For a time when I was roughly 10-13 years old, I thought Top Gun (Tony Scott, USA 1986) was the greatest movie ever. I watched it many times, to the point that I can still remember every beat of it even though I haven’t seen it in more than two decades. One of the first steps in my journey of analyzing movies was probably when I realized that Days of Thunder (Tony Scott, USA 1990) was essentially the same movie but with cars instead of planes and then the more obscure Aspen Extreme (Patrick Hasburgh, USA 1993) was the same thing but with skiing–yeah, that one is an odd choice. Ultimately, they are all films about risk-taking–they all tell us (and the “us” intended is definitely teenaged boys) that taking chances (a) will lose us things along the way and (b) is the only way to become great. It’s a message that, with some nuance, could be interesting, but all nuance is lost in the triumphant endings: the pilots winning the dogfight while the acknowledged best pilot in the class essentially agrees to be second to Maverick’s heroism, Cole Trickle celebrating his victory that saves his friend with his father (figure) and The Girl, and the harshest judge holding up a fourth ten to give T.J. his victory that somehow propels him into reconciliation with his ex-girlfriend. They don’t just come away with victory in their chosen fields; they come away with victory in all things. They come away as recognized heroes who make everyone’s lives better. Indeed, the only one of these films that even has a moment of reflecting on the cost in its ending is, weirdly enough considering how irretrievably dumb much of it is, Aspen Extreme.
It took 36 years for a sequel to Top Gun to arrive, seemingly largely thanks to Tom Cruise’s reticence (though Tony Scott’s 2012 death seems to have pushed it back a decade as well). The jingoistic, hyper-masculine fantasy world of Top Gun served as a recruitment tool for the United States military, a fact that troubled many involved, and Cruise had thus refused to appear in a sequel despite many attempts. So, when one arrived so much later, and with so much critical fanfare, it was rather a surprise. I was personally surprised in part because I felt like there was only one way, story-wise to make a sequel: Maverick is teaching a new group of pilots, including Goose’s son, so that essentially Tom Cruise takes the Tom Skerritt role and otherwise it’s just the same movie again, with Maverick no longer the, ahem, maverick because he doesn’t want to kill Goose’s son. The critical response was so overwhelmingly positive that I assumed they must have found an entirely new angle.
My assumption was unfounded. It’s not exactly what I would have expected: Maverick is indeed still the risk-taker and instead Goose’s son, Rooster, is an overly conservative pilot whom Maverick has to help become more like himself. But it’s pretty damn close. Maverick is still a rebellious spirit whose ego is writing checks that, unfortunately for everybody around him, his body has succeeded in cashing (See? I still remember that much of this nonsense). He has become, as befits someone of that personality, a test pilot, one who is pushing boundaries at every turn with little concern about himself or his equipment. The Navy has finally had enough of him in his current post and decides to send him to train a young crew for a suicide mission. In true Captain Kirk fashion, he refuses to accept that it is a suicide mission but instead tries to train them to succeed in the mission and return home, the latter of which means less to the Navy than damage to expensive planes during the training.
There are definitely unsurprising, conventional nostalgic elements to the film and the overall structure is exactly what one would expect, but the character development and the overall message are actually surprisingly fresh. Maverick is still taking risks, but what really seems to differentiate him from his superiors now is that he cares about the people around him. It’s not exactly spelled out, but it seems that spending decades only surviving because of Iceman having his back has taught him that teamwork is the most important value. (I think the film wants us to believe that he has that feeling because of Goose’s death, but the ending of the original film really makes that a difficult sell.) He ultimately saves his own job the only way he ever has: being the best pilot. And then when he has to settle on a team of his recruits to join him, he leaves off the most talented pilot, Hangman, in favor of Rooster, because he cares more about trust than skill. And that’s overall the point of the film: we have to look out for each other, because no one, not even Maverick, can do it alone. That’s why the film ends with Hangman saving Maverick.
