It’s summertime, and folks have found a reason to go back to the movie theater. Apparently, what we needed were loud blockbuster remakes. Jurassic Park: Dominion, a film getting mixed reviews, was the second salvo, but the first, getting surprisingly good reviews, is Top Gun: Maverick, a 36-year-after-the-original sequel. (It was supposed to be released three years ago, but was delayed first by production difficulties and then by the pandemic.)
The film strikes a great balance between being a sequel that wants to both honor and build upon the 1986 original, and being a fun modern action film. Narratively, the film is built solidly on tensions between Iceman (Val Kilmer) and Tom Cruise’s Maverick, and on the complex love/hate feelings between Maverick and Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Anthony Edwards’ Goose, who died in the original. Add a love interest for Maverick in the person of Penny (a glowing Jennifer Connelly), and there is enough human interest to keep the film connected between the flying jets, testosterone exhibitions, and shirtless athletic games.
As an action film, the first is packed with fast-paced sequences of fighter jets flipping, flying, and shooting. The scenes are well edited, and the film keeps us focused on the purpose and meaning of the flying exercises—the mission they are practicing for. In fact, the film excels in using the mission as almost a McGuffin; we know what they are working toward and why, but the emphasis is strictly on the preparation, its challenges, and the actual dangers of the mission itself. The role of the “enemy” is downplayed, and the work required to get the job done is what is consistently highlighted. We never get lost in the energy of the action scenes, but are always reminded of the importance of focus, teamwork, and the ultimate goal of the mission. But it must be said that the film nearly goes overboard in presenting the obstacles. This is a film where you only think you’ve successfully overcome the obstacles when here comes another, and then another, and then another. If you don’t like action suspense, try another film.
Much ink has been spilled (as they used to say) on the Iceman/Maverick update and the Maverick/Goose/Rooster situation. The Kilmer/Cruise reunion is handled with sensitivity and care, and Kilmer comes out respected as a character and an actor. The Maverick/Rooster relationship is complicated by a plot complication from the past that is thrown in from nowhere, as if Rooster blaming Maverick for his father’s death doesn’t provide enough tension. It will come as no surprise that (spoiler alert), the film ultimately throws them together in a life-and-death scenario where they both come out alive and appreciative of each other.
This last aspect of the film is not just a nod to the plot of the first Top Gun, but a sign of maturing. Maverick becomes a literal father figure to Rooster here in a way Maverick couldn’t have done in the first film, where we are introduced to Rooster as a young boy. Of course, the quiet and touching conversation between Iceman and Maverick is another example. But perhaps the biggest grown-up move is the character of Penny and the actress chosen to play her, the Oscar-winning (A Beautiful Mind) whose presence adds stability and strength as well as beauty, romance, and occasional flirtatious repartee. (And there is the advantage that Connelly is the same height as Cruise—5’7”—not three inches taller, as was Kelly McGillis.) Penny is a grown woman of warmth, intelligence, and maturity, and as such brings out the evolving grown-up in Maverick, a welcome touch. Connelly has become a skilled actress of depth, which shades this film with more subtle tones than the first.
The screenplay is a model of tightness for an action film. There is nothing that happens that hasn’t been set up, and there is a good balance between the human relationships and the action sequences. There is a great deal owed to the Star Wars action scenes here, but that is to be expected when the mission is laid out and the geographic challenges are displayed.
The supporting cast is solid. The always-welcome Ed Harris pops in and then unfortunately disappears too soon. Jon Hamm brings the right level of authority to a one-note part. Glen Powell is impressive as the arrogant young flyer who makes no attempt to hide his self-confidence. The film bends over backward to move away from the first film’s whiteness, but no character or actor seems shoehorned in; they are all real people and are believable as pilots. And that brings us to Miles Teller, who does a fine job with what is the major male role after Maverick. But Teller is a bit of a mystery. He’s talented as an actor, is good looking enough (and like everyone else his age, ripped as could be in the film), and yet doesn’t seem to be able to break through yet to full stardom. He was very good in Whiplash and The Spectacular Now, and is solid everywhere else. But either he lacks something in front of the camera that I can’t pinpoint, or he just hasn’t found that right part yet—or perhaps he’ll have to grow into his breakthrough starring role.
We can say definitely now that Top Gun: Maverick is the post-pandemic film that brought the masses back into the movie theaters (and yes, this is the only way this should be seen). It’s loud, fast, fun, intelligently tied to its origin film, and emotional at the same time. That’s not necessarily my favorite kind of film, and I probably won’t be running out to see it again anytime soon. But for the kind of film it is, it does nearly everything right.