“I have to say, I wasnt expecting to be invited back.” Confesses a slightly more humbled version of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the fighter pilot blessed/cursed with a planet sized ego that repeatedly wrote checks his body somehow managed to cash back in 1986’s absurdly iconic Top Gun. I’m inclined to agree with him, because even though we are firmly lodged in the era of the Legacy Sequel, a return to the very-much-of-its time epic that doused audiences in aviator sunglasses and lashings of Kenny Loggins seemed maybe a stretch too far for modern audiences weaned on movies that generally avoid the jingoistic, war-porn that the 80’s eagerly embraced.
However, it seems that even a high flying relic like Maverick can learn a few, new tricks and flex the kind of laser guided storytelling that still evoke times gone by while remaining fiercely relevant while still turning out the aesthetic of flight jackets smothered with patches.
Decades after coming second in his class at the dogfight training naval academy known as Top Gun, we find Maverick still a Captain while still racking up his flight hours as a typically gung-ho test pilot despite the era of unmanned drone pilots nipping unrelentingly at his heels. He’s still got the old magic though (not to mention that cast-iron self belief) as before the movie has even managed to leave the runway, he’s already cracked an unheard of mach 10 in a crumbling superjet much to the chagrin of various, grizzled superiors. However, mere seconds from being shit-canned once and for all, Maverick gets a gig teaching a clutch of hungry young previous Top Gunners in order to get them ready for a reckless bombing run that plays like the Death Star trench run from Star Wars on PCP that defies not only death, but borderline sticks a middle finger up at physics too.
Returning to NAS North Island, not only does Maverick have to weather a shit ton of nostalgia and a take-no-bullshit ex girlfriend in the form of single parent bar owner; he also has to wrangle a whole new generation of super confident punks led by the 10,000 kilowatt grin of Maverick-clone “Hangman”. However, his toughest task will be to get through to one Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, the young man who gas a sizable chip on his shoulder due to the fact that his father, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw died during a freak accident during a training flight that Maverick was the pilot for. While the death of Goose weighs heavily on both men, the fact that Maverick tried to scupper his flight career years ago in an attempt to save him from a similar fate.
As limited training time for this virtually suicidal mission steadily ticks away and Maverick rapidly eats up what little goodwill his eyeball-rolling superiors have afforded him, can he teach these pilots to complete the task while still ensuring that they come back alive as he plays shirtless beach volleyball with his sizable inner demons.
There are many impressive things about Top Gun: Maverick that’ll no doubt have you inhaling in awe like a boggle-eyed vacuum cleaner, but surely the most subtle is the fact that director Joseph Kosinski has managed to create a tone that still adheres to modern sensibilities while still feeling very much like the bombastic iconography of the Tony Scott original – yes, many golden hued sunrises/sunsets are inexplicably deployed at multiple times during the same day, the camera leers over high-tech war machines with all the longing of horny, jet fetishist and Danger Zone is belted out at full volume. But somehow none of this feels like cheap nostalgia and the storytelling and characterization, while sketched in simple lines, are lean and toned as the pilots themselves, manages to achieve to elicit genuine emotion as you find yourself completely invested in the story.
The script (co-written by Tom Cruise’s virtual conjoined twin and Mission: Impossible director, Christopher McQuarrie) smartly references the original in multiple ways but switches things up just enough so these moments feel more like echoes instead of straight homages; an early spot of rambunctious behavior means that the trainee pilots get an early, unwitting introduction to one of their teachers leading to an awkward reveal later and Glen Powell’s staggeringly prickish Maverick-surrogate is treated exactly how Cruise’s character should have been treated in the original considering he’s a God-level bag of dicks.
But it’s Maverick himself who dazzles the most as time has chiseled and tempered that black hole of super charged arrogance into a man far more respectful of those around him as the years have finally molded him into a team player who can match the swagger of youth with the wisdom of age while still being able to pilot these young upstarts out of the sky. It helps that he has Jennifer Connelly to play off in a role that could have been just another thankless girlfriend part, but she (and Val Kilmer’s Iceman in a truly heart breaking cameo) are there to offer Maverick much needed guidance and support when he hasn’t got a joystick and an after burner to help make his decisions for him.
Of course, none of this well-judged plotting would mean that much if a Top Gun movie didn’t cough up stellar footage of fighter jets roaring across the screen that leaves your ribcage vibrating like a phone on silent and your eyes standing out on stalksike some sort of insect/human hybrid and it’s here where some of that classic, Tom Cruise, can-do spirit comes through as we are treated to shots of the cast actually being snapped around the inside of the cockpits of their craft like a mouse in the jaws of a particularly vicious cat as they hurtle through the sky at unfathomable speeds. The footage is nothing short of awe inspiring as we witness Cruise and his proteges actually getting whipped senseless by actual inertia and g-forces as he is blasted through the air for real and he whizzes dizzyingly close to the actual terrain.
While I’ve always recognized Top Gun’s worth, it was a movie I actually camefairly late to and thus I always tended to view the more overtly 80’s stuff with a knowing chuckle on my lips. It’s this (and the fact that young Maverick is a legitimate, world-class asshole) that convinced me that Top Gun: Maverick wouldn’t be able to ensnare me in its vast net of nostalgia that should have felt as dated as Miles Teller’s cookie duster moustache, but the insanely well-matched script hooked matched with the gawp-inducing visuals hooked me in so hard that when the (totally earned) nods to the original started to happen in earnest I was reduced to owing a visibly quivering bottom lip.
As hinted earlier, we’ve seen so many Legacy Sequels come down the pipe in the passing years, it can’t be long until Legacy Sequels start getting Legacy Sequels of their own – but a Legacy Sequel that surpasses the original? Now that takes my breath away.