Thirty-six years after Top Gun and some pandemic-induced delays, Tom Cruise is back as the hotheaded fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a role that propelled his career into the stratosphere. With Top Gun: Maverick, director Joseph Kosinski managed to craft a sequel that successfully honors Tony Scott’s original and establishes its own story.
THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.
The film builds from the narrative seeds of its predecessor and gives the characters – old and new – more depth (including the titular protagonist) with some key emotional moments while giving the audience what they would expect from a Tom Cruise film: that sweet action fuel. Top Gun: Maverick isn’t just a sequel to a 1980s action flick turned classic, it’s a love letter to Cruise’s superstar status and what made him one in the first place. One of the last true big-screen Hollywood actors working today, Cruise has in his 40 years on the big screen brought to audiences a wide variety of roles, from auteur films such as The Color of Money, Interview with the Vampire, Eyes Wide Shut, Collateral, to action blockbusters such as the Mission: Impossible series, Jack Reacher, and of course, Top Gun. Back then, when Top Gun was released, being Tom Cruise didn’t mean anything.
Today, it does. It’s the promise of spectacle. The actor, who will celebrate his 60th birthday in July, is known for putting his body on the line for the sake of the art, credited with probably some of the most daring and dangerous stunts ever performed by an actor (Ghost Protocol, anyone?). It’s his brand. That daredevil attitude is something Cruise shares with his Top Gun character.
The story for the sequel makes that abundantly clear: Maverick is a reflection of Cruise.
The new film re-introduces Maverick, now a captain serving as a test pilot for the U.S Navy. He has artfully avoided promotion in order to continue what he does best and likes best, flying, the danger zone. Thirty years have passed, and yet very little in his life has changed. His fondness for ignoring protocol and following instinct is still intact. He sports the same patched leather jacket, white t-shirt, jeans and Ray-Bans. His boyish smile is still there, covering the indelible grief from the loss of his best friend and co-pilot, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw.
After the Darkstar incident, his superiors warn him that his prowess has only bought him and other pilots time. Drones are the future and Maverick is an old relic. But has he lost his shine? When he is tasked with going back to the Top Gun school to train a group of elite pilots for a simple – but lethal – mission, those wounds re-open. One of the students, Bradley “Goose” Bradshaw (portrayed by Miles Teller, Whiplash), is the son of Maverick’s late friend, and his spitting image at that. Same moustache, same ruffled brown hair and same talent as his father (both in flying and singing, mind you). There are a few small character moments that drive the point home and play out as a homage to both the characters and the first film.
Two seem especially noteworthy: Miles Teller’s live performance of “Great Balls of Fire”, the Jerry Lee Lewis song his character’s father used to play when he was a little boy and during the film’s climax when he utters the words “Talk to me, dad” which echoes Maverick’s “Talk to me, Goose” in the first film.
Those two moments illustrate the impact the father had on the son at two very different points of his. One is a song representative of a distant childhood memory, a time of innocence and bliss, of life lived to its fullest. The other is a metaphorical passing on the baton, son to father, pilot to pilot, in a crucial moment of danger and adrenaline. It is also a film that finally lets its star age while showing that “he’s still got it”. This statement is valid for both Maverick and Cruise. Showing the new generation how it’s done while asserting that for the time being, he is still king.
“I think you see it. You see the emotional journey of the characters. You see the world is incredibly fascinating. That was always there. But what’s the drama? What’s the story? The story is king. Always. So those things you have to develop as you’re going on.”Tom Cruise – slashfilm.com
The dynamic between Maverick and Rooster is the reason Top Gun: Maverick works as well as it does and is an improvement on the original. The young man resents Maverick for blocking his application to the Naval academy which unbeknownst to him, Maverick had done at the demand of Rooster’s dying mother. Naturally, he also blames Maverick for his father’s death. That complicated relationship and the unresolved tensions it brings are the emotional core of the film. It pours a healthy dose of nostalgia into the film and does so with purpose. Maverick sees in Rooster the ghost of his flying partner and friend and his own past and faults.
Very much like Maverick in his time, Rooster tends to bottle his emotions and his rivalry with Jake “Hangman” Seresin (played by Glen Powell) mirrors Maverick’s past rivalry with Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (played by Val Kilmer in Top Gun who also returned for the sequel). Teller brings to the table a subtle performance. His chemistry with Cruise and restrain allow him to communicate his character’s silent pain. Rooster’s rage lives in him, lodged between his heart and brain and when it finally explodes during a confrontation with Maverick, things heat up, both on the ground and in the air. Both have the same problem: they can’t let go of the past, they hold to it, tightly, as if it were the only thing that defined them.
Maverick, now older and more experienced understands Rooster’s pain not only because it is one they share for the same person but also because it is an experience they have in common. Maverick’s father, Duke Mitchell, was a naval aviator killed in action during the Vietnam War. Put together, Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick are about legacy, grief and breaking the cycle of being stuck in the past.