Is there a silliness to all of it? Yep. We have a bizarre team-building “dogfight football” scene that’s clearly an homage to the notorious volleyball scene in the original film that somehow not just works but works brilliantly and instantly to make them all friends. It’s weird as hell how everyone else flies with two in the plane but Maverick flies with one and is still better than everyone else even at retirement age. There are repeated shots from the first film that don’t provide anything other than a bump of nostalgia like Maverick’s motorcycle racing a Jet taking off. No one would have expected a great film from a Top Gun sequel and while it’s admirable that there seems to be some real thought here, it is still largely what one would expect from a Top Gun sequel.
Few actors really have the chance to do anything but everyone is fine with what they have. Tom Cruise has always been an underrated actor in my eyes and this film is actually a good example: he can slip back into Maverick with ease but he also finds some subtle ways to show us that in spite of how he acts, this is no longer the slick bratty child who had a shit-eating grin while being dressed down and told that a superior pilot had resigned. This guy cares in a way that the younger Maverick never did. Miles Teller is given kind of a cartoonish character because he doesn’t have time to show the growth he goes through in any kind of reasonable way, so he comes off as rather over-the-top but through no fault of his own. Val Kilmer’s appearance is very effective because of the circumstances, and his inability to speak actually makes his scene with Maverick more poignant than it would have been if spoken.
I’m not sure there was any new music in the film–it was at least close to entirely pre-existing songs or music from the original film. I expected “Danger Zone” but was glad to hear “Top Gun Anthem” return, because I still think that’s a great song no matter how silly the movie is. Lady Gaga and Hans Zimmer are credited along with original Top Gun scorer Harold Faltermeyer as “music by,” for what that’s worth. The music doesn’t draw as much attention to itself as the original film, and that’s frankly probably a positive. There also is nothing as annoying as “Take My Breath Away” anywhere in this soundtrack.
Director Joseph Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda might have been trapped in a visual box to some extent, as the film recreates Tony Scott’s breakneck pacing and disorienting in-flight cuts. There really isn’t a visual idea in this film that isn’t represented in the original film, but they do work for what they want to do. And when there are some moments, like in the film’s final act, where it makes sense to slow things down and be a bit different, they aren’t afraid to do it.
While I can’t really get on board the “best picture” hype train for this film, it is better than a sequel to Top Gun should be. They seem to have started with the obvious plan and then put thought into how they could add just a little depth and thus infuse a new meaning, and that’s frankly more than one would expect for a sequel to the most famous piece of Navy propaganda of the 20th century. It’s fine, and if you just really want to watch Top Gun again, it’s everything you could have wanted.
- I’m admittedly not going to re-watch the original film to check this, but I don’t think there was any suggestion therein that Maverick finished second in his class. I think there is a distinct impression that he basically was passed through to the end after Goose’s death and the investigation thereof. When they are sent into battle, so to speak, at the end, it’s Iceman and Hollywood who are the first team, with Maverick left on standby until the latter is shot down, which would suggest that Iceman and Hollywood were the top two students. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong that Maverick finished second, but it feels weird.
- It’s a bold move to, basically, say, “I’m two years younger than you” and then call the other person a fossil without any hint of camaraderie, but that’s entirely what Cyclone does when Maverick first meets him.
- No buzzing the tower occurs in this film, which is an absolute shock to me.
- I double-checked this after the film but scramjets like what Maverick is flying a fictional version of at the beginning have only reached Mach 6. The idea that he’s going to fly noticeably past Mach 10 is absolutely nuts.
- If Maverick is really that much better a pilot than everyone else, and everything we see suggests that he is, it’s insane that he’s supposedly going to train newbies instead of flying the mission himself. And if the Navy wants to be rid of him, sending him on a suicide mission seems like a good way to do it, so why would they instead ask him to train others for it and tell him it’s a suicide mission.
- They keep saying “fifth generation fighters” like it has clear meaning, and while I understand what they mean by it, it probably would have been worth a bit of explanation. I also kept asking myself, “Why isn’t that what they’re flying, then?” There’s probably an explanation, but either it’s not given or I missed it.
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