Despite my usual cynicism about sequels and nostalgia, I thoroughly enjoyed this exhilarating and refreshingly old-fashioned blockbuster that improves on the original and, despite all odds, doesn’t feel like a shameless cash grab.
Like Flashdance, the original Tony Scott film to me is one of those “you just had to be there” 80s movies. I watched it once a few years ago and thought it was an entertaining slice of 80s cheese but nothing more. The Top Gun sequel however did bring out nostalgic feels in me, for all sorts of reasons unrelated to the first movie. Fifteen years ago, it would have probably felt like your average solid summer blockbuster, but these days, with true movie stars on the wane and franchises getting increasingly convoluted, a blockbuster that sticks to telling a simple story and relies on the star power of its leading man is positively quaint.
At nearly sixty years old Tom Cruise, bless him, shows no signs of slowing down and going gently into that good night along with the very concept of superstardom of yore. He might have never bagged an Oscar or got the critical respect of some of his acting peers, but it’s hard not to admire his steadfast commitment to old-school Hollywood showmanship and the craft of practical filmmaking. All of these are on full display in this movie, which sees Cruise return to his iconic role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. When Ed Harris’ granite-faced Admiral tells Maverick that his kind is headed for extinction and gets a defiant reply, not today, the exchange might as well be a commentary on Cruise’s kind of movie stars.
More than three decades later, Maverick may carry some extra baggage and world-weariness, but he’s still a cocky and brash rule-breaker, willing to push himself and others to the limits in the name of his high-flying craft. It’s hardly a recipe for stellar career progression, and so Maverick remains happily a Captain, serving as a test pilot for the U.S. Navy. Soon enough however, he is dispatched on a one-last-job kind of mission, as an instructor to an elite group of recent Top Gun graduates.
The newly hatched Top Gun chicks are to be sent on an obscure mission involving an unnamed rogue country (Russia? Iran?) with an unsanctioned uranium plant. There’s a silly bonkers plan requiring flying at dangerously low altitudes and a couple of miracles. There’s also an injection of human drama: the group of potential recruits include Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late best friend Goose whose tragic death still haunts him. A further complication is Maverick’s on-and-off romance with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a single mother and a bar owner and isn’t it great to see Tom Cruise paired up with a woman who is merely eight years his junior.
To be honest, the emotional side of things is probably much more hard-hitting for those with a sentimental attachment to the original Top Gun and its characters, especially when it comes to the brief appearance from enemy-turned-friend Iceman (Val Kilmer), but the acting was strong enough to get me onboard. I haven’t seen Miles Teller in anything notable since his brilliant performance in Whiplash, and it’s great to see him get more mainstream exposure here in a likeable and charismatic turn, and play so well off Cruise.
The thrilling aerial action scenes are worthy of the biggest screen you can find, with the much publicised practical effects and authentic work put in by actors and film crew paying off spectacularly (the latest Thor trailer I watched during previews looked like a giant CGI vomit in comparison). It’s also refreshing to watch an uncluttered blockbuster with clear setups and payoffs, that doesn’t try to juggle too many characters and storylines all at once. Whether thanks to Tom Cruise’s ego or not, Maverick is thankfully not yet another reboot that tries to launch new characters off the back of old ones.
As far as the negatives go, some of the dialogue is rather simplistic and cheesy; nothing that made me groan but it could definitely use some further polish. Maverick and Penny’s relationship mostly works thanks to the natural and relaxed chemistry between Cruise and Connelly rather than writing, and while the rest of the younger cast are fine, few make a real lasting impression.
These however don’t detract too much from the most pleasant surprise at the cinema this year so far. Top Gun: Maverick may not be on the same level as Mad Max: Fury Road, but I’d still put it in the basket of sequels I never wished for and never expected to enjoy as much as I did.
P.S. Jon Hamm looks mighty fine and right at home in a uniform.