TL;DR – I feel the need, the need for speed.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Three decades ago, director Tony Scott brought to the big screen one of the most testosterone fuelled, iconic films of the 80s. Not only did it make sales of Ray Ban aviator sunglasses shoot through the roof, contain a blistering hot soundtrack, solidify Tom Cruise as a Hollywood superstar, and establish Val Kilmer’s own rising star, the original Top Gun was lauded for the technical aspect of capturing real fighter planes in action. In a time before CGI became part and parcel of any action film’s budget, Top Gun was painstakingly filmed with the US Navy and actual pilots for the stunts.
For those going through adolescence in the 80s, myself included, it struck all the right chords to be a box office smash even if the story was straight forward and lacked any real complexity. The one liners (“Great Balls of Fire”, “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”, “Because I was inverted” to name a few), the adrenaline rush of dog fights, and the chemistry and antagonism between Maverick, Goose, Charlie and Iceman characters were enough to deliver popcorn fun.
With box office success comes the speculation of a sequel. And while there was an indication of this possibility in Top Gun when Maverick chooses to return to the academy as an instructor, it still took two decades before a screenplay for the sequel was drafted.
And while the story is again straight forward: Maverick returns to Top Gun to train a bunch of hot shots on a deadly mission requiring a “Star Wars”-like bombing of a rogue uranium plant nestled in a snowy mountain (think Star Wars Death Star requiring two squads of fighter jets to bomb essentially a vent sized bullseye, the first squad bombing the vent and removing its cover, the second squad dropping bombs down the vent and destroying the underground plant while avoiding surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries and enemy patrol jets), there are a few surprises that arguably elevates Top Gun: Maverick above its predecessor.
The first is the emotional conflict that arises between Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Rooster (Miles Teller). Rooster is the son of Goose, who Top Gun fans will know died in the first film and was the primary source of Maverick’s rite of passage from reckless pilot to a wiser, more responsible one. Rooster holds a serious grudge against his teacher and mission instructor for blocking him from entering the Naval academy. This was a promise Maverick made to Goose’s wife who didn’t want Rooster to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pilot.
The scenes where Rooster plays “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano in a bar with his fellow hot shots is a moving tribute to the original film and causes Maverick to feel haunted that events are repeating themselves and Rooster could die. There is also a wonderful and surprisingly humorous sequence in the climactic part of the film where Maverick and Rooster have to escape behind enemy lines by stealing a fighter jet. Having Rooster as the spotter to Maverick’s flying and the way Rooster delivers his lines is exactly like his father, Goose and provided a wonderful nostalgia for fans of the first film.
The second surprise is the story is set 36 years later than its predecessor. That is, it is set today which encapsulates all the aircraft and technology advances of today. One might have expected that the sequel would have been set closer to the original, perhaps in the 90s during the Iraq war or The Persian Gulf war. The fact that Maverick has not become an admiral (even though he should be after all his medals and years of service) and is stuck as a captain, provides an intriguing contrast for a man essentially stuck in doing the only thing he knows how to do in life (i.e. flying) during a time where acts of war involve using technology that does not require human pilots. The introductory diatribe from Rear Admiral Chester Cain (Ed Harris) on how he calls Maverick a dinosaur sets up the question of relevance and purpose in Maverick’s life.
The third surprise is that director Joseph Kosinski, along with Tom Cruise himself, demanded that the film should be filmed using real life jets as much as possible. There could have been an over abundance of CGI to create the action sequences, and while CGI is used, the scenes are meshed with live flying action that left me giddy.
Everything is all wrapped up with homages to the original including the opening text taken directly from the first film explaining what Top Gun is along with the song Danger Zone blasting over the speakers to video footage of jet fighters taking off and landing. There’s also an equivalent “volleyball” scene where Tom Cruise and company get to show off their half naked selves by playing team building beach football game. The fact Cruise looks ageless and that buff is in itself surprising (and ridiculous).
It is strongly advised you see the Top Gun before going to see Top Gun: Maverick in order to fully appreciate the sequel. There is a lot of love placed in the sequel; the fact it is dedicated in memory of Tony Scott (who was slated to do the sequel but committed suicide before filming began), the fact Val Kilmer reprises his role as Iceman (even though he is suffering from throat cancer in real life), and the attention to detail to bring back all that was good about the 80s film such as the Ray Bans, the motorcycle, and Penelope (Jennifer Connelly), who plays Maverick’s love interest driving an old model Porsche rather than a sleek, modern day one, adds to an overall experience that will leave fans more than satisfied.
9.5 out of 10