I’ve never quite understood the allure of Top Gun – don’t get me wrong, I too marvel at the sight of a fighter jet roaring to life and blaring off the pad of an aircraft carrier. And I, like many young men, have contemplated becoming a pilot simply out of its sheer coolness factor – despite the fact that my country’s air force logo is that of a flightless bird. However, none of this changes one immutable problem about the original film that bugs me, being that Top Gun (1986) is not and never was a well-constructed film. Now hear me out, that’s not to say it has no redeeming qualities or that the film as a whole is gutter trash; what I’m saying is that Top Gun (1986) has no real sense of narrative direction for the vast majority of its runtime and the character of Maverick struggles to convince audiences that there’s any real reason to be doing what he’s doing; up until his wingman dies and he gets a little sappy. So, long story short, the original film left many people – like myself – constantly questioning when the film was actually supposed to start, when I was supposed to get invested in the characters, and where the conflict even was. I’ll be honest, I still don’t know the answers to these, but Top Gun: Maverick changed the game.
The wild success of the original could be attributed to three things; an undeniable “coolness factor” that permeates the films entire style (leather jackets, jets, aviators, motorcycles, and chasing the pretty girl all contribute to this), the untapped star power of Tom Cruise as a new face in Hollywood, and the respectable dogfighting sequences that were genuinely enthralling for its time. This might be enough for most people to call it a good flick worthy of its pop culture status; but for me, even with all of these aspects combined, it does not change that same immutable reality; that Top Gun (1986) spends three quarters of its runtime on the pad doing nothing, until it finally realizes it needs to haul ass in its final half hour. With all this said, you may be wondering why I’m explaining my distaste for the original before I talk about its sequel. Well, so that you can know the charm of the original film has no effect on me. Everything I’m about to say about Top Gun: Maverick comes from a place of genuine appreciation for this sequel as it is, and not from the legacy of the original Top Gun (1986) film.
So with all that out the way, let me say this first and foremost; relative to the first film, Top Gun: Maverick stands as perhaps one of the best sequels of all time. This film addresses almost every issue of the original as though it felt challenged to not only be the better film in every way it knew how, but to exceed all conceptions of expectations. The momentousness of this sequel can be seen, felt, and heard across almost every single filmmaking aspect on display. The difference in quality in its raw spectacle, narrative quality, character performances, and overall structure are night and day; it’s like comparing the speed between a prop plane to a Blackbird SR-71 – it’s not even a competition and the comparison itself is silly. How was this achieved? That’s complicated, but when you look at the talent behind this project, things begin to make sense. For instance, director Joseph Kosinski is no stranger to aerial film-making, nor working with Tom Cruise – as his sci-fi film Oblivion (2013) combines staggeringly beautiful aerial photography and a practical sense of in-camera motion. A screenwriter for this film, Christopher McQuarrie (Mission Impossible) leverages his knowledge of the modern day action-spectacle to help take this film to even greater heights; metaphorically and literally. And of course, Tom Cruise himself champions this film by demanding real jets, real g-forces, and real speed. This inner circle of practical action advocates are largely responsible for what we’re seeing here. The action that we do see in this film is best left to your imagination until you see it for yourself, I won’t do you the disservice by describing it.
Beyond just its action sequences, Top Gun: Maverick also sticks true to its name by placing the character of Maverick in full focus, not simply as just a maverick of a man, but as one with issues, regrets, and motivations – in other words, he becomes an actual character and not just an idealized action hero with unlimited cool-guy charm. Maverick as a character feels like he’s grown into someone you can imagine respecting in real life, unlike his younger self who is ruled solely by bravado and a pearly-white smile. Though the smile persists and the charm remains, Tom Cruise leverages his decades of experience in dramatic roles into this, by forming a version of Maverick with a lot of internal struggles; largely, persistent guilt for the death of his wingman in the first film. Maverick is dead set on making amends in this film, no matter the cost, and that right there gives us a strong motivation to the story, one that didn’t exist in the original. Cruise is backed up by a respectable cast that builds out a crew of pilots exceeding the original in every metric (yes, I will continue bagging the original). They execute the back and forth banter with the cadence reminiscent of a 1980’s group of school kids; and Miles Teller’s role as Rooster brings an added level of emotion to the crew that bounces off well with Maverick.
Above all, the most important parts you could feel throughout this film were two key things. First, there’s an electric feeling of dedication toward creating something that felt as real and tactile as possible, you see the g-forces on these actors’ faces, you see wind blasting past Cruise’s face as blares down the runway on his motorcycle. Whether it’s motorcycles, jets, or yachts – everything feels real and almost everything is real. Short of sending these actors into actual combat, this might be the closest we get to real jet dogfights in film form. Secondly, there’s a deep and genuine love for the original Top Gun film here that can be seen and felt throughout this film. As I’ve reiterated multiple times throughout this review, I don’t find the original to be anything particularly special; however, it’s clear the creators here do and that can be felt. My jaded heart is thawed by this and on some level this sequel has managed to make me feel something toward the original that I didn’t before. For that, I have even deeper respect for what this sequel has achieved.
This film aims to close a lot of chapters; as though Cruise and the film-makers went in with some belief this is a last hurrah for the Top Gun franchise, and if that turns out to be true, all I can say is that I am deeply satisfied if this is the final chapter of the story. All I can say is, Top Gun fans will love this and Top Gun haters will probably love this too, so long as you’ve got tolerance in you for some moments of nostalgia bait, a ton of loud action sequences, and a whole lot of Tom Cruise.