It was a Saturday morning in May of 1986. My brother and I were sitting in our living room floor watching MTV (back when they actually played music videos). Whichever classic veejay was manning the waves introduced the poppy, guitar-driven “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins from the “Top Gun” motion picture soundtrack. As was customary, the video featured lots of footage from the movie which happened to grab my father’s attention.
“Top Gun” came out during a time when my dad was really into fighter planes. He watched shows about them, read about them, and put together detailed model kits by the dozens. When he got a glimpse of the “Danger Zone” video, my brother and I didn’t have to do much convincing. A couple hours later, our family was heading to the nearest theater to see what would be the highest-grossing film of 1986.
Directed by Tony Scott and starring Tom Cruise, “Top Gun” was very much a movie of the 80s, to the point that younger audiences may have a hard time embracing it in the same way many of us did 36 years ago. But as silly as it can be at times, I’ve always loved it. The cast, the music, the breathtaking aerial action sequences – it all clicks for me in a way that goes beyond simple nostalgia.
Talks of a sequel began in earnest in 2010 and a first-draft of the script was completed in 2012. But following Scott’s death the project was shelved. Five years later, a new script was written with Joseph Kosinski hired to direct and Cruise back in the cockpit and producing. But one big question remained, would this be yet another shameless Hollywood cash grab or did Cruise and company have a meaningful next chapter to Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s story to tell?
Well, “Top Gun: Maverick” certainly embraces nostalgia, and there are callbacks that will leave fans giddy. I mean it opens identically to the 1986 movie – on the deck of an aircraft carrier with Harold Faltermeyer’s classic “Top Gun Anthem” leading straight into Loggins’ “Danger Zone”. Fan service? Perhaps. Yet it’s such a pitch-perfect and smile-inducing way to kick things off.
But “Maverick” is a lot more than callbacks and fan service. It has a lot more on its mind than rehashing old scenes and retreading past storylines (something I feared). In fact, there’s an unexpectedly strong emotional current that runs throughout the story. And its trio of writers (Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie) use many of those familiar past connections in surprisingly poignant and heartfelt ways.
Over three decades after the events of “Top Gun”, Cruise’s Maverick lives in an old air hanger where he spends his spare time tinkering on an vintage P-51 Mustang. He has deliberately dodged numerous promotions much to the chagrin of his superiors. Instead he serves as a Navy test pilot for a hypersonic scramjet program. But at the urging of Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), Maverick is called back to Top Gun, an elite training program for the Navy’s top pilots – “the best of the best”.
Maverick is tasked with training a group of Top Gun graduates for a dangerous mission. An unnamed rogue nation has an underground uranium enrichment facility that poses a major security threat for the world. It’s nestled deep in a canyon and surrounded by surface-to-air missile installations. To make matters worse, the generic enemy possesses state-of-the-art fifth-generation fighters. That means Maverick’s pilots will have to sneak in undetected and get out before the enemy aircraft can engage them.
But there’s some personal tension when Maverick discovers one of his young pilots is Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his late best friend Goose, who still blames Maverick for his father’s death. To make matters worse, Maverick has Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) breathing down his neck. The one ray of light comes with Jennifer Connelly’s character Penny Benjamin (keen fans of the first film may remember that name). She’s an old flame who runs a beachside bar called The Hard Deck. It’s not a particularly meaty role for Connelly, but she’s a really good and grounding presence.
Of course there are also the signature aerial sequences – jaw-dropping and custom-made for the big screen. The newer technology gives the filmmakers opportunities to do some exciting things and Cruise pushes it and himself to the extreme. It shines brightest in the final 30 minutes which features some of the best aerial fighter footage ever put on screen. See it in the theater. You won’t regret it.
But everything comes back to Maverick who is the story’s centerpiece. He’s more mature and not as impulsive, but he’s still pushing his limits. More, he’s still haunted by the death of Goose and his guilt won’t allow him to forgive himself. It’s a superb performance from Cruise who takes all of those factors (plus some) into account and gives us a Maverick who still has that same rebellious cool, but has a much deeper level of humanity.
If there is a complaint, it might be in the new pilots. None of the performances are bad. But other than Rooster, none of them have much depth. And a couple simply fit the models of pilots from the first film. Also, the unnamed enemy threat feels hollow (marketing was clearly a consideration). Yet there are so many fantastic moments that energize the movie, both kinetically and emotionally. Some scenes are exhilarating while others will bring a tear or two. And they’re all woven into a story that really surprised me. And that gets back to my above question about “Top Gun: Maverick” – was there a meaningful next chapter to be told? The answer turns out to be is a resounding “Yes”!