Finally. In “Top Gun: Maverick” we have an old-school, 1970s/80s/90s-quality summer blockbuster, like they used to make ’em—that’s also very possibly the best action movie sequel of all time. In fact, it’s safe to say the sequel outshines the original. Fans have waited 36 years for this, and thanks to movie star and producer extraordinaire, Mr. Tom Cruise (and original producer Jerry Bruckheimer), “Top Gun: Maverick” exceeds all expectations. It’s been a long time since I exited a movie theater wanting to immediately go back in for the next available screening.
A sequel by definition can never be quite as good as the original, due to losing of the elements of surprise, and never-before-seen world-building. But in nearly four decades, the original “Top Gun” had time to fade into myth and legend, while leaving a wide wake of cultural influence—who doesn’t know what a wingman is by now? Or buzzing the tower with a fly-by? Who doesn’t “feel the need for speed?” Who’s never heard of Goose, Iceman, and Maverick? “Top Gun’s” soundtrack was arguably one of the most immediately recognizable ever.
Because of the interminable wait, the new movie is able to achieve a rare, paradoxical thing: feeling at once brand new, while at the same time being reunited with old friends. Not to mention basking anew in the sheer awesomeness of Navy warplanes.
Speaking of warplanes, one of my worries was this: The iconic F-14 Tomcat of the original “Top Gun” has long been mothballed. The F-18 Super Hornet of the sequel, while far more technologically advanced, doesn’t look as cool. Even Navy fighter jocks attest to this—the Tomcat was supremely good-looking; it was the ’69 Camaro of fighter jets. Just looking at it brings to mind Matthew McConaughey’s muscle-car brag from “Dazed and Confused”:
“Let me tell you what Melba Toast is packin’ right here, alright; we got 4:11 Posi-trac out back, 750 double pumper, Edelbrock intake, bored-over-30 11-to-1 pop-up pistons, turbo-jet 390 horsepower. We’re talkin’ some … muscle.”
However! The movie producers have that covered. “Top-Gun: Maverick” has one of the most drop-dead coolest jets you’ve ever laid eyes on: an outrageously supersonic, SR-71 Blackbird-like, next generation SR-72 Darkstar spy-plane. Unlike its Mach 3 predecessor, it goes Mach 6.7 and is armed to the teeth. It’s so hot, I say, in gratitude to the movie gods, thank you for the very concept of this exquisite piece of machinery—it makes grown men cry just to look at it. And to be fair, the F-18 Super Hornet is no slouch.
Maverick (Cruise) was all brash warrior in 1986. The original was two hours of macho insubordination, sweaty muscular beach volleyball, cheesy come-on lines, and acute high testosterone inter-squadron competitiveness, all of which got a hall-pass due to the shock and awe of never-before-seen F-14 catapult shots and tail-hook carrier-landings, and radio intercept officer Goose’s (Anthony Edwards) hilarious humor. The focus was on Maverick’s self-centered glory-grabbing pilot whose misguided attitude eventually (but not directly) contributed to getting Goose killed.
In 2022, all-grown-up Maverick’s still got an acute need for speed and envelope-pushing but he’s finally learned what that other elite Navy group (SEALS) drum into their warriors from day one—teamwork. Now, he’s more interested in what’s best for the group as opposed to what’s best for him. He’s matured from warrior to king and elder, giving wisdom and blessings to the younger generation of fighter pilots.
These character changes show up in the very first action sequence: Maverick’s working as a test pilot, hoping to take the aforementioned Darkstar 10 times the speed of sound in order to prove that a manned jet is more effective than an unmanned drone. And, whereas the old, young Maverick would’ve been motivated by ego to become the fastest pilot in history, the new Maverick is motivated to save his test team’s jobs from the coming A.I. robots.
One of the great Naval senior officers of the original was “Viper” (Tom Skerrit), but Ed Harris here creates a new, steely-eyed, flinty rear admiral who handily replaces Skerrit’s character. He arrives at the test compound just in time to stoically take a massive sonic boom sandblast to the face as Maverick (in mule-headed violation, naturally) rockets off the runway 25 feet over his head. It’s a great scene.
