In 2010, when Tom Cruise was 48, it was proposed that a sequel to the smash hit “Top Gun” be made by the team of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott. Unfortunately, Tony Scott died and the project was set back. Eventually, Joseph Kosinski was given the directing helm. It took twelve years for the project to make it to the theaters this week. It was actually scheduled to be released in July, 2019, but it was delayed by having to shoot complex flight sequences, the pandemic, and scheduling conflicts. The effort that went into the film was impressive. Cruise designed a three-month boot camp for the “pilots” so they could withstand the flight shoots and they had to be trained to film themselves while in the cockpits. 800 hours of footage was shot for the film, which is more than the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The US Navy cooperated with the film as it famously and profitably did for the original. “Top Gun” stands as the epitome of a recruiting bonanza. Clearly, the Navy is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again. It allowed the use of the carriers Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. And in exchange it got a script that didn’t rock the boat. Yes, Maverick is a maverick, but that stereotype is so ingrained in aviation pictures that even the Navy can’t object. The movie balances that with teamwork, so it is a positive portrayal overall. Besides, if mavericks in the audience decide to enlist and find out too late that the Navy doesn’t actually condone loose cannons, so be it.
The movie opens with Tom Cruise apologizing to the audience for what they are about to see. Just kidding. He thanks you for waiting 36 years for a sequel. (One of the longest waits in cinematic history. The two “Coming to America” movies were 33 years apart.) This thank you by the star will be the last original thing you will see in the movie. However, for every “Aliens” and “Back to the Future 2”, there are lots of movies that comfort food their audience with a copy of the original. That’s where the money’s at. The credits run over aircraft launching from a carrier to the updated “Highway to the Danger Zone”. After 36 years, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (bet you didn’t remember his full name) is just a captain. Because he wants it that way, so there! Admirals, like his buddy and protector Ice Man (Val Kilmer in a touching appearance), don’t get to fly. Maverick is a test pilot of a secret project to build the first Mach 10 aircraft. (The movie takes place in the present and yet Maverick is flying a plane that is almost 7 Machs faster than the fastest plane today!) The project is going to be shut down by a desk jockey admiral, but Maverick is a maverick and you can guess what happens. Instead of getting canned for costing his country billions of dollars, he is sent to Top Gun school to train a new generation of fighter pilots for a secret mission. (As a retired teacher, I enjoyed seeing the class clown have to teach the class.) He literally throws the book away. Get it? He gets three weeks to train them for an ingress down a winding canyon to destroy the Death Star. Oops, I mean to bomb a nuclear weapons facility in an unnamed nation. To make matters AWKWARD, one of Maverick’s students is the son of Goose. “Rooster” (Miles Teller) understandably holds a grudge against the man who killed his father. Another is Hangman (Glen Powell). If Maverick and Ice Man had had a baby, he would have been Hangman. He is cocky and doesn’t care about his wingmen, but he’s damned good, dammit. There’s a black guy and a woman. If you think the movie is going to kill them off, breathe easy. His charges are skeptical about what this dinosaur can teach them, until they go out mock dogfighting and “daka!-daka!-daka!” (“Battle of Britain” shoutout.) Sooner than expected (surprise!) they are put on board a carrier and four planes are sent off on the suicide mission. Under no circumstances will Maverick be going. Wait, what? Get ready for some shit-hot flying followed by dogfighting against TIE fighters. Oops, I mean fifth generation enemy fighters (Soviet SU-57 stealth fighters). (Hey, Congress, how did you let our enemies get better fighters than we have?!)
I have not hidden my feelings about “Top Gun”. Many have proclaimed the sequel to be better. That would be true if “Top Gun: Maverick” had come first. But as what is essentially a reboot, it loses some of its sheen. The reviews have been amazingly good. I have to assume that most critics have not seen a lot of aviation combat movies. If they had, they would have recognized several stodgy cliches. It’s almost as though the screenwriters (all three of them) are baiting people like me. Maverick recreates his motorcycle riding. A superior officer (actually two) who has been long from the cockpit, tries to stifle an ace pilot’s creativity. A pilot pretends not to be able to hear an abort order. A pilot gets reamed by his commanding officer for disobeying orders. A pilot has a past death on his conscience. A veteran pilot has to bring the tiger out of a potentially great rookie. The pilots blow off steam at a drinking place (cue the soundtrack songs). There’s a healthy competition between pilots. Frenemies learn to respect each other. Redemption for the main character. The mission gets moved up before they are ready. Yada yada yada. To the cliches, you have to add the related problem of predictability. Don’t get me wrong, I’m talking predictable for war movie lovers, not your average movie goer, who should enjoy this movie much more than buffs. Nothing major happened in this movie that I did not expect. Including one of the most ridiculous shark jumps I’ve seen in a while. I literally sat there saying to myself: surely, they aren’t going to go down this road. Yep, they sure are.
The movie is not terrible. The cast is good and the performances are not grating. Cruise is strong in what was clearly a labor of love. At 60-years-old, he looks young enough to be a very old captain. He even goes shirtless without embarrassment in the unintentionally face-palming beach football game. (Gay men demographic, check!) And it ends with the sweaty, shirtless hunks dog-piling. (Something even “300” didn’t dare do.) Jennifer Connelly as Maverick’s love interest is only 8 years younger than Cruise, so that was not bad for Hollywood. Penny is feisty and takes two whole dates before succumbing to Maverick’s charm. The young pilots are not really fleshed out, other than Hang Man and Rooster, but at least the movie steers away from stereotypes. For the most part. We still get the nerdy WSO (Weapons Systems Officer) named Bob (Lewis Pullman). He doesn’t get a nickname. This is one of the few jokes in an otherwise serious movie. (Not that I didn’t smile when I wasn’t supposed to.)
The aviation fans will go to this movie to see the flight scenes and they don’t disappoint. The movie reboots the mock dogfights with Maverick now Viper. F-18s can do some things the venerable F-14s could not do. And cinematography can do a lot more than 36 years ago. However, on the 92nd anniversary of the groundbreaking “Hell's Angels”, we still see a lot of views of the faces of pilots (thankfully with their nicknames on their helmets). My enjoyment of the flight stunts was tempered by my irritation at Cruise for lying about the film not using visual effects. Did he really think aviation enthusiasts would believe a plane and its wingman could be split by another flying vertically between them or a series of planes flying between the girders of a bridge? That’s right, we’re supposed to believe the US Navy allowed its F-18s to be used in highly dangerous maneuvers for a movie. Sure!
Chances are, you won’t be as picky as I am. And few of you are children of fighter pilots, so you don’t have a dog in this hunt. If you liked “Top Gun”, you will like this new and improved version. Your knowledge of aviation combat cliches will be reinforced which will make you more knowledgeable about the subgenre. Next up, “Top Gun: Rooster”.
GRADE = C-