The idea of a sequel to Top Gun getting made in 2022 is in many ways something that should evoke laughter. It’s a cheesy relic of the 80s, one that seemingly clashes with ever modern sensibility on the book no less, being dug up and brushed off in order to satiate a Hollywood that’s intent on leaving no franchise unexploited and no vein of nostalgia untapped. And yet, the whole film world including several relatively highbrow film critics instead seemed really excited for the film and ready to embrace it whole heartedly. Why was that? It certainly wasn’t because of its director Joseph Kosinski, a filmmaker who also arguably bungled one “lega-sequel” with his debut film Tron: Legacy, who would have had a hard time filling the shoes of the late Tony Scott in the minds of many even if he didn’t have such a shaky track-record. Instead this optimism mostly had to do with the film’s star and producer Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, who in the eyes of many critics is having something of a renaissance as of late, and he hasn’t done it through taking on more challenging roles or expanding his range the way other “sanced” actors like Matthew McConaughey or Michael Keaton have. Instead he seems to have doubled and tripled down on making action movies in which he plays characters that are variations on his usual star persona, but through some combination of getting publicity for doing his own stunts and making blockbusters that are targeted at slightly older audiences he really seems to have people eating it up. And that goodwill has of course hit something of a peak with the belated 2022 release of his sequel 35 years in the making: Top Gun: Maverick.
As Top Gun: Maverick opens with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) still a captain in the Navy (no clue how he got around the military’s Up or Out system) and acting as a test pilot for some sort of futuristic stealth fighter. Long story short he ends up ejecting from and blowing that prototype plane up while doing something dangerous and disobedient and as is typical of this franchise is rewarded for this insubordination with a new posting by having him return to the SFTI program at Naval Air Station Miramar, AKA “Top Gun.” This time though it’s not just about routine training: he’s there to train a squadron to go on a real life borderline suicide mission in an unnamed rogue state (that’s probably Iran) involving a high speed flight through a canyon before dropping a guided bomb on a small target (yes, this is suspiciously similar to the trench run at the end of Star Wars). Among the pilots in the running to go on this mission is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former co-pilot “Goose,” who died in the previous film. Rooster resents Maverick for a variety of reasons but Maverick does think Rooster has potential as a pilot, as do the rest of the candidates, but the demands of this mission are extreme and it remains to be seen if it’s even possible. Also Maverick starts a tangential romance with a bar owner named Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).
I should probably say up front that I’m not a fan of the original Top Gun, a position I did not think was controversial among film critics until the hype for this movie seemed to retcon it in their eyes. Until now that movie (which holds a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes) seemed to mostly be remembered as a jingoistic advertisement for the military that doubled as a hyper masculine power trip soaked in unintentional homoeroticism. I re-watched the movie a little while ago and my opinion of it wasn’t really changed. To give credit where its due, Tony Scott’s visual style was innovative in its way but to my eyes this influence was not a positive one and the act of making Hollywood films look like feature length Gillette commercials is not something to be celebrated. As a story though I think it’s a dumb celebration of the stupidest kinds of bravado and that its protagonist is an absolute dick who is largely unredeemed of his worst instincts by the film’s end. To be blunt “more of the same” is not what I would have wanted out of a sequel.
Is “more of the same” what I got out of Top Gun: Maverick? Well, yes and no. The movie that this most reminds me of in both good and bad ways is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, another “legacyquel” to a franchise that’s been dormant. Like that movie this is pretty in touch with what series fans are looking for and is generally an audience pleasing ride but it’s also a shallow nostalgic pander-fest that practically serves as a plot point by plot point remake of the film it’s supposed to be a follow-up to. Like the original it starts with Maverick doing something reckless which leads him to Miramar, where he conducts some training exercises while pursuing a plot-tangential romance with a local, feuds with a fellow pilot he distrusts, plays some beach sports, matures slightly after someone dies making things more real, before covering himself in glory in a real world dogfight where he and the pilot he’s feuding with come to respect each other. Now to be fair, unlike The Force Awakens, there haven’t already been five sequels and various spinoffs of Top Gun, so this reheat does feel a tad more fresh than J.J. Abrams’ slightly less long awaited sequel does. But on the other hand, the original Star Wars is a movie that’s really good and is ripe for further sequelization by its nature whereas Top Gun maybe isn’t.
This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimate improvements to be found in this sequel, which for the record I do consider an improvement over the first film. Maverick is still sort of an insubordinate jackass here but he has mellowed and become more palatable with age. The film has also of course benefited from improvements to technology and filming techniques which greatly expands on what they’re able to do with the aerial stunts and dogfight sequences. But perhaps most importantly the fact that the film is structured around preparing for a mission does a lot for it and makes the film’s action finale feel more like something the film has been building towards rather than the random non-sequitur we got at the end of the first film. That said, as impressive as the film’s final sequence is on some technical levels, it’s also completely ridiculous. Even if you can set aside the fact that it’s depicting an open act of war against this unnamed country that’s probably Iran that would almost certainly spark a larger military conflict and that it’s just an entirely contrived situation that seems to have been reverse engineered in order to give these pilots a very specific set of challenges, the whole scene ends up having a second half that just dives head first into silliness in a way I find borderline indefensible.
Now, I’ve focused a lot on the negative here even though this is a movie I do basically consider to be fun watch that I essentially enjoyed, which is partly because I feel some obligation to push back on the outsized positivity that surrounds this fundamentally stupid movie. If there is a message to be gained from the movie it’s by looking at it as a sort of allegory for Tom Cruise and his Hollywood career being as it’s about a guy who is supposed to have aged out of the position he’s in despite clearly still having the necessary skills to do his work effectively. That’s certainly a little smarter than the first movie’s message, which basically amounted to “Tom Cruise looks cool and the military is a playground for him and his bros to play with expensive toys.” But much as the movie is fundamentally uninterested in whether Maverick’s clear skills are being put towards a conflict that’s worth fighting I think Cruise and his fans should maybe focus a bit more on getting Cruise to put his own skills towards movies that are interesting beyond his own daredevil antics and by and large I don’t think Top Gun: Maverick is.
*** out of Five