Top Gun: Maverick (Review): Tom Cruise’s Long-Awaited Legacyquel Soars
Top Gun: Maverick represents the best of what blockbuster filmmaking can be, brilliantly blending spectacle with sentiment to exhilarating effect.
To say that the original Top Gun is a certified classic in American cinema is a bit of an understatement. Not only did it earn the biggest box office of any film that released in 1986, but it was essentially the movie that made Tom Cruise the megawatt star he is today, and its success wasn’t evenly solely limited to achievements in the film industry, as its widely adored soundtrack also went on to reach 9x Platinum certification (buoyed by the love for Berlin’s Oscar-winning “Take My Breath Away”). Sure, not all critics were on board (surprisingly, despite the cultural appreciation that exists for it today, it only sits at a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes), and some have questioned the possibility of it being used as propaganda for the U.S. military, but for most, Top Gun remains a mightily entertaining old-fashioned American movie-movie that features a brilliant blend of spectacle and sentiment and has come to serve as a “time capsule”-of sorts for the late 80s as a whole, and that fandom has been loud and proud about its “need for speed” for almost 40 years.
However, with all due respect to the original Top Gun, this year’s Top Gun: Maverick is a massive improvement by every conceivable metric, even when taking into account the legendary and lasting legacy of its predecessor, with Maverick instantly asserting itself as one of the greatest sequels – and legacyquels – of all time. And it’s not just the fact that technical advancements have improved the already arresting action sequences.
Instead, what may be most impressive about Top Gun: Maverick is how screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie suffuse the script with meaningful melodrama and striking sincerity, making for a moving (and occasionally meta) meditation on Maverick’s life and legacy that simultaneously pays tribute to the first film in touching ways, as the shadow of Anthony Edwards’ Goose proves inescapable and influences the actions of almost all involved here, for better and for worse. But even if one isn’t as up-to-date on their “Top Gun lore,” the action and emotion on display are still so exhilarating that it’s impossible to not be swept up by these stupefying sights regardless, thanks to a skillfully scripted story that excites both the head and the heart.
When we first meet up with Maverick again, over three decades have passed since the events of the first film, and yet, he remains a U.S. Navy test pilot who had dodged promotion to continue flying above all else. However, when a rogue test gets Maverick in trouble with Rear Admiral Chester Cain (Ed Harris, of The Truman Show and The Lost Daughter), he’s almost grounded completely until his old friend – and former rival – Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer, of Batman Forever and Heat) intervenes and calls on him him to train an elite group of Top Gun graduates assembled by Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm, of Baby Driver and Bridesmaids) and Rear Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates (Charles Parnell, of Transformers: Age of Extinction and Pariah) for an urgent, top secret mission. However, this is easier said than done, especially when the group consists of hotheads like Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell, of Hidden Figures and Set it Up) and the son of Maverick’s late friend Goose, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller, of Whiplash and Divergent), who presently resents Maverick for his father’s death.
To start, most will come to a Top Gun film expecting daring and death-defying aerial stuntwork, and rest assured, you will receive that in spades here. Director Joseph Kosinski – of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion fame – takes his craft to a whole new level, displaying a deft control of tension and suspense at all times, accompanied by long-time cinematographer collaborator Claudio Miranda (best known for winning the Oscar for Best Cinematography for Life of Pi), who cultivates a new approach of placing audiences in the cockpits with our central pilots, allowing us to be as immersed in the intensity of these exercises – and later, the actual maddening missions themselves – as possible. What’s most remarkable is how Kosinski and Miranda manage to make a film that feels like a tribute to the late, great Tony Scott (director of the original Top Gun) and his signature style while also leaving their own modern mark on the movie, advancing the aesthetics of Top Gun for the 21st Century in a way that still does right by Scott, and would make him proud. For long-time fans, it’s a real beauty to behold, and what we’re left with feels deeply indebted to the past but elegantly elevated in ways Scott himself may have never even imagined possible.
