The original Top Gun has a reputation among those who dislike it as an irresponsibly jingoistic sausage party designed to lure gullible youth into a lifetime of military service.
This is an intellectually lazy but also not entirely inaccurate assessment.
Upon re-watch, I can confirm that Top Gun: The Original Movie or TGTOM (definite pun), as I will heretofore call it – is unabashedly all of those things.
But hasn’t Hollywood been making big dumb movies for a while now?
TGTOM uses a well-worn template compatible with almost any activity. It could be law enforcement, truck driving, cake baking, or even arm wrestling, all of which have been done. The only indispensable elements are boys, toys, and all the trash-talking BDE they generate.
Replace the planes, though, with any of those other things, and you have a pretty generic yarn about a guy who can’t quite get over some stuff yadda yadda but then totally does anyway. And why?
Because he’s awesome.
You were about to tell me I’ve spent too much of this article reviewing the wrong film, weren’t you? Don’t sweat it because nearly every compliment and criticism I could level at TGTOM can be doled out in equal proportion to the sequel.
Nearly. I would first offer that as a franchise, it was never the job of Top Gun (or anything, really) to pass the Bechdel test. It is certainly not the job of Top Gun to broaden your mind or make you consider your insignificant place in the universe.
The legacy of TGTOM is definitely not the story but its convincing recreation of air combat on a Cinematic level. This elevated it above anything in the genre, at least prior to this week.
Between you and me, I’ve always suspected the true purpose of Top Gun is just to emphasize how erotically cool it is to be Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise). The man lost his father, his best friend, and the Top Gun trophy – and he was still the hero of the movie. Why?
Because he’s awesome!
This is why Top Gun: Maverick is named after him. We learn that our boy is now a middle-aged man, still in the Navy but as a test pilot of experimental aircraft. His brand of valor is just what’s needed at the cutting edge of aviation.
The recklessness also remains, but this is the area in which Part Two immediately distinguishes itself from Part One, and in the best possible way.
Maverick again makes an audacious decision that serves as the inciting incident for the story. But this time, he does it not for his own glory but for the exclusive benefit of others.
Lacking an Undersecretary of Well-Meaning Shenanigans, the Navy is not amused. So despite the immediate tactical success of his actions, Maverick once again finds his career in strategic freefall.
With Tom Skerritt out of range, the role of Maverick’s Guardian Angel falls to, of all people, ‘Iceman’ Kazansky, still played by Val Kilmer. Now an Admiral, he calls on his old rival to return to Top Gun and assemble a team for a mission only one pilot on earth is crazy/talented enough to lead.
Iceman’s faith in Maverick is not shared by Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (John Hamm, channeling an inflexible alternate-universe Don Draper who somehow took up a noble calling). Though Cyclone is occasionally almost comically hostile toward him, even Maverick admits his superior’s skepticism is justified.
Meanwhile, there remains significant tension in Maverick’s life from the death of his co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards, archivally) in the first movie. You may recall that Maverick was given zero mental health assistance after accidentally murdering his best friend and showing obvious signs of PTSD.
Few will be surprised to find Pete Mitchell still single and pissing people off with his infuriating talents, now well into his fifties. Fewer will anticipate his maturation into a man who lives in very real fear of his own skills.
As Michael Ironside once grumbled, Maverick is still a wild card, but it’s now in service of a larger ethos. This character has already grown somewhere between then and now, and I found myself actively appreciating that.
It’s implied that this evolution is in large part due to the delightfully named Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), winsome single mom, hardscrabble small business owner, and willing pincushion for Maverick when he’s insecure.
Here, there is ample room for development.
Penny and Maverick have an offscreen history, which is more interesting than having the woman in question immediately throw herself at him like last time. This backstory is wisely compressed in favor of air combat porn, but care to guess which character suffers for it?
To her credit, Connelly manages to bring measured dignity to a role that is equal parts thin and necessary. Penny’s job is to listen gravely when Maverick sulks about how the Temporary Setback is making it briefly difficult to be Awesome.
