*This review contains light spoilers*
Show me the way home, honey.
Any child of the 80s would be familiar with 1986’s Top Gun. Filled with iconic music, dialogue, actors and action, the ultimate Naval aviator movie was responsible for sealing Tom Cruise’s reputation as an A-list star, and remains one of the most iconic movies from that era that never received a sequel.
The track record for nostalgic sequels hasn’t been perfect. The majority, including those for Tron, Blade Runner, and even the original Star Wars trilogy, has focused a lot on a new generation of characters, using the original cast as a bridge between the two. Ghostbusters: Afterlife successfully married both eras, whereas Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fumbled but Top Gun: Maverick soars above the rest with an intense story that retains the spirit of the original, provides enough nostalgia for those who can quote lines from Tony Scott’s classic, while establishing a deep connection with its legacy.
In fact, its ability to do all of that, while still able to push the narrative forward for a new generation of audiences, makes this the perfect sequel for an iconic movie, even if the final act offers a little too much tied too neatly in a pretty ribbon.
That iconic Tom Cruise cocky demeanour, so prevalent in his Mission Impossible movies is front and centre here, and Top Gun is likely where most audiences would remember first seeing it, and it’s great to see that return to a fan favourite character. To no one’s surprise, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still flying planes for the Navy, likely rejecting promotions that would move him up the military ranks but removing him completely from the pilot’s seat in the process.
Age and time have not dampened his spirit or attitude, as he takes to the skies in an experimental plane, breaking some rules in the process and still sticking it to his commanding officers, believing in what he does rather than what the brass thinks. It’s the opening act that establishes Maverick’s current status, familiarises audiences that who he is and what he loves, and director Joseph Kosinski amazes with a great sequence of Maverick in the cockpit of the experimental Darkstar jet looking to break Mach 10.
This sets up his return to Top Gun, where he has to train a crop of former top graduates and select the best of the best, to undertake a flight mission to destroy a foreign target, which follows a trajectory that cannot be guided by drones, not be hit by an airstrike. Cue Maverick on his Kawasaki as he tears down the road alongside a plane taking off at the school.
Having directed Cruise in Oblivion (2013), and coincidentally, Tron: Legacy (2010), Kosinski embraces what he knows about the actor and character of Maverick, putting small actions on screen to indicate great impact, from the way Maverick works with his team to take the final flight of the Darkstar ahead of a potential project shutdown, to a focus on just Maverick’s eyes behind the helmet and in the cockpit, to convey the intent of a pilot, which is a signature of the original and the template of Top Gun: Maverick.
What’s surprising is how Kosinski respects and homages the original in the way he shoots the project. It starts with an almost identical opening sequence to the original, including Harold Faltermeyer iconic theme that seamlessly segues into Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone. The shots, which follows the orange/yellow sunrise shots of planes on an aircraft carrier is a mirror of the original, but uses the F-18s instead of the F-14 Tomcats of the original. Evening the opening descriptor from the original is used, even though the name of the Naval flight school that TOPGUN gets its name from has changed. It’s a strong sequence that honours the original, and an example of how comfortable the director is with the source material, to not want to put his stamp on it.
The same goes for the aerial shots that dominate the movie. The impressive aerial shots from the original were amazing then but look dated now and rather than flex with the advancements in cinematography, Kosinski’s camera work does try to copy the 1986 film, giving audiences a connection to that movie, even if we do see more of the F-18 cockpits that Maverick and his fellow Top Gun graduates are in, and there is more clarity of the fighter jets as they zip across the terrain. It helps that there is now a course that the pilots must practice for, and the planes have to stay nearer to the surface to avoid radar, so instead of a mish-mash of non-connected aerial shots that can easily be strung together, there is better continuity with the flying sequences here.
The way the movie is shot is also based on realism, in that all the actors are in actual planes, experiencing and oftentimes, displaying the full impact of whatever G-forces are forced upon them while in flight. Each time we see a close-up of Maverick, Rooster, or Phoenix, we also see the body of the F-18 they are in, and audiences will see and experience each hard right or acceleration on the faces of the actors. Now picture that scale of aerial videography in an actual fighter jet, shot up close and personal, and on an IMAX screen. There is only one way to enjoy this movie, and the IMAX experience was practically built for a movie like this.
The movie might have special effects clean up some of the shots, but each time the camera cuts to the actor under the helmet, with their eyes expressing a level of shock, excitement, fear or exhilaration, you know that it was a mix of acting and being up in the air, in the cockpit of a fighter plane. Now that’s dangerous, but it’s also what being a wingman must feel like, and IMAX shows the way.
And continuity is where the movie shines, as the links to the past slowly reveal itself. From the trailer, audiences already know that one of the graduates Maverick faces is Rooster (Miles Teller), son of his former co-pilot Goose, who perished in the original. Rooster blames Maverick for his father’s death, among other things, and here is Maverick, stuck between a rock and a hard place – of cutting Rooster from the team and killing any chances of reconciliation, or sending him on a suicide mission, and endangering his life.
