36 years after the iconic original, the long awaited sequel goes bigger and the stakes get higher
A sequel to the iconic 80s movie Top Gun has been in the works for years, and thankfully for fans there’s no better time to finally get greenlit than our persistent past decade or so of reboots, remakes, throwbacks, references, and cameos. 36 years is a long time but perfect for milking nostalgia out of the original for all it’s worth. Thankfully, when Top Gun: Maverick, a direct sequel to the 1986 hit, isn’t busying itself with that, it’s mostly an engaging movie in its own right.
And of course, with this also being the era of Tom Cruise pushing the limits and upping the ante of action movie stunts, the action spectacle on display in Maverick is beyond outstanding. Superb sound design and photography fully capture the power, speed and wonderment of piloting the various fighter jets in a way that no movie ever really has before, certainly not to this immersive extent. When Cruise hops into the cockpit for the next death-defying stunt, you’re right in there with him.
It’s a good thing that aspect of the film is so impressive because the actual story is considerably less so. Those without the appropriate sentimental attachment to the original likely won’t be as moved by the new one’s incessant (and downright lazy) need to hearken back to the past as many times as it possibly can. This kind of thing is to be expected from legacy sequels at this point, but Maverick lays the misty-eyed nostalgia on way too thick.
It’s emotion that’s much too forced and relies too heavily on filling the screen with images, music cues and dialogue that do nothing beyond the old “Remember this?” trick. For hardcore Top Gun fans, that may be all that’s needed to get the water works going. For the rest, the constant trips down memory lane can feel like they take away from what Maverick actually has going for it. It’s easy to grow impatient waiting for the next flight sequence.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion), the new film picks up decades after Pete “Maverick” (Cruise) Mitchell graduated from the esteemed Top Gun program. Since then, the hotshot fighter pilot has been bounced around the U.S. Navy working various roles without promotion. Of course, this is partly because of Maverick’s own desire to stay in the air. The rest is due to his tendency to disobey orders. Much has changed in the U.S. Navy since the 80s, but Maverick himself has stayed pretty much the same. He hasn’t lost that big self-assured grin of his, at least.
Even so, the wounds of his past have refused to entirely heal. He’s never fully moved on from the death of his best friend and fellow pilot Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, still carrying the weight of his guilt within himself. The mere mention of it is an immediate emotional sting. That’s what makes his latest military assignment all the more difficult: Maverick has been selected to prepare a team of Top Gun’s top graduates for a highly dangerous and incredibly precise mission. That team just so happens to include Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), Goose’s son.
This is the film’s one good dramatic element. There’s plenty of stuff to draw out of Maverick having to train the one guy he swore to take care of for what’s considered to be a suicide mission. The film even adds a contentious past between the two characters. The way the film structures the training and lead up to the climactic mission also acts as a smart and engaging way to both keep things moving and ensure the audience fully understands the ins and outs of the mission itself when it finally comes. There’s solid momentum, excitement and dramatic tension.
What holds Maverick back and hurts it even more than the nostalgia overload is the notably lengthy time it dedicates to a completely new romance between Maverick and the local bar owner, a new character named Penny (Jennifer Connelly). The two of them have an off and on again type of relationship, the kind where absence has only made the heart grow fonder and neither can seem to help themselves around the other.
It’s fine enough, but there’s nothing too remarkable about the couple’s dynamic to make it feel like an engaging or even necessary component to the story being told. Had this character been Charlie, the astrophysicist and fellow Top Gun instructor that served as Maverick’s love interest in the first film, the romance plot could’ve had genuine emotional power and actually explored the ways their relationship had grown and changed. Shamefully, Kelly McGillis wasn’t even asked to take part in the sequel, nor is her character even mentioned in it. It’s a blatant and troublesome choice for a movie that’s so concerned with paying tribute to the original to ignore a major character who had more screen time than Val Kilmer did.
More time should’ve been spent on fleshing out the rest of the younger team, none of whom are able to stand out apart from an arrogant rival to Rooster played by Glen Powell. Even recognizable actors like Manny Jacinto are stuck in the background with little to no lines. To fans that fall into the nostalgia trap (knowingly or otherwise) or others who are here just for some truly spectacular aerial stunts (they are genuinely awesome), the storytelling shortcomings of Top Gun: Maverick probably won’t matter. In many ways, the legacy sequel does improve upon its predecessor. It’s a spectacle meant to be experienced on the big screen. But once those couple of months have passed, it’s hard to say what kind of real staying power the film might actually have.
‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is now playing in theaters.