Inside the fighter jets featured in Top Gun: Maverick, the aviators must endure G forces up to nine times the norm, exceeding human limits of constitution. Each challenging turn and sharp increase of speed pushes and pulls on all parts of the body from head to toe and the very aircraft they are flying. In true, rugged fashion as a legacy sequel aiming for the pinnacle of performance on and off camera, the movie exerts the very same pressure of gravity on us as we find ourselves glued to our seats with every flyby and bead of sweat.
Top Gun: Maverick’s callback opening sequences set up and affirm the film’s solidifying intentions. The same opening text defining the establishment and name of the Fighter Weapons School hits with that same Harold Faltermeyer bell, now boosted by composer Hans Zimmer, to announce the title and doubles that synthesized gong to add our character call sign subtitle. Immediately after, Life of Pi’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda and Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” bring us back to the busy-body deck of an aircraft carrier. The views and cuts of the mechanic crews at work and the screaming jets they unleash look and feel familiar, but they are presented closer, faster, and more powerful because these planes aren’t your dad or grandad’s F-14 anymore.
This gravity of consequence, importance, muscle, and heritage permeates every airspace of Top Gun: Maverick. Updated for a contemporary environment, the raw machismo is remodeled to match the progressive excellence and fortitude demanded of pilots today. The days of Marlboro Man-level cowboy pilots are virtually over– all save one: Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, played by, as many are calling “the last real movie star,” Tom Cruise.
With shades of Lightning McQueen from Cars 3, Pete Mitchell is the senior legend in an increasing field of newfangled pilots cut from a different jib of specialized training. He’s a true dogfighter with the confirmed kills to prove it. When necessary, Maverick can fly circles around these youngbloods to prove his chops, but, after breaking too many rules with prior assignments, it took his old wingman “Iceman,” now Admiral Tom Kazansky (a returning Val Kilmer) and the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, bailing him out in order to bring him back to Top Gun as a teacher.
Overseen by Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Rear Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates (Charles Purnell of The Last Ship), Mitchell is tasked to train the best of the current crop for an extremely difficult air mission that targets a uranium facility in an unnamed rival country. Of the assembled aviators, two alphas emerge in Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell of Everybody Wants Some!!) and Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Whiplash’s second-billed Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late RIO partner Nick “Goose” Bradshaw.
There’s an old line from the first film that faintly echoes in the new one. Tom Skerrit’s “Viper” once proclaimed to his assembled students, “Just remember, when it’s over, we’re all on the same team.” Pete Mitchell’s memorable call sign screams “loner,” yet here he is trying to eschew his old example to mold a cohesive team skilled enough and brave enough to perform aerial miracles and face death. Competition breeds success, but only if rivals can set aside egos and personal conflicts to raise each other up for the common goal at hand. In a way, above the plot to the film’s stature itself, we have a canny Tom Cruise willing to pass a baton and share a sun-scorched spotlight with new faces.
Miles Teller and Glen Powell both auditioned for the Rooster role. Teller won, but Powell was so good they kept him on as the cocksure stud of the bunch. This writer believes reversing their roles would have spiced this dynamic up even more. Powell has garrulous charisma (strap a jetpack to his back and make him a star already) where he would be more convincing and interesting singing “Great Balls of Fire” with a dimpled smirk in one moment while squinting with indignation the next. Likewise, Teller has always been edgier as an actor, with sharper teeth making him more suitable as the temporary braggart of intimidation.
In Top Gun: Maverick’s after hours on the ground, Pete also finds himself reconnecting with Penny Benjamin, the butt of a joke from the original film who is a living and breathing (and single) old flame, played by Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly. Running “The Hard Deck” saloon frequented by the local seamen with her own sly grit, she becomes his confidante, anchor, and sounding board to the drama that exists both with the precarious mission and the tenuous family history festering with Rooster.
In moments of peril, Mitchell still utters “Talk to me, Goose” under his breath. Hearing and seeing Rooster look like a spitting image of his father tickling the ivories and crooning Jerry Lee Lewis turns Maverick into Rick Blaine from Casablanca hearing “As Time Goes By.” The memories flood his psyche and chiseled mettle. It’s quite possible we all talk to some earmarked and haunting voice of conscience, be that a form of God, a memorable mentor, a vital family member, or Jiminy Cricket. In a mach speed world of “if you think, you’re dead,” reflection moments and their spurred reactions can mean life and death. Do you listen, act, or do both?
To that end, Top Gun: Maverick finds its chosen mantra to belabor that point further. The line of “It’s the pilot, not the plane” arrives like a repeated refrain to bolster principles and swagger. Even for those who call Top Gun movies right-wing wet dreams of pro-war propaganda, the current battlefield and modern big budget moviemaking, for that matter, are not purely mano y mano anymore. The human element has often been exchanged for unmanned tools and/or advances of technology. However, the savvy resolve and the spectacle of Top Gun: Maverick are only made possible and, more importantly, believable by the authoritative people making it happen.
Tom Cruise is this movie’s most valuable special effect, not something cooked up on the computer or even the harrowing majesty of the fantastic machines themselves. Director John Kosinski (Oblivion, Tron: Legacy) and the bevy of credited story contributors and screenwriters (including The Batman’s Peter Craig, The Jungle Book’s Justin Marks, American Hustle’s Eric Warren Singer, veteran polisher Ehren Kruger, and Tom’s Jack Reacher and M:I buddy Christopher McQuarrie) grants the star and producer all access to the toybox. With his insistence towards aerial coordinator Capt. Brian Ferguson, stunt coordinator Casey O’Neil (Mank), second unit director Eric Schwab (Valkryie), there are no green screen or CGI aerial shots in the film. Even the close up cockpit shots are taken during real in-flight sequences. That’s downright astounding and a blistering sensation to see on the largest and loudest screen you can find.
Speaking about this sequel on bonus feature material from the 4K disc release of the original, Tom said, “I didn’t want to just do it. I wanted to deliver.” The first film was a formative experience for him learning the vast workings of making movies. He returns as a master of orchestrated image, glamor, and showmanship and lives up to his words and promise. Kelly McGillis’s Charlie was right to say “so you’re the one” 36 years ago. That defining label has transcended to the actor himself. Until proven otherwise (especially with two Mission: Impossible films in the pipeline), his ego is decidedly not writing checks his body can’t cash. Even when Ed Harris’s Rear Admiral Chester Cain tries to hammer Maverick with “The end is inevitable,” a pause and a half-smirk from Cruise answers “Maybe so, but not today.”
Just like the first film, in order to “get” Top Gun: Maverick, you don’t need to be a guy or a dad. Besides, Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick are not 100% Dad Movies for a multitude of reasons that will be discussed in an upcoming episode of the Cinephile Hissy Fit podcast. Anyone with working eyes or ears can see or hear its supersonic and stoic qualities. The draw is there for multiple demographics. It may not ooze with the same raw coolness and carnal heat and burn with the same pungent gas as the first film, but feel free to call this series “seminal” instead with a legacy already ironclad in the making.
Through it all, both Top Gun films come down to the same equation as plenty of other military movie journeys. It’s most always about the man on your left and the man on your right. In the case of the two-pilot cockpits, they also added the guy who’s got your back literally and figuratively. Turn off the stuntwork and special effects when you can and look at the moments of weakness at the same time as the moments of strength. The sequel, even when it gets borderline over-the-top with its heroics, takes those personal stakes and adds off-the-charts courage and towering wisdom from cemented experience.