As a character, Maverick pilots the plot. It’s his stubbornness on the field and unwillingness to change his methods and beliefs – his flaws, essentially – that move the story forward. The story shows on multiple occasions that recklessness, combined with Maverick’s talent, is critical to the success of the mission and what makes him an exceptional pilot. The mission and its dangerousness, the vital necessity for it to be a success are the catalysts for the story’s emotional resolution. That recklessness is counterbalanced by Maverick’s unfailing loyalty to his fellow pilots and selflessness, a trait that Rooster ends up displaying as well at the end of the film when against his better judgement, he returns to save Maverick. Rooster might be his father’s son, but he is Maverick’s successor.
Letting go of the past is the film’s leitmotiv, and it is demonstrated throughout different characters and their roles in Maverick’s life, past and present. To further complicate the matters, Maverick attempts to rekindle a romance with Penny Benjamin (played by the radiant Jennifer Connelly), one of his teenage days’ conquests and the daughter of an admiral. Although she initially brushes off his flirtations, she gradually reciprocates his playfulness and lends him support when things are at their worst. It is worth noting that while she does not appear in the original movie, Penny is mentioned twice in it.
The film is careful with deep continuity and utilises it well. It is easy to overlook Connelly’s character as just another thinly written love interest but she anchors Maverick and provides him with guidance in his protective attitude towards Rooster. And she is an age-appropriate love interest. Her role in the story reminds us that moving on isn’t a tabula rasa, it is about growth. Some mistakes can be corrected, some cannot. The same is true for emotional wounds. They can be, in certain cases, mended.
Another character who is crucial to Maverick’s character arc is his former-foe-turned-wingman Iceman. Kilmer had very little screen time but his return tugs at your heartstrings. The respect with which Top Gun: Maverick treats Val Kilmer and his disability after a two-year battle with throat cancer is exemplary. The screenwriters and director gave Kilmer his voice back for his return in the film through a complex A.I which creates computer-generated voices.
One could easily imagine a lesser production would have used computer-generated imagery to completely replace the actor. Kilmer’s real-life struggle was then woven into his character (now Commander of the U.S Pacific fleet) who dies shortly after reuniting with Maverick. During this reunion, he uses a computer to communicate with Mav and tells him that “It’s time to let go.” The scene is pivotal because it provides the film with one of the film’s most emotional beats and sets Maverick on the course of his betterment. A slow learner, but he learns.
The new recruits from the supporting cast bring some levity to the story and allow it to breathe in between the more serious moments. The dialogues are witty with some rather genuinely funny bits of snark, especially between Rooster and Hangman. Glen Powell is fantastic as Hangman. There is a keen, fox-like, glare of intelligence in his eyes that sells his character’s personality and he has a great, energetic screen presence. Although Cruise is no stranger to flying (he is a licensed pilot) and perilous stunts, his fellow actors had to train, upon his insistence.
“When you’re pulling heavy Gs, it compresses your spine, your skull. It makes some people delirious. Some people can’t handle it. So I had to get them up to be able to sustain high Gs. Because they have to act in the plane. I can’t have them sick the whole time,”Cruise explained to Empire Magazine
Very little VFX and CGI were used for the film. The flying was practical. According to actor Miles Teller, he and his co-stars spent three months training before the cameras started rolling. Although the actors were not piloting the fighter planes themselves (not even Cruise was given clearance to touch the controls, although he did fly a helicopter and a P-51 Mustang), they had to be able to act in them.
“They all threw up and their eyes rolled back in their heads. The original footage was just a mess,”
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer recalls how difficult it was for Cruise’s castmates on the original in an interview with the New York Times. Unlike Cruise, they had not prepared as extensively and suffered the consequences
“You can’t fake the forces that are put on your body during combat. You can’t do it on a sound stage, you can’t do it on a blue screen. You can’t do it with visual effects.”Joseph Kosinski – New York Times
To be able to sustain the gravitational force, the cast prepared with aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa Jr. When they completed the three-month program, the actors were confident and ready to be put into real Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, as seen in the film. But the actors weren’t the only ones who had to put in some preparation. The complexity of filming real aerial action sequences called for some innovation from the crew as well. LaRosa Jr. and aerial unit director of photography, Michael FitzMaurice, filmed from above by using two types of jets on which were mounted exterior resistant cameras and a helicopter while in the cockpit, another set Sony VENICE 6K cameras filmed the actors.
All of the cast members’ jets were piloted by trained Navy pilots. The jet-to-jet photography allows the audience to be sucked into the action. Top Gun: Maverick is impeccably filmed. The action sequences are immersive and directed with clarity, never losing the audience in spatial disorientation. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography brings visual warmth and simplicity.
The authenticity of the cast and crew work generously shows on screen. Director Joseph Kosinski pays a tribute to the original in every component of the film, from meticulously recreating its opening and drawing parallels through character (and a beach scene!) to the action and the thrilling score, which was a collaboration between Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, Lady Gaga and Harold Faltermeyer.
Top Gun: Maverick is a lesson in how sequels should be made. Tailored for the big screen, it is a dazzling action film with a lot of heart. An unexpected punch that goes against the grain of 21st-century blockbuster movie making and the current trends in the film industry. Worthy of the big screen, worthy of your time.