It’s been oft suggested that we should never remake movies that were already perfect in their own era, thus you don’t have to deal with the near-impossible task of improving upon them. Instead, it’s implored, we should remake movies that were imperfect or perhaps even outright bad, to give them a second chance at greatness. Well, if we extend that philosophy to the world of sequels, Top Gun (1986) may prove to be a prime candidate worth revisiting. The original film was a box office smash, the biggest of 1986, and transformed Tom Cruise from a rising star to a Capital A List household name.
Nonetheless, despite the film’s dazzling spectacle, the movie is often mocked for its shallow script, confusing themes, and underdeveloped characters. Cruise himself has resisted the urge to get back into the fighter jet, rejecting sequel plans for years as he felt the original was a self-contained story. But Top Gun: Maverick proves there’s a lot more drama left on the table in the aftermath of the title character’s 1986 exploits.
We’re transported to the modern era, where Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) serves as Captain in the US Navy. He’s berated by his superiors for not advancing further up the ranks in the 30+ years since the original. In addition, his way of life is threatened when he’s told that drones will soon be technologically advanced enough to replace fighter pilots entirely. Adding insult to injury – at one point, his card is declined. The lack of believability in this scene almost took me out of the movie – he’s a Captain in the Navy, not a greeter at Walmart. However, his longtime friend/rival Iceman (Val Kilmer), now an Admiral, nominates Maverick to instruct a perilous task force mission, in hopes of preparing a handful of Top Gun graduates for the potentially deadly endeavor.
Maverick seems to be the best person to teach this job, but complicating matters is one of his new students – Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former wingman Nick (call sign “Goose”). Maverick is guilt-ridden not only by Goose’s death but how Mav has negatively impacted Rooster’s military career. The animosity between teacher and student will come to a head, jeopardizing the entire mission. Further distracting Maverick from his task is a potential romance with an old flame, Penny (Jennifer Connelly). The character is briefly mentioned in the original, and the sequel slyly uses that little backstory for Mav’s new fling, one in which represents another chance at the love he’s always turned his back on.
The movie is helmed by Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Tron Legacy), so he has experience in both big-budget action fare and delayed sequels to iconic 80s movies. But ‘Maverick is his most confident film yet, and thus his best. It moves swiftly, stacking the characters and stakes in a succinct manner, boosted by a strong screenplay. Much of the original film’s stakes were shrouded in a lot of military jargon that could be hard for general audiences to follow, but the new film has an easier to follow the plot: our protagonists are being trained for a stealth mission to slow down the enemy’s efforts to become a nuclear power.
This clarity extends to the action scenes, which is where the movie soars. The setpieces feature exhilarating air shows that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, and the insane specificity of the visual language means the audience can always tell what’s going on. The action scenes succeed based on spectacular stunts, practical effects, and zippy editing that feels breathless and unrelenting. Of course, there is some CGI, but it’s used to fill in the margins, never overtaking a scene. This is 36 years after the original, and appropriately ‘Maverick puts Top Gun to shame with bigger stunts and more impressive in-camera effects. It’s one of the most thrilling theater experiences you’ll have in your lifetime.
But what pumps the story with heartfelt energy is Maverick’s journey, from young/brass hotshot to wise mentor, helping to telegraph how the movie learns from the mistakes of its predecessor. The 1986 film features a poorly defined “romance” as well as an inability to admonish Maverick’s unsavory behavior. In many ways, Cruise attempted to provide unique psychology to Maverick’s showy, false bravado, highlighting insecurities that were introduced in the original but can be further explored in the sequel. When Maverick tells his superior officers that he won’t just teach his students to complete the mission, but also how to get home afterward, it highlights an essential progression in the franchise’s themes. Cruise imagined the original Top Gun as a loose sports movie, in which the goal of the students and the instructors was to see who is the absolute best fighter pilot. Except, while students are understandably competitive, Military officers wouldn’t actually care that much about who “tHe BeSt” is like it’s a fucking Shonen anime because the actual goal of the Military is to complete the mission with as few fallen comrades as possible.
That last bit is Mav’s actual, internal mission – getting these young brats to buy into a team while trying to mend a relationship with Rooster. The rest of the Top Gun team is filled out with colorful, “smart mouth” characters, including an antagonist of Rooster (Glen Powell) who so heavily reeks of “80s Blonde Jock” that he makes Johnny Lawrence look meek. While the team members bust each others’ balls, their in-air team performance suffers, calling for some old-school bonding via montage. Of course, there’s a beach scene that’s a homage to the volleyball scene in the original, and of course: Tom. Cruise. Must. Run.
The film is a true legacyquel, melding the old with a new cast of characters. But unlike some such sequels of the past, it feels like the necessary space has been carved for both generations to co-exist. That also extends to the film’s style – it looks like a modern action movie, but isn’t afraid to play that 80s Top Gun synth. This is an earnest movie that just drops a power ballad out of nowhere, and it’s refreshing that the sincerity doesn’t need an edge of the snark because the filmmakers want to hedge their bets on the audience’s reaction. That means that this movie is very cheesy at times, but it works because it feels human.
I also appreciate how much of this movie takes place on real set locations, not just a binge of warehouses decorated with green screens. It’s nice to know that the actors actually had to get on a plane, and that we get to see Penny and Maverick enjoy ocean waters; that’s a more romantic setting than us being asked to pretend it’s there. However, there is one scene with some very obvious digital snowfall – sorry, that’s not going to fool anyone. Regardless, Top Gun: Maverick does its due diligence to marry the filmmaking of old and new, giving us a worthwhile crowd-pleaser that utilizes as many tools in the box as possible. We’re not here to debate the ethics of drones here, but let’s hope the machines never wholly replace the humans and the locations in our movies – that’s Tom Cruise’s mission.