Top Gun: Maverick makes a great return-to-cinema choice

When was the last time you went to the cinema? For me, thanks to the magic of blogging, I can pinpoint the date — December 2, 2019, when I went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Shortly afterward — or at least shortly after the January dregs — the pandemic shut down theaters for months and I got in the habit of streaming. It has occurred to me a number of times that I should go back, but home theater has become a superior experience in many ways, and I didn’t want to drop any serious dough on just whatever was opening on a particular weekend. I wanted a real movie-experience film to make my way back.

Top Gun: Maverick delivers on that prerequisite. It also turns out to be a better movie than its source material, 1986’s Top Gun, a film to which I was diffident at the time. TG:M has more real emotional resonance and character development, plus its plot structure works better at delivering real tension. (Just to double-check my memory on the original, I watched it after getting home from the theater yesterday.)

The film starts off with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), roughly thirty years after the events of the original, test-piloting a supersonic experimental aircraft while defying orders. This and apparently a number of other such choices has left the naval aviator at the rank of captain but still miraculously in the Navy. We find out that the miracle is Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), commander of the Pacific fleet, who became close friends with Maverick after the events of the original. Iceman has a new mission for Maverick and recalls him to Top Gun as an instructor — to teach its most recent Top Gun award winners to conduct a near-suicidal raid on a heavily guarded nuclear facility being built by an unnamed enemy.

Among those is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) — the son of “Goose” Bradshaw, Maverick’s best friend and backseater who died in the original. Along with that pressure, Maverick sees an old flame, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), who understands him only too well and also makes Maverick consider the stakes involved.

Without getting too far into the details and writing spoilers, the plot works better than the original as there is more at stake throughout most of the film than a trophy. The characterizations feel more fully fleshed out even among the younger pilots, although they get introduced with the requisite cocky-bravado scene in a bar. Even the action sequences work better, not because special effects have improved over the last 36 years, but because they largely don’t use special effects. The sequences on screen involve real planes, with the actors inside of them filming themselves as real naval aviators flew the jets. Cruise insisted on this cinema verité approach, and it works spectacularly well, especially if you watch the original either right before or right after the sequel. (Read the IMDB notes if you’re interested in the backstory on that decision and how it was accomplished.)

In one scene, special effects were necessary, but it’s not where you’d think. One of the most powerfully emotional scenes was between Maverick and Iceman, in which the admiral has difficulty speaking because of throat cancer. Kilmer, in fact, has almost no voice left after his own bout of voice cancer. Much of the scene has Iceman using a computer to type messages, but toward the end Kilmer speaks. His voice was created by an AI program that used his voice and that of his son to produce the few lines here, and it works amazingly well. Kilmer’s presence and the substance of that scene add quite a bit to the emotional weight of the film. (Kilmer speaks of his long friendship with Cruise in his documentary Val, which is well worth watching. His son narrates that film, speaking as his father there too.)

Even with all of the changes, there are clear callbacks to the original. Maverick riding his motorcycle along the runway? Check. A beach sports scene? Check.  A replay of the “buzzing the admiral’s daughter” story? Check, and Connolly’s Benjamin is apparently the grown-up daughter. Violating the hard deck rule? Check, plus. Confidence crises? Check. There’s even a callback to A Few Good Men; see if you can figure it out.

But even these feel at least a little more organic than just formula (maybe not the beach scene, which gets a ham-handed explanation). Even the bar scenes feel more realistic. The only missing callbacks are Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan, who don’t appear at all. McGillis’ absence from Maverick’s life never gets an explanation, and Ryan’s absence gets explained away with her character’s death several years earlier, leaving Maverick to keep an eye on Rooster — which plays a major role in their conflict, along with Goose’s death.

The cast is top-notch, as one would expect for a big-budget enterprise like this, but there are still some surprises. Miles Teller doesn’t play a second coming of Anthony Edwards’ Goose — in fact, almost the opposite — but the similarities are hard to ignore, for Maverick and for us. The Maverick-Rooster conflict provides the central tension in the film other than the mission itself, and Teller does a very good job in making it as real as possible. Glen Powell almost steals the show as Lt. Jake “Hangman” Seresin, cockier than even Iceman was in the original and maybe with less reason. Lewis Pullman provides some nerdy and unexpected comic relief as Lt. Robert Floyd, whose call sign is, er … “Bob.” (Pullman is the son of actor Bill Pullman of Independence Day, and played the troubled young veteran in Bad Times at the El Royale.) The always-fun Jon Hamm gets the most out of the usual commander-who-doesn’t-like-our-hero role, Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, and it’s great to see The Last Ship‘s Charles Parnell as Simpson’s second in command, Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates.

Finally, the lack of wokery in TG:M has gotten a lot of commentary. I didn’t notice its absence, which is the point. It’s not anti-woke, either — it just doesn’t come up at all. Nothing in this film felt like a lecture; instead it came across as good storytelling, better than the original. Similarly, the patriotism angle doesn’t beat you over the head, and seems more subtle than in the original. There isn’t any jingoistic messaging here, but merely the absence of apologies for the Navy, for the military, and for America. It’s telling that a film that just avoids those traps is so remarkable these days. It is, without a doubt, one of the reasons to see this film in the cinema rather than waiting for it to come to your streaming home theater. Films as good as Top Gun: Maverick deserve that kind of support.

You’ve probably figured this much out by now, but on the Hot Air scale, Top Gun: Maverick gets a 5:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Top Gun: Maverick is rated PG-13, presumably for violence, language, and intense action sequences. There isn’t any nudity, although there is a sexually suggestive scene that shouldn’t embarrass any parents of teens. It may be too intense at times for anyone under 13, but other than language (and I’m not sure there was even much of that) no reason why younger children who are mature enough to handle the tension and stay attentive couldn’t watch this film.

One last point: Now that I have gone back to the cinema to see this film, I regret not watching the remake of Dune at the theater, too. It’s great on the home theater, but I bet it was fantastic on the big screen.