Naturally, all the top graduates are Alpha types, so we see a rehash of the cockiness and skills of these pilots, as they gear up thinking they have no equal, but are slowly taken down by Maverick with his almost 40-plus years of flight experience. Like in the original, you don’t really need to know the names of the pilots, just their callsigns – there’s Hangman (Glen Powell), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and Bob (Lewis Pullman) who play a larger role as they each compete for spots on the final mission.
Val Kilmer also marks a return as Iceman, though, unlike Maverick, he traded his wings for a full Admiral rank, now serving as the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. What’s surprising here is not that they managed to get a semi-retired Kilmer, who is not in great health, to return but that the writers wrote a great friendship arc between Maverick and Iceman. You would think that with all the stunts and types of insubordination Maverick has pulled, he would have been drummed out of the Navy a long time ago, but the two have remained close wingman/friends, and Iceman has been protecting Maverick all these years, rotating him across different roles but always in the cockpit each time. It’s also why Maverick gets to return to Top Gun, because Iceman knows this mission needs a skilled pilot and trainer to get the team together, and yes, Iceman is fully aware that Rooster is part of the crop of pilot trainees jockeying for a spot on the team.
A series of short but significant portion of the film is spent between Maverick and Iceman, and it’s great to see this journey across decades, of two hotshot rivals who found respect and admiration for each other have had each other’s backs all this while, and a friendship that was hinted at in the original film, is given the spotlight. Kilmer might have lost his voice and the producers have had to recreate it for a few lines in this film, but when Maverick calls Iceman his wingman, and the two poke fun at which of the two is the better pilot, the feels that the scene brings is one of the best in any nostalgia sequels to date.
What few will expect, even though it is part of the original, is the emotional impact that this film delivers. Top Cruise really delivers in this performance, sharing a sharp scene with Kilmer that just tugs at the heartstrings. His performance opposite Teller is also highly emotional, taking shots at the past and looking into the future. The final act, while slightly incredulous, shows us the dynamics of a pilot and his co-pilot, and what Maverick was missing all these years. Even if this is not a perfect sequel, it’s a worthy one that fans deserve.
There are other small callbacks and references to the original, but this sequel is not slavish to the original. Jon Hamm takes whatever screen time he gets to play the slightly adversarial role of Top Gun commanding officer and Vice Admiral, Cyclone, at times aware of Maverick’s brilliant reputation as a pilot, but also repulsed that the veteran has not retired and has been called in to impart his old skills to modern pilots. Jennifer Connelly rounds up the main cast as Penny Benjamin, Maverick’s old friend and former love interest, who’s also running the bar at Top Gun. On one hand, her role is not really necessary in that she serves as a love interest and Maverick’s connection to the non-military world, but it’s great to see her on-screen and challenge Maverick, serving as the spectator for those who are not familiar with the original.
There are plenty of parallels with both movies, not only in the obvious ones, like having Rooster belt out Great Balls of Fire just like his father, Goose, of having the pilots first meeting their instructor at a bar and embarrassing themselves, before realising the next day the importance of the instructor, or seeing the new pilots play American football on the beach, complete with slow-motion shots.
A memorable, if not key subplot of the original, was in Maverick learning more about the death of his father from Viper (Tom Skerritt), the then CO of Top Gun who flew alongside Maverick’s father. The roles are slightly reversed here, as Maverick is the one who flew with Goose, who died when Rooster was just a young boy, and Rooster has to learn to accept how his father died, and what the Maverick and Goose pilot/co-pilot relationship was like.
If anything, the final act is a tad too Hollywood, in that only one pilot could complete the mission parameters and demonstrates it effectively and plainly to a shocked class and brass at Top Gun, and when mission is said and done, Maverick and Rooster somehow end up in the cockpit of a long-decommissioned F-14 Tomcat, as the duo take on two fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jets in a climactic dogfight that is both exhilarating and as plausible as Maverick pulling a 4G inverted dive with a MiG-28, though audiences will not care.
Top Gun: Maverick hits all the right emotions, by offering closure to one of the most beloved characters in Hollywood, and does so with a strong story and even greater visuals. The music is on point, as are the dialogue, callbacks, and character arcs. If only all nostalgia sequels are done with this much reverence, but also with a strong story-telling edge.
Can Hollywood give us an emotional sequel of this type again? I do hope so but in the wise words of an air controller, “Negative Ghost Rider. The pattern is full.”
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Nostalgia is a powerful tool and Top Gun: Maverick is a strong sequel that respects the past, and honours the legacy of the key characters in the original. Tom Cruise is still dangerous and shows why he’s on top of his game, putting audiences back on the carrier and into the cockpit of an F-18. Come for the memories, stay for the new chapter, and fly with the pilots again.
Story - 8/10
Direction - 9/10
Characterisation - 9/10
Geek Satisfaction - 10/10