Then, she’ll stroke his hair and gently remind him of what we all already know:
Power structures exist for a reason and can rarely be changed externally. The best way to challenge the System may be not to fight it but to use it.
Again, it’s slightly more than Kelly McGillis was given to work with, which is a plus. And Connelly’s performance itself is in no way the issue. But we’re meant to understand that whatever Maverick’s unspecified past transgression against her, Penny presents as conveniently single, totally not bitter, and vigorously agreeable to reconciliation. And why?
Because even Maverick’s problems are awesome!
Well, not all of them.
The bulk of the story involves his relationship with Goose’s son Bradley (Miles Teller), whose call sign is ‘Rooster.’ Goose’s family existed in the original film solely to be tragically left behind when he died. And along with the son of another 80s icon, Apollo Creed, the math on Rooster’s age is somewhat questionable.
Still, you’d think with Rooster under his command, Maverick’s conflict with him would come from an obvious place – and that’s definitely a factor. But the greatest gift we get from Top Gun: Maverick is that, like its protagonist, it knows precisely how to zig and make it look like a zag.
I’m not saying it’s high art because, as usual, the sequel recreates most of the same beats as the original. But this time, there’s an earned emotional payoff present, and it’s a direct result of the story choices instead of despite them.
For example, have you noticed I’ve barely mentioned the combat? As thrilling as the first movie’s action sequences still are, Team Tom has leveled things up in a way that will have you convinced you’re watching a video game. Visually, it is revolutionary in the same way as the original.
This film had better win something for editing and sound.
But you expect that from the Top Gun Cinematic Universe, don’t you? Pulse-pounding action, raging testosterone, contact sports on the beach, faceless antagonists in made-up planes from countries with no names.
It’s all here. Every bit of it.
What’s also here are cadences that, while not exactly Saving Private Ryan, give Top Gun: Maverick a level of heart that simply didn’t exist before. Miles Teller eerily resembles peak Anthony Edwards, but his similar chemistry with Cruise specifically makes many of the film’s best character moments work.
It is quite simply a better, more thematically coherent film than the original.
That, the presence of a familiar director (Cruise, Connelly, and Teller have all worked with director Joseph Kosinski on Oblivion and Only the Brave, respectively) and a surprisingly tight script overall (Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and the legendary Christopher McQuarrie are credited with the screenplay) result in a story that feels just as exciting, but far more inspired and mindful of itself than its ancestor.
I would be remiss if I finished without mentioning three things:
In the years since the first film, Val Kilmer’s health issues have sadly robbed him of the ability to speak. At first, it wasn’t clear what he would be able to give physically to Top Gun: Maverick. Thankfully he was able to appear, and while it’s not a large role, it’s crucial and is perhaps the most gratifying single aspect of the movie.
Second, for those still on the fence about Top Gun in general, thanks to the franchise’s undeniably patriarchal tone, take heart. There are boys with toys, lots of trash-talking, and scads of BDE. But three decades later, there are female pilots in the mix. They’re just as fast, just as smart as their male counterparts, and they bring their own brand of Big Energy to what has historically been the exclusive domain of men.
Does it change the real world in any material way? No. Is it largely ancillary? Yes. Will it appease the haters or convert the already uninterested? Doubtful. But I’ll bet a lot of aspiring female aviators watched the first film and wondered whether there was ever going to be room for them in this world.
Today, as evidenced by the real Navy and acknowledged by this film, there is.
Finally, it’s also worth pointing out that not all of the people alive today who hastily signed up for military service in 1986 regret it the way a bunch of random strangers apparently do. Many of those who served are women. In the days to come, even more will be.
Despite this, there’s no question that real-life progress can feel painfully incremental, especially when you feel left out of the progress.
But as 73-year-old Tom Cruise will tell us on the day Top Gun 3 opens, just as in life, when you’re making a movie, one little breakthrough can lead to big results.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."