Top Gun: Maverick, 2022.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski.
Starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Charles Parnell, Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Greg Tarzan Davis, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Manny Jacinto, Peter Mark Kendall, Jean Louisa Kelly, Lyliana Wray, Jake Picking, Kara Wang, and Raymond Lee.
After more than thirty years of service as one of the Navy’s top aviators, Pete Mitchell is where he belongs, pushing the envelope as a courageous test pilot and dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him.
It’s hardly a surprise that Tom Cruise would want somewhat of a do-over for Top Gun. For starters, it’s an unbearably corny product of the 1980s that’s rampant homoeroticism (it drips from every scene just like sweat trickling down the characters’ chiseled bodies playing volleyball) is the one source of fun besides the practical airborne effects. Tom Cruise’s naval aviator Pete Mitchell (callsign Maverick) frequently crossed over from charming into immature and annoying, the romantic subplot failed to add much, and perhaps most frustrating, there also wasn’t much of a story. It mainly followed expert pilots training at the titular academy for a trophy before going on a short mission during the last 10 minutes.
Top Gun: Maverick (directed by Joseph Kosinski, who helmed underappreciated Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle Oblivion, here working with a screenwriting team consisting of Mission: Impossible series collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, Ehren Kruger, and Eric Warren Singer) takes place roughly 32 years later (36 if you go by movie release dates), focusing on a wiser, matured Pete with more grounded and restrained, effortless charm and understandable brashness. It’s fair to say that there’s a lot of Ethan Hunt in Pete Mitchell and that there’s an equal amount of recent Mission: Impossible in Top Gun: Maverick in both storytelling and downright astonishing spectacle.
A brief prologue shows Pete’s service decoration and accomplishments, currently working as a test pilot. Within the opening five minutes, he is again disobeying orders to achieve a flight speed of Mach 10 to prevent Rear Admiral (a glorified cameo from Ed Harris) from shutting the place down. Aircraft battles and weaponry have evolved, with dogfighting a thing of the past, so there is an early sense that Maverick has outlived his calling. Nevertheless, it turns out that the Admiral has orders from Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (a returning Val Kilmer that we will talk about in a moment) for Pete to return to teaching at Top Gun. An unknown enemy (a frustrating copout at the hands of the writers) has a secret base filled with enriched uranium that must be destroyed.
Naturally, Pete Mitchell is not a teacher. Speaking to a group of 16 that involves a diverse cast of supporting fighter pilots ranging from Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), Hangman (Glenn Powell), the amusingly call signed Bob (Lewis Pullman), and others, he immediately tells everyone to disregard textbooks (the enemy also knows everything that’s in there) and drastically changes simulation rules much to the chagrin of his commander (Jon Hamm). Bombing the uranium site is practically a death wish, and Top Gun: Maverick treats the upcoming job with concise lectures (that are never once confusing for the audience) on what must be done.
Considering the perpetually fearless and crazy Tom Cruise insisted on no CGI and filming inside cockpits, the preparation exercises are beautiful, with crisp and clear photography capturing every sharp maneuver, whether a barrel roll, nosedive, or flip, from a variety of angles. The cinematography from Claudio Miranda also boasts breathtaking aerial perspectives, with aircraft blasting across the screen like a comet. In particular, the sound design is sensational; one can hear characters gasping through appropriately muffled dialogue, the wind whizzing by everyone, and the pressure fighting their bodies (especially on steep inclines). There’s a concerted effort here to point out the toll these maneuvers take on the pilots’ bodies and how they will be in grave danger of potentially passing out. And when it’s time to execute, well, you might be hard-pressed to find a more exhilarating and emotional third act in a blockbuster all year (especially since it considers consistently clever ways to prolong itself with more payoff grounded in storytelling and character work).
Admittedly, I’m probably preaching to the choir when I say that Top Gun: Maverick is an immaculately insane marvel that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Even as someone that regularly doesn’t have much interest in aerial combat, whether it be movies or games, the action, and more specifically, the clarity behind the chases and dogfights, is majestic and immersive. Once it’s do-or-die time to fly that death course atop some stunning snowy mountains and drop the bomb, you metaphorically strap yourself in for two intensely long minutes (and don’t worry, there’s much more than that in-store). Of course, the score from Lorne Balfe, Harold Faltermeyer, Lady Gaga, and Hans Zimmer only accentuates that suspense.
But Top Gun: Maverick also has a brain, as Pete wrestles with his legacy, past, and, as previously mentioned, waning usefulness. One of his students also happens to be Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (an unrecognizable Miles Teller, clearly taking the role seriously on a physical and emotional level), the son of his best friend Goose, who tragically died during a fatal incident where Pete was instantly cleared of human error. The dynamic also allows the filmmakers to pull from nostalgia early on but with a haunting twist. Maybe for fans, it’s fun and even appeasing to hear Goose’s son enthusiastically sing Great Balls of Fire on the familiar diner piano, but for Pete, it’s just another reminder he will always be entangled with the reason the man grew up without a father.
Take the tasteful and minimal involvement of Val Kilmer reprising the role of Iceman; there are no tricks or insulting excuses to hide the aftermath of the actor’s throat cancer. It’s also not offensive or manipulative that he plays a part in the narrative (let’s be honest, Val Kilmer has enough pull to say no if he didn’t want to do it, and no filmmaker would dare recast that role, at least for a sequel). Does the film go too far with one creative decision involving his character? Yes, especially considering how random it feels. However, the inclusion of Iceman and the performance from Val Kilmer assuredly add another layer of emotional depth to him and Maverick. And it’s not just aerial photography that is outstandingly executed here, as the simple framing of a phrase of text is also incredibly powerful here.
The only major aspect of Top Gun: Maverick that feels out of whack and utterly pointless is Pete’s new love interest, bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), a referenced admiral daughter in the original film. Even if one disregards the ugliness in not even bothering to ask Kelly McGillis to reprise her role as Pete’s love interest Charlie (seemingly due to pathetic reasons that Hollywood has yet to and probably never will fully reckon with), and the shock that the character is not mentioned once in this movie, the romantic subplot here is never engaging. It’s a functional vehicle for Pete to express some of his emotions and lingering grief, which does work. However, as a character, Peggy is nothing more than a single mom that has had an on-off relationship with Pete, that may end up together with him once and for all in the end here.
That is the one blemish that keeps Top Gun: Maverick from the pantheon of masterful sequels. Otherwise, this is an expertly crafted adrenaline rush with a heart that beats as loudly as an F-18 thrusting engine. Not only are many of the action beats jaw-dropping, but some are wise callbacks to the past, and others signify the further growth and evolution of characters, new and old. The protagonists discuss two miracles that must go their way for a successful mission, but here’s a third miracle; a 36-year later Top Gun sequel is a must-see, unbelievably thrilling exercise in extravagance with absorbing character work. Maybe Joseph Kosinski will be Tom Cruise’s miracle worker anytime.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com