverick learns to let Goose go: at the emotional climax of the SECOND Top Gun, Maverick learns to let Goose go.

For a movie that prides itself on its realism, the urge to be nostalgic trips up a few things. For one, the Navy moved the Top Gun school to Nevada, yet the film wants the viewer to think the events take place at (former) NAS Miramar, which is now a Marine facility. I guess they REALLY wanted that scene on the beach by the ocean. Another thing is the F-14 Tomcat, which was retired by the USN in 2006 because its intricate, variable-geometry wing was ridiculously expensive and incredibly time-consuming to maintain. There is only one Air Force that operates the Tomcat today, and that’s Iran’s. The movie never puts a name to the “aggressor nation”, but between the uranium enrichment and the Tomcat, it’s so obvious it’s Iran, it’s not funny. They REALLY want Tom Cruise back in the cockpit of an F-14, and they bend the movie sideways to arrange that in ways that strains credulity.  So Tom Cruise steals an Iranian F-14. After stealing the Darkstar and one of the F/A-18E’s earlier in the film. The movie should’ve been called Grand Theft: Maverick.

The vaunted 5th generation fighters are clearly SU-57’s, yet the movie also never gives them a name. The pride of the Russian air-fleet, there are approximately 14-16 of them in the world. Only a handful of the SU’s have been mass-produced and they are CERTAINLY not available for export.  The scenes that feature them, as well as the earlier scenes with the XR-72 tearing through the stratosphere are among the few obviously CG’ed scenes in the film.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the movie is that due to the efforts at verisimilitude, the actors were filming their scenes in the Weapons System Officer’s seats in the back of the Super Hornets, experiencing the G-forces on camera as they happened. They had control of the several cameras on the inside of the canopy and arrayed around the cockpit as remote direction from the ground wouldn’t have sufficed. They were trained on techniques used by directors and DP’s so they could keep the cameras focused on their eyes and expressions while keeping lighting and G-forces in mind for the duration of the shots. There are one or two moments where the CG masking fails and the viewer can see reflections that give away the trick, but they are fleeting. One of the actors actually blacks out under high-G maneuvering, and it’s captured on film.

There is a red herring early in the movie where Maverick runs on a treadmill, leading this reviewer to assume that was an inside joke, that a movie about naval aviators couldn’t POSSIBLY have a patented Tom Cruise running sequence, but they were leaning in. It DOES happen, and it’s kind of funny when it does. It’s his schtick now, I get it.

Top Gun: Maverick is an entertaining movie with some sensational flying sequences and beautiful shot compositions. It also has some of the worst, tin-eared dialogue you’ll hear in a feature. There is no text, everything is subtext. This is not Shakespeare. I can’t imagine anyone is coming to this film for the dialogue or the character development though, so that’s ok. Embrace your need for speed.

Top Gun: Maverick opens in theatres May 27th.

About Dan Kleiner

Dan Kleiner is a strange visitor from another planet who resides in Brooklyn, New York with two cats and his amazing girlfriend. When not plotting world domination, he spends a great deal of his time watching movies and anime of all sorts, reading comic-books and book-books, studying politics and history and striving for the day when he graduates as a Class A-Weirdo.