Movie Review: “Top Gun: Maverick”

The “Star Wars” movies do not exist within the world of “Top Gun.”

That might be an odd thing to have stick with someone walking out of the long-delayed “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sequel to the 1986 film, but it was certainly at the front of my mind leaving the theater. Directed by Joseph Kosinski and featuring Tom Cruise reprising his role as naval aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, one ought not be surprised that the film heavily mirrors the original (almost scene for scene in some moments), but the fact that the entire Maguffin is lifted from “A New Hope” is unexpected. That no one in the film ever at any point says, “Hey, this is just like the trench run from ‘Star Wars!’” is a dead giveaway that George Lucas’s space opera does not exist in this world.

But, that’s okay. What does exist here is the story of one man still trying to figure out his place in this world almost 40 years after we first met him.

Yes, Maverick is still in the Navy, but he’s also still a Captain, a rank he should’ve progressed passed since before the events of the first film. Yes, he’s still a great pilot—his ego is still writing checks his body can’t cash, as the saying goes—but he bounces around from place to play, with his career (and life) constantly dangling by a thread.

For those wondering, Maverick did not wind up with Charlie (Kelly McGillis’s character in the first film). Maverick did not continue teaching at Top Gun. When we find him at the start of this new movie, he’s a test pilot leading a group trying to break an airspeed record. Naturally, the program is being shutdown and they have to sneak out and run one last test before official word of the shuttering arrives in the form of Ed Harris’s Rear Admiral Cain, but never for a minute is there a fear that Maverick might not get in the plane – just look at the name of the movie.

And, again just like the name of the movie makes clear, following this flight Maverick soon finds himself back at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun.

“But he’s already completed the school as a student and washed out from teaching at Top Gun,” you say. That’s true. The movie doesn’t offer a great reason for the whole thing to really take place there (other than it being a sequel). It’s possible that the location is the only one suitable for training fighter pilots (all of whom have also already graduated from the school) for the upcoming Death Star Trench Run mission, but if so, that’s never said.

Here is the crucial thing to know about “Top Gun: Maverick.” It is rather illogical. It offers up silly moments galore. It apes the original film to an almost ludicrous degree at certain points. It is also absolutely wonderful. Cruise’s charisma is on full display and the actors playing the pilots he’s teaching—Miles Teller, Glen Powell, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, and Greg Tarzan Davis—all succeed, although none more so than Miles Teller.

Teller is given the best role, and the unenviable position, of having to play Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, the son of Anthony Edwards’s “Goose” from the original film. Despite having the big shoes of a well-loved character to fill, Teller delivers as Rooster. The character’s relationship with Maverick and entire attitude about life work in a way that makes the whole thing feel like more than a poor attempt to pull at one’s heartstrings.

There are just so many ways this movie could go wrong, there are so many possible pitfalls, and although it comes perilously close to them at times, it never falls into any of them. Rooster repeating lines that Goose uttered somehow doesn’t feel false. Val Kilmer makes a brief appearance as Iceman, now an Admiral and the guy who has kept saving Maverick every time the latter ran afoul of someone at a posting. The way their relationship has grown through the years—and Iceman’s repeatedly needing to save Maverick—feels exactly right. The movie even manages to bring in Jennifer Connelly as Penny Bradshaw, Maverick’s love interest for the film and the character namechecked in the original as the Admiral’s daughter by whom Maverick did a high speed pass.

To top it all off, the flying sequences in “Top Gun: Maverick” are stupendous. Whether or not the film has subbed the USN’s F/A-18 for the Rebel Alliance’s X-Wing, the moments in them are thrilling. Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda have crafted something amazing. A quick perusal of the official production notes for the film make it clear that an incredible amount of effort went into making the in-aircraft scenes happen and, whether or not the notes embellish the truth, the results are undeniable. The viewer absolutely believes that these characters are performing these maneuvers in these planes.

We live in an age of unnecessary and poorly executed sequels, of movies that were only produced to make a quick buck and which should not exist. “Top Gun: Maverick,” may very well be an unnecessary sequel, it may have been produced to make a buck, but it is not poorly executed and the money it makes will have been well earned. The world at large is not a better place for this sequel existing, but the world of film is. Talk about an against all odds success story.

For those looking around and wondering, Tom Cruise remains the best of the best.

photo credit: Paramount Pictures

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