Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Although it might seem like I’ve sworn off all sequels, I realize there are a select few that are able to garner my affections. A movie like Top Gun: Maverick cares about its lineage, grappling with the past, and building an even more exhilarating future. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a myopic cash grab begetting movies that are soulless with their brand of easily merchandised fan service. Its primary intention seems to be galvanizing its legacy.

The care and concern are felt all throughout this movie, and it’s filtered from Tom Cruise all the way down to the last frame. He really is a marvel of cinema. A friend likened him to the Tom Brady of action movies, and while this is true in a sense, he seems to stretch the comparison to its limits. In an age where just about everyone seems to proclaim that the movie star as a box office entity is dead, he still manages to live on like a running, jumping, flying, motorcycle-riding freak of nature.

In truth, Maverick feels like the archetype for all his most iconic heroes, and if he came of age in a movie like Risky Business, almost 40 years ago, Maverick propelled him into another stratosphere of stardom.

But it’s Cruise’s own history as much as the character’s that bleed together in giving him such a rich and contoured backstory. Because how do you begin to separate the two? And Cruise’s gift to us is not only donning those aviators and jumping back into the cockpit; it’s far more ambitious than that.

I almost feel like I’m writing the same review I did for Mission Impossible: Fallout, but he’s always aiding our suspension of disbelief by submitting himself to all sorts of rigors in order to give us the most authentic experience. In Top Gun: Maverick he all but outdoes himself by filming in actual fighter jets and subjecting all his costars to a lot of Gs.  It’s just one example of something that cannot be fabricated for the screen. He’s giving us a palpable experience augmenting the cinematic reality and totally immersing us in the action.

But beyond its technical endeavors, it also feels like a well-balanced movie. Sure, we expect action, and Top Gun: Maverick provides that in ways its predecessor never could. We have callbacks to the same San Diego milieu, motorcycles, fast planes, and obligatory beach scenes. it’s all present and accounted for. However, its emotional poignancy feels equally important if not more so.

We’re provided some opening backstory to remind us of the man’s reputation lest we forget. He’s a rash hothead, who, despite all his exploits, has never broached the rank of Captain, but he also cares deeply about others. It’s the throughline of the entire movie.

When he is called upon by his old buddy Iceman (Val Kilmer), there is an obvious objective laid out before him. He must train up the best up-and-coming pilots in preparing for a suicide mission to destroy a holding of uranium in 3 weeks’ time. The parameters are set, and Maverick’s direct superior (Jon Hamm) makes it very clear that he was hardly the first choice for the job. Let’s just say his reputation proceeds him, and again, that is a very complicated thing to contend with.

While the man calling the shots only has eyes for this tangible objective, it’s Maverick who sees the end game.  He wants to bring these fighters home. And so when they fail in their training, it’s not merely a failed assignment, it represents the death of copilots and friends. Future uncomfortable conversations with loved ones. This is his bottom line. And why?, because Maverick knows precisely what it’s like to lose someone. As we all probably know by now, he lost his best friend.

While the original Top Gun felt mostly like a cultural curio — I never grew up with the original, and I appreciated the movie most for its San Diego locales — this movie has a newfound resonance.

Jennifer Connelly shows up as Penny Benjamin, a once-mentioned flame of Maverick. It feels like the token part of a love interest, but between its ties to the original movie and Connelly’s own confident candor, it creates an added dimension. Although Connelly came of age a bit later than Cruise (Career Opportunities springs to mind), she still seems to orbit in the same spheres, and she falls seamlessly into the part.

What is time if not a way to tap into memories and an audience’s goodwill toward characters? They have a history built into the earlier film, and it’s a pleasure to see it explored.

The same might be said of the reintroduction of Iceman Kazansky. Val Kilmer, who has famously struggled with throat cancer and lost most of his vocal abilities, is venerated with a hero’s welcome throughout the movie. By now, he’s become an admiral while remaining a stalwart ally of Maverick.

There’s something meaningful about tying Kilmer’s real life into his part because his backstory begins to become all the more real in our eyes. He and Cruise have a shared history together, both real and imagined, and when he entreats his good buddy to “let it go,” the simple words he types out feel like lasting pearls of wisdom.

I’ve all but failed to mention it thus far, but Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick could not exist without the relationship of Maverick and Goose (Anthony Edwards) or Maverick and Rooster (Miles Teller). They are inextricably linked to the core dilemmas of the franchise.

The movie provides several pivotal choices for Maverick. It’s these decisions that the whole emotional axis of the movie turns on. Confiding in Penny, he says he either has a choice to send Goose’s son on the suicide mission or not allow him to go. Rooster would never speak to him again so either way, he loses.

But what makes this movie something more is the genuine outpouring of feeling. The final act has something special because it ties the movie together through its most profound relationship. If you’re like me, you realize Top Gun would not be what it is without the death of Goose, and it is this wound at the heart of two main characters: his best friend and his son.

Now they must reckon with the aftermath. What a spectacular thing it is to see. Full of sparks and bitterness and anger. Then fear, tough decisions, and the kind of sacrificial love that speaks to us in the deepest ways possible. It’s quality storytelling taking this central relationship echoed down through a generation and making it all the more impactful.

I was thinking throughout Top Gun: Maverick, we are never given an exact enemy. Pilots on the other side are faceless. There is no consequence to them other than how they affect the pilots we come to know and love. You could say this is a commentary on a world that’s more ambiguous than even the hard-bitten Cold War days of the ’80s. However, it’s also a reminder that this is a story ultimately about these pilots. They have a mission, yes, but the movie does its best work by tying these outcomes back to its characters on their most fundamental level.

Thus, any kind of resolution yields tenfold because it means far more than a target getting hit or some other seemingly arbitrary objective. If you’ve seen the original Star Wars (or Force Awakens), it’s nothing new.

But Tom Cruise — we like him. We want to see Maverick be Maverick against all odds. And he’s that and then some. Miles Teller has been under the spotlight for more than a decade now; he’s still got the same baby face, and I have to say I’m fond of him. Even a hotshot like Glen Powell, whose entire purpose is to make a nuisance of himself, proves his inestimable worth in the end.

I couldn’t help thinking when they touch back down on that aircraft carrier — having gone through the gauntlet — there’s a euphoria there that’s almost hyperbolic. It’s built out of close-ups, swirling music, and characters embracing who we grow to care about. But rather than get pulled out of the moment, we imbibe their joy and get stirred up because we want to be a part of their success and live vicariously through it. You could feel the energy surging in the audience.

And when it was all said and done, Top Gun: Maverick made me oddly patriotic and proud of my country. In recent years, we have learned how unchecked nationalism can become perverted and made into a far cry from what it was meant to be. Then, on the other extreme, patriotism is often scoffed at in the face of our societal sins.

But this Top Gun never feels like a trumped-up showcase of American exceptionalism. It’s not that superficial. All you have to see are those photos of Maverick and Goose or Maverick and Rooster. That’s what it should mean to be American. It can be fun, yes, but there’s also an import and a magnitude to our humanity. Caring for others well, risking our well-being for the sake of loved ones, and rising out of the ashes with mutual trust only to make us stronger.

I’d like to believe these tenets represent us at our finest and this film at its best. So please go and enjoy Top Gun: Maverick with your father, with your family, or with your friends. And whether you recognize it or not, perhaps it will move you in unexpected ways even as it offers up one of the best full-blooded action movies in recent memory.

4/5 Stars

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