Review of “Top Gun: Maverick”

I only recently watched “Top Gun” for the podcast my wife and I do, Comedy Tragedy Marriage (Season 2, Episode 39). Neither of us liked it. It was too filled with testosterone-soaked horn dogs looking to impresses each other and get laid. None of the characters rang true and the story was lackluster. Tom Cruise and his love interest, played by Kelly McGillis, had zero chemistry and the love scene was uncomfortable to watch as Cruise looked like he was trying to swallow McGillis whole when he kissed her. Even the scenes of fighter jets screaming low over the terrain was dull. Camera limitations being what they were in 1986 prevented the all over coverage today’s smaller devices can provide. I was totally uninterested when a sequel was announced, expecting more of the same swagger and male bravado that filled the first. Of course, times have changed, and the cast isn’t just a bunch of white guys with abs and flattop haircuts. Various ethnicities are represented and there are a couple of women amongst the pilots. There is still plenty of peacocking and showing off between the candidates for a mission they may not come back from, but there is a maturity and seriousness in Cruise that was missing in the first film. He’s not the same Maverick we met 36 years ago. While he’s still a cocky and rule-breaking maverick (pardon the expression), he’s also looking mortality in the face, realizing he must teach these pilots how to push their jets and themselves beyond what they’ve ever done as this will be his last chance to prove all his recklessness is the only way to get the impossible done. “Top Gun: Maverick” is a far superior film to its predecessor.

Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is a test pilot for the Navy. When he destroys a multi-billion-dollar aircraft while pushing it beyond its limits, Maverick expects this to be his last ride, but he’s surprised to receive orders from Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) to report to Top Gun school as a new instructor. Arriving at his new posting, Maverick meets Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) who informs him he didn’t want Maverick for the position, but Maverick’s old rival and friend Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Val Kilmer) insisted. Maverick will prepare a dozen Top Gun school graduates for a suicide mission to destroy a uranium enrichment facility behind enemy lines before it becomes operational. The mission requires high-speed, low-altitude flying, high-G maneuvers and precision bombing of a small target. Out of the dozen pilots, only six will be selected with the rest being on stand-by. On top of the natural competitiveness between the pilots, there’s a personal grudge held by Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late RIO and best friend Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards, seen in photos and footage from the first film). Maverick pulled Rooster’s application to the Naval Academy at the request of his late mother Carole (Meg Ryan, seen in photos and footage from the first film), delaying his career by four years. Maverick must navigate the egos of his young pilots, like Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) and Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), and Rooster’s animosity, while teaching them the skills to keep them alive. Maverick must also deal with the wreckage of a past relationship with Hard Deck bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).

I wasn’t expecting much from “Top Gun: Maverick” and I’m pleasantly surprised to be completely wrong. From the first scene of Maverick piloting an experimental jet past its limits to the conclusion, this movie is the kind of thrill ride that’s currently only delivered by comic book movies. However, much of the spectacle of the film is created using real fighter jets with the actors in the cockpits. When the film is released on blu ray, the bonus features will likely last for days as the movie is reported to have shot over 800 hours of footage. The aerial scenes of training dogfights and battles with the story’s enemy create an excitement and tension that was missing from the original film. I could feel myself clenching as the pilots tried to outmaneuver their instructor and the enemy. I would imagine seeing the film in IMAX or in motion-controlled seating might lead to some air/motion sickness for some in the audience. The film is something of a technical marvel.

It also treats fans of the original film to some cameos, both from archival footage and new scenes. The most touching is with Val Kilmer. Kilmer, who in real life battled throat cancer and whose voice is greatly diminished, returns as Iceman, a Vice-Admiral and a friend and mentor of Maverick’s. Kilmer’s cancer battle is worked into his character and he and Cruise have a heartfelt reunion. This scene works not only because of the nostalgia some feel for the characters, but also the real-life bravery of Kilmer appearing in a film and showcasing his raspy voice as a part of his on-going story. I enjoyed this scene, even feeling a bit of emotion well up, which is capped off with a joke about their old rivalry. It makes a lovely conclusion to their former selves.

Where the film comes up a bit short is the love story between Maverick and his old flame Penny. I don’t know what it is about Cruise and his leading ladies, but I can never see what would attract a woman to his characters. Jennifer Connelly’s Penny is appropriately playful, keeping Maverick at arm’s length as she has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Maverick isn’t pushy, like in the first film with Kelly McGillis’s Charlie, and his charm eventually wears her down. I still don’t see what her character sees in Maverick as he’s broken her heart before, but at least their relationship isn’t as cringe-inducing as the first film.

The other supporting characters fill out roles like the first film, with Hangman taking on the Iceman role. Rooster has a character arc reminiscent of Maverick’s from the original. The rest of the cast are placeholders, filling whatever the script calls for at any given time. Most of the large cast is wasted in minimal roles.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some strong language. The dogfight scenes are very tense, as mentioned above. There is some shirtless (except for a couple of characters) football on the beach, replacing the shirtless volleyball of the first film. There is one physical altercation between a couple of characters, but it is stopped before any punches are thrown. Foul language is mild and scattered.

I really didn’t think I’d enjoy “Top Gun: Maverick.” The years have softened Maverick, making him more serious, but still willing to break whatever rules he feels stand in the way of the mission. He knows this is probably his last chance to make a difference and he makes sure to pass his knowledge and bravado on to the next generation. While the love story doesn’t feel organic and much of the cast is relegated to seat-fillers, “Top Gun: Maverick” works on almost every level as an exciting action movie and “rah-rah, blow up the bad guys” romp. See it on the big screen…the bigger the better.

“Top Gun: Maverick” gets four stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

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