Truly, the entire crew is firing on all cylinders here, from the distinguished sound department, engineering sound effects that reverberate masterfully in IMAX formats especially, to the exceptional editing of Eddie Hamilton (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Mission: Impossible – Fallout), who cuts between a multitude of perspective during key action sequences – most notably in that jaw-droppingly thrilling third act – with pitch-perfect precision, but it’s likely that many will walk away from the film with their feelings more stunned than even their senses. In any good legacyquel, it’s not enough to simply bring a franchise back from the dead and throw a few new faces in – creatives have to put in the work to find a reason to return to a slumbering series and resurrect it for modern audiences, and what Kruger, Singer, and McQuarrie have done here is craft an openhearted ode to not just the stylistic opulence of the original Top Gun but also to the central connection between Tom Cruise’s Maverick and Anthony Edwards’ Goose, with the reverence for that relationship cooked into the very core of this film, giving Maverick more depth than you’d ever expect from a Top Gun sequel.
Maverick feels the ghost of Goose in everything he does, and his lingering guilt over his late partner’s death is what primarily prevents him from moving forward from his past (along with fighting to remain relevant in the face of technological revolution), and we feel this torment as fervently as Maverick does in every frame, all thanks to Cruise turning in one of his most powerful and poignant performances to date, exhibiting every emotion at his disposal over the course of the film’s two-hour running time and taking us on this tremendously affecting arc right alongside him (made all the more momentous by the potential dual meaning this arc offers as Cruise grapples with his own late-career legacy and charts a new course for himself). The parallels between Maverick and Goose and Maverick and Rooster – scripted sincerely by Kruger, Singer, and McQuarrie and acted astoundingly by Cruise and Teller – are likewise emotionally wrenching, especially as the two initially begin the film at odds with one another, arguing about the “fault” in Goose’s death and Maverick’s half-baked efforts to “protect” Rooster from flying, but ultimately find common ground, cementing this series’ central themes about male camaraderie.
It really is audacious – and quite admirable of Cruise – to make male camaraderie the main focus of the film, especially in this day and age, as we continue to combat age-old ideas that “real men” don’t cry or show emotion. Here, a simple hug is as climactic as a staggering action setpiece, and it’s repeatedly underscored how there’s no chance for success in these missions without care and compassion and consideration between comrades, encouraging the pilots to be as open and empathetic with one another as possible, as all of their other skills mean shit if they can’t cultivate this emotional intimacy. It’s refreshing stuff to see in such an action-centric – and male-centric – series, and it’s clear that it was something Cruise and co made a priority from the start. Equally as stirring is Cruise’s subplot with Jennifer Connelly (Requiem for a Dream, A Beautiful Mind), who plays new character Penny Benjamin, a flame from the past who presents the possibility of new love for Maverick, but he has to deal with his other demons first – and learn to allow himself to be authentically vulnerable with another person – before their relationship can be fully realized. Some may say Connelly’s character feels slightly underwritten compared to her male counterparts, but Connelly, an Oscar winner, is too impassioned an actress to not leave an impression anyway, and it’s exciting to experience such a ravishing adult romance in a film like this – something that Hollywood sometimes shies away from in favor of more youth-focused fare.
Teller and Connelly aren’t the only supporting cast members to make an impact though, as Powell proves to be playfully prickish as the haughty Hangman, Hamm is a hilarious thorn in Maverick’s side throughout the entire film, and Kilmer shatters our hearts in a single-scene cameo that honorably pays homage to the past. Still, while everyone in the cast and crew brings their all, commendation must always be paid to Cruise first and foremost, who put this whole team together and clearly came up with such a compelling reason to return to this series before any others, finding writers to fulfill that vision and craft a film that furthered the themes of the original Top Gun while also taking them into the 21st Century in fitting and deeply felt fashion. From a structural standpoint, Top Gun: Maverick truly just has it all: awe-inspiring action, drama that will leave you dewy-eyed, and rapturously resplendent romance. And in execution, all of these elements are somehow even more effective, elevating our senses and lifting our souls to the skies.
Top Gun: Maverick is now showing globally in theaters.