Over three and a half decades on from Tony Scott’s Top Gun, Tron Legacy helmer Joseph Kosinski takes the reins for a belated sequel. Tom Cruise’s Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is a Naval Captain, at a stage of his career in which it is stressed he should be a rank or two higher by now.
Although something of a legend for his flying pursuits he retains a devil-may-care attitude to his career, as we learn he has deliberately shunned promotions in order to remain airborne, as well as having fallen out with a number of superiors. He is now working on a project to develop and test a Mach 10 aircraft. Admiral Chester Cain (Ed Harris) is looking to shut this down and use the funds to develop alternative drone programmes. Before this can be accomplished, Pete takes the craft anyway and pushes it beyond the required speed, destroying the yet-to-be-perfected plane.
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With Cain having grounded Maverick, our lead is sent back to NAS North Island (the ‘Top Gun’ school of the title) on the orders of Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who is now commander of the US Pacific Fleet. Once there he will be under the command of Vice Admiral Beau Simpson (John Hamm), and will be training a group of elite former, if fairly recent, Top Gun graduates including Lieutenant Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw, son of Anthony Edwards’ ‘Goose’ – killed in action in the events of the first film. Bradley carries deep resentment towards Pete, as Maverick had blocked his application to the Naval Academy, setting the young man’s career back many years. His reasons for having done so are explored during the story.
Mitchell has three weeks to train a team for an urgent mission to bomb a uranium enrichment facility in an unnamed nation. The location of the facility requires a high-speed low-level approach in the canyon underneath radar coverage to reach the facility. Not considering himself a teacher (having spent only weeks training pilots three decades before), Maverick has to face the scepticism of his seniors and his students over a plan that will take them beyond their current limits.
At the same time Maverick reunites with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), a former girlfriend – briefly mentioned early in the first film. It is to her that Pete can express his doubts and concerns, explain his actions toward Rooster, as well as seek to make amends for walking out on her and her daughter when the mission of the day came calling. This all builds towards a final act that sees the team undertake the long-shot mission that could end with not all of them coming home.
Let’s start with an opinion that will not gain universal agreement: 1986’s Top Gun has not dated at all well. It arrived the year after Rocky IV, in an era where flash and style had seemed to have completely overwhelmed substance. The film was overly jingoistic, and was full of not wildly likeable characters. The final mission in that story came out of nowhere deep into the film’s running time, and we were not particularly engaged in its success or failure. Cruise himself had a cocksureness that has only ever been approached in the first half an hour or so of Vanilla Sky (or most of Magnolia). All of this led by Scott, a man, it is fair to say, who did not quite have his brother’s talent, or the ability to infuse his work with any real gravitas on any kind of regular basis (Crimson Tide, we’re not looking at you).
Much as Creed II added depth to Ivan Drago by expanding the character we met in the fourth Rocky entry, Top Gun: Maverick presents us with a lead that is written as more than an avatar for some action this time, such that when he – and, by extension, we – pause to consider the events of the first film from today’s vantage, it is imbued with more than we were ever given at the time. This time it has both a cohesive story and an understandable character arc, beyond seeking to be the best of the best of the best. On that former point, the film works so well, as because rather than drop a big mission near the end, we are building towards a solution to a problem that looks interactable for much of the movie’s running time. This is the Star Wars trench run on steroids.
Interpersonal relationships, and their arcs, are nothing we haven’t seen before, but they are executed very well. The film has heart and a story to tell us, but one where Pete Mitchell hasn’t gone the Han Solo in The Force Awakens route of simply having all character development undone so we can revisit the character as we loved them in the first place. Maverick still has areas of irresponsibility, but he has had a career and is in every way a different man than in the eighties.
Some minor nit-picks would be that the mix of old and new in the score sit a little uneasily beside each other: the new music is bland, and the film cannot decide whether it wants the older music it leans on to evoke the 80s (understandable) or the 70s (a better film decade with better music, but definitely not suited to Top Gun). Timelines are a little odd, an event in the film happens with a week to go before the mission, with about another week or two of events seeming to happen before the mission is… still a week away! The Penny character is a little underused, though Connelly and Cruise have some chemistry. Finally, with Pete Mitchell being such a flying legend, and one still at his peak, audiences would inevitably have one question: why isn’t he flying the mission himself? The does not even occur as a thought in the script until we are nearly in Act 3.
These are minor concerns. Top Gun: Maverick has absolutely no right to be this good. The action walks over anything present in its predecessor. One character aside, almost everyone is more relatable than their broad equivalents in the first film. The film’s final act is 40 minutes of tension interspersed with breathlessness, and in service of characters we want to see succeed. It is a good looking, well-acted story that will almost certainly sit amongst the best of this year’s summer releases. A wonderfully pleasant surprise.
Top Gun: Maverick is out now in cinemas.