This stunt nearly gets Maverick dishonorably discharged from of the Navy. His only option (and only because the admiral knew he was witnessing greatness in the Mach 10 attempt): Go teach the kids at Top Gun under the highly intolerant scrutiny of aircraft carrier air-boss, call-sign Cyclone (Jon Hamm).
Maverick thus heads back to Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun), where he trains the newest best-of-the-best Top Gun graduates, including the obnoxious Hangman (Glen Powell), who at first appears to be a later generation version of Val Kilmer’s “Ice Man,” but who’s really an amalgamation of the worst of both Ice Man and the young, ridiculously cocky Maverick. Also Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late, great, best buddy Goose. And a female pilot.
Interesting note: There are no female Navy SEALS because of the physical demands of the job, but there are female Navy pilots. But male Navy SEALS are in awe of the courage, cool-headedness, and precision it takes to land a shrieking 16-ton fighter jet on a heaving carrier deck, in 30 foot waves, in a rainstorm, in the pitch-black night—flying by instruments only. Go lady Navy pilots!
With Miles Teller’s Rooster, we get a character just like Maverick: haunted by the legacy of an aviator father who died in combat, who’s got something to prove but without the young Maverick’s pride. Through their interaction, we witness the weight of Maverick’s past manifested in the flesh: The pain he’s caused, and the do-over wishes that haunt him.
“Top Gun: Maverick” manages to hit all the highlights without being redundant. And you know what you want to see in a Top Gun movie: hazy sunrises and sunsets; the opening soundtrack that was originally stolen from “Chariots of Fire,” the one with the church bell added in; Micky-mouse-eared deck-hands doing ritualistic cat-shot-prep dance moves; warplanes screaming off carrier decks; deafening jet engines; pilots carousing in bars; Maverick motorcycling; beach volleyball; arrogant stick jockeys; flat spins; and of course, dogfight mayhem in the skies.
The original (which over the years has become a cult classic with lines that accumulate more cheese with every passing year) might have, however, had a stronger element of realism and tragedy in the death of Goose, which was anchored by Meg Ryan’s powerful performance in her breakout role as his grieving widow. While “Top Gun: Maverick” has the tragedy of Val Kilmer’s real-life throat cancer affliction, it’s a different kind of gravitas.
Also, in 1986, the movie world hadn’t yet been infected with the insidious cartoonish-ness of CGI Marvel-verse type violence. “Top Gun Maverick’s” got one such cartoonish survival of an un-survivable situation, but it’s played to such excellent comedic effect that it’s thoroughly forgivable. Look for the type of scene we Americans so dearly love: A parched, still-smoking, singed astronaut stumbles into a dead-silent bar with very twangy 1940’s country music quietly playing in the background, and slowly drinks a tall glass of water. “What is this place?” he asks. A rapt, 10-year-old boy replies …
As Maverick, we’re reminded of just how good the vastly underrated Tom Cruise is. He’s one of the greatest living action stars. There’s no arguing that. But here’s the range Maverick allows Cruise to navigate: leading man, action hero, romantic lead, and a comedian with impeccable timing.
Speaking of romantic leads, Jennifer Connelly does a fine job as Penelope “Penny” Benjamin, a single mother, bar owner, daughter of a former admiral, and Maverick’s new love interest. Actually, she’s an old love interest. From the original “Top Gun”: (Maverick getting chewed out by Viper for an illegal fly-by) “You’ve been busted, lost your qualifications as section leader three times, been put in hack twice by me, with a history of high-speed passes over five air-control towers, and one admiral’s daughter.”
“Top Gun: Maverick’s” is likely to be the best action film of 2022, with some of the best aerial dogfight scenes in film history. It really needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It improves upon the original in every conceivable way.
Signing off with my new call-sign: Phantom (lol). I had an additional choice of Reaper and Hades. It’s a movie marketing gimmick at #whatsmycallsign? That’s one unrealistic thing about Top Gun movie call-signs; they’re all cool. Real world military call-signs are generally based on when classmates catch you doing something exceptionally stupid and you get stuck with a shaming call-sign you hate. I, Phantom, recommend seeing “Top Gun: Maverick” in IMAX, several times in a row.
‘Top Gun: Maverick’
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, Miles Teller, Glen Powell, Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: May 24, 2022
Running Time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars for coolness, 5 stars for awesomeness