I would like to make an illicit confession to you, dear reader: I do not particularly care for Tony Scott’s 1986 film Top Gun. I don’t hate it, or even actively dislike it, but I certainly view the film in the context of what it did for the cultural lexicon in the years following it far more than the actual film itself. Out of context, it’s a moderately entertaining film about a look inside a world that most of humanity never gets to see, mixed with every ‘80s cliche imaginable, both good and bad. Still, it solidified Tom Cruise’s already growing stardom at the time and it could be argued that everything that followed that has made Cruise…well…Cruise (again, both good and bad) has stemmed from what Top Gun did for him.
That being said, I hope that my lukewarm feeling to the original could explain my trepidation going into its long-awaited sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, a film that could be described only as the “poster child for COVID-related delays.” Initially slated for a July 2019 release, the film was delayed to June 2020 for production delays, only to then be delayed to December 2020 due to the onslaught of the COVID pandemic, only to then be delayed to July 2021 because that shit took a lot longer than we expected, then delayed once more November 2021, and then, because we are all gluttons for punishment, delayed to May 2022, where we find ourselves now. Despite the best efforts of a bevy of streamers to purchase the film from Paramount, the studio, and more specifically, Cruise, refused their offers, insisting that holding the film for as long as needed to have the “big screen experience” would be worth it. While at the height of the pandemic, that was a rather annoying sentiment, having seen Top Gun: Maverick, I can honestly say that it was indeed worth it.
Picking up 33 years (or maybe 36? I can’t place the official canon of this due to its delays) after the original film, Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), flies as a Navy Test Pilot in the Mojave Desert. After his program is shuttered by the now unmanned drone-focused Navy, Mitchell is called for one last mission on the request of his former Top Gun colleague and now Four Star Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), to train an elite team of young pilots at Top Gun for a top secret, highly technical, incredibly dangerous mission. There, Mitchell reunites with old flame Penny (Jennifer Connelly), and is tasked with facing the past when the son of Mitchell’s deceased former wingman, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), Bradley “Goose” (Miles Teller) is amongst the group of Top Gun recruits.
Off the bat, I have to echo the statement of many other critics when I declare that, yes, Top Gun: Maverick is better than Top Gun in nearly every conceivable way. Much of this I attribute to Cruise’s post-renaissance insistence for nearly all of his productions (save for The Mummy) to feature boundary-pushing, fully practical, stunt-heavy filmmaking that keeps the magic of real, tangible filmmaking alive. Does this give way to a grueling shoot? Sure. Has Cruise been criticized for sometimes taking it a bit too far with his crew during these high-stress shoots? Absolutely. Does the end result always seem to justify the means of its production? Almost always.
Coming so close off the heels of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (which I did find enjoyable for the most part), it’s hard to not feel like Top Gun: Maverick is a miracle of some sort, at least as an audience member getting to watch a talented group of passionate individuals both in front of and behind the camera have an actual desire to do something new and immersive on such a large scale, as opposed to just making something because the contract says you have to. There’s no blatantly cartoonish CGI here. What CGI might be there (from what I’ve heard, very little) is never noticeable by the naked eye, unlike the way almost all big-budget blockbusters today never try to hide it. It sounds a bit crazy praising that in such a way, but we forget that tangibility is so often what differentiates a great-looking film from a merely acceptable-looking film.
Top Gun: Maverick isn’t out here trying to snag a Best Original Screenplay nomination or anything of the sort, because it is fully aware of its place as a summer blockbuster and embraces the elements of that in the way that made classic blockbusters feel fresh and original long before it became a battle of the monopolized franchises. There are cliches to be found here, but I find the usage of them in today’s sometimes painfully self-aware world, is in a much more impactful and charming way and they are so damned earnest that it’s impossible not to be swept away by the winking energy and hopelessly romantic view of the world. Top Gun remains as sensual as ever in a world so seemingly afraid of that. The archetypes, story beats, punchlines, emotional punches, etc. all unfold in an unsurprising manner, but it’s Top Gun: Maverick’s ability to embrace and fine tune those elements, as opposed to trying to subvert them in a “clever” way, that makes it feel like such a warm hug of an action film.
Helping this so incredibly well is the unsurprisingly rousing audio mix and soaring musical score from Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer, and, if you can believe it, Lady Gaga, who also provides the title song “Hold My Hand” that is featured in said score, as well as the film’s finale. It, once again, is an earnestly big-budget musical production that proves that fine tuning the conventional can often produce bigger and better results than emptily trying to do something different just for the sake of saying you did something different, even if your heart isn’t in it.
And that’s perhaps the greatest pleasure in watching Top Gun: Maverick on the big screen (in my screening’s case, a Dolby Cinema screen, though the film was shot with IMAX cameras). It’s truly a movie’s movie. It’s a film with real movie stars that’s attempting to get you to feel real emotions and feel real fear when these charming characters inevitably find themselves in peril come the film’s thrilling third act. It’s director Joseph Kosinski’s dedication to creating a world so real that you could reach out and touch it were it not in 2D, and proving that doing things the old-fashioned way, even if it does mean the harder, longer, more expensive way, will always produce a better product that will stand the test of time longer than any hastily thrown together contractual-obligation of a sequel ever could.
This is a blockbuster film in every fiber of its being, and it’s not trying to be anything more than the best version of that it can be. Perhaps we as audiences are a bit like mistreated shelter animals by studios when a $150 million blockbuster actually looks like $150 million, but maybe Tom Cruise’s crazy ass is the one who can pick us up and give us a good home.
In theaters May 27th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Top Gun: Maverick website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.