Top Gun: Maverick Review
Now and then, in “Top Gun: Maverick,” Pete Mitchell (Maverick) is summoned to a meeting with an admiral. Pete has stalled at the rank of captain after all these years in the Navy — more than 35, but who’s counting? He’s one of the best fighter pilots in history, but the United States military hierarchy can be a risky political business, and Maverick is anything but a politician. He is likely to salute, smirk, and toss his career like a stack of poker chips into the middle of the table. He’s completely committed. Always.
The first such encounter is with Rear Adm. Chester Cain, a weathered chunk of brass played by Ed Harris, who has his own impressive in-movie flight record. (There would have been no “Top Gun” without “The Right Stuff.”) He appears to be telling Pete that the game has ended. Flyboys like him are almost obsolete thanks to new technology.
Pete is still working. Officially, a teaching position, but we’ll get to that. The conversation with Cain is more of a meta-commentary than a red herring. Pete, as I’m sure you already know, is Tom Cruise’s avatar, and the central question posed by this film is less about the necessity of combat pilots and more about the relevance of movie stars. Do we need guys, or movies, like this with all of this incredible new technology at our disposal — you can binge 37 episodes of Silicon Valley grifting without leaving your couch —?
About Top Gun: Maverick
“Top Gun: Maverick,” directed by Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”), responds affirmatively with a confident, aggressive swagger that may appear to be overcompensation. There’s no sign of insecurity in Cruise’s or Maverick’s performances. On the verge of 60, he still exudes the nimble, cocky, perennially boyish charm that propelled him to box office success in the 1980s.
Pete was a brash upstart in Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” back then, trying to stand out among the camaraderie and competition of the super-elite Top Gun program. He seduced Charlie (Kelly McGillis), clashed with his golden-boy nemesis, Iceman (Val Kilmer), and lost Goose, his best friend, and radar intercept officer (Anthony Edwards). Although Ronald Reagan was president and the Cold War was nearing its end, “Top Gun” was not a combat film. At its core, a sports film decked out in battle gear about a bunch of guys showboating, trash-talking, and trying to outdo each other.
The times have changed a little. Pete is now the instructor, summoned to the North Island naval base to prepare a group of eager young pilots for an urgent, dangerous mission. The ’80s frat-house vibe has been toned down, and the pilots are a more diverse, less obnoxious bunch.
The long gap between chapters allows the many credited screenwriters to fill in or leave blank as much as they want. Pete has seen a lot of combat in the last few decades, including Bosnia and Iraq, and has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). Now he finds her working at a bar near the bottom, and an old flame is reignited. She has a teenage daughter (Lyliana Wray) and a world-weary demeanor that matches Pete’s signature blend of cynicism and sentimentality.
Other flashbacks include Rooster (Miles Teller), Goose’s son, and Iceman himself, who has risen to the rank of admiral while keeping a protective eye on his former adversary. Kilmer’s brief appearance is particularly poignant. He hasn’t appeared onscreen much since losing his voice to throat cancer, and seeing him and Cruise in a quiet scene together is as sad and stirring as something from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The first “Top Gun”
Movie took place against the backdrop of superpower conflict. There was a formidable — if mostly offscreen — real-world adversary (the Soviet Union, in case you forgot) and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. This time, there’s a real live-ammo battle with an unknown foe, a mysterious entity possessing super-high-tech aircraft constructing an “unauthorized” weapons facility somewhere in the mountains. There are no names mentioned, only “the enemy.” The prudence is a little strange. What or who are we supposed to be battling? China?
It makes no difference. Once the mission is underway, we never see the faces of the enemy pilots. This only adds to the impression that “Top Gun: Maverick” is about defending old-fashioned movie values against streaming-era nihilism rather than geopolitics.
Is the defense effective? The action sequences are tense and exhilarating, reminding us that flight has been one of cinema’s great thrills almost since its inception. The plot is a muddled mess. Despite the emotional and physical hazards that buffet poor Maverick — his career, love life, and duty to the memory of his deceased friend, not to mention G-forces and flak — the dramatic stakes appear to be unusually low.
The junior pilots stage a children’s theater production of the first film. The rivalry between Rooster and the arrogant Hangman is echoed in the cockfight between Maverick and Iceman (an interestingly Kilmeresque Glen Powell). We’re treated to a shirtless game of beach touch football, which doesn’t quite match the original volleyball game in terms of sweaty camp subtext. There are some memorable supporting performances, most notably from Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro, and Jon Hamm, who plays a by-the-book, stick-in-the-mud admiral, but the world they inhabit is textureless and generic.
At times, Kosinski appears to be aiming for an updated version of the sun-kissed, high-style ’80s aesthetic typified by “Top Gun.” He creates something bland and basic, lacking the brazen, trashy sublimity of genuine pop auteurs like Scott, his brother Ridley, James Cameron, or Michael Bay.
Despite what you may hear, “Top Gun: Maverick” is not a great film. It’s a thin, overly strenuous, and occasionally very enjoyable film. But it is also, and perhaps more importantly, an earnest assertion that movies can and should be great. I’m old enough to remember when that didn’t need to be said. I’m almost as old as Maverick, for Pete’s sake.
Movie Name: Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Release date: May 27, 2022
Run Time: 2h 11min