Tom Cruise Flies Back Into the Danger Zone For His Latest Impossible Mission And Sticks the Landing
DIRECTED BY: JOSEPH KOSINSKI/2022
“Revvin’ up your engine, listen to her howlin’ roar” kicks off the 1986 hit film Top Gun as we get a good look at how Naval Aviators launch themselves from, as well as land on, their aircraft carriers as Kenny Loggins belts out the chorus to “Danger Zone”. Some 36 years later, Tom Cruise’s Pete Mitchell, call sign Maverick, is back to fly another mission into the danger zone and scores a direct hit in a worthy sequel that enhances the legacy of the original.
Top Gun: Maverick would normally fly under the banner of “sequels nobody really expected or needed”. The original film was a perfect representation of its time. In 1996, the Soviets were the enemy in the midst of the final decade of the Cold War, and the music of Kenny Loggins coupled with testosterone-fueled flyboys trying to prove that they are the best-of-the-best at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (called Top Gun by the fighter pilots) made it quintessential 80’s viewing. And despite the intro music to Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” entering into many of the scenes and later one’s brain (I can still hear it…da, da, da, da, da….da, da, da….), the movie still holds up over 35 years later. So, the big question is how relevant would this type of Naval program be in an age where we are shifting to un-manned drones, hypersonic missiles, and other such forms of modern warfare? Fortunately, it is a question that Top Gun: Maverick meets head on, and straight out of the gate.
Top Gun: Maverick largely sticks with what worked in the original 1986 film while also carving its own path in order to better appeal to the audiences in 2022. When we catch up with Pete Mitchell, he is working for the Navy as a test pilot trying to keep afloat a pilot program if he can demonstrate that the latest “next-generation” plane can accomplish the kind of speed and performance necessary to hold the Rear Admiral’s (Ed Harris) un-manned program at bay. Fortunately, Pete continues to feel the need…the need for speed. In doing so, however, he finds himself in the position where the Navy might just decide to ground him once and for all.
Pete has an angel looking out for him, it seems, and instead of being grounded, Pete finds himself back at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, or Top Gun, to train a select group of Top Gun alumni for a mission so dangerous, very few could pull it off. These young pilots include call signs: Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), “Bob” (Lewis Pullman), Payback (Jay Ellis), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), Hangman (Glen Powell), and Rooster (Miles Teller). Rooster isn’t a big fan of Maverick. His peers can even see his angst. Rooster, you see, is the son of Goose, Maverick’s late-best friend and former co-pilot who met his tragic end in the original film. Those who remember the original will believe Rooster’s animosity toward Maverick is because Goose died while on a mission with Maverick, but there are more layers to uncover as this film proceeds. Maverick also finds himself in another conflict when reporting to a superior officer, Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), who is looking for a reason to ground Pete Michell for good.
From the title card explaining Top Gun to the audience, the familiar aircraft carrier scene with “Danger Zone” playing underneath, Cruise riding on his motorcycle, Ray-Ban aviator glasses, to a bar-filled performance of “Great Balls of Fire”, Top Gun: Maverick, gives the original audience of the 1986 film exactly what it wants in the sequel: more of the same, with modern updates that include a strong updated story and lots of action. If this is the objective, then order a giant “Mission Accomplished” sign for Maverick’s air craft carrier!
With it having been 36 years, Maverick has moved on from Kelly McGillis’ Charlie, and finds himself alone, having lost that loving feeling. That is until he walks into the bar, The Hard Deck, and sees a past flame in the form of Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). While Penny did not appear in the original Top Gun, fans of that film will certainly remember when Maverick and Goose are being chewed out for Maverick’s habit of “buzzing the tower”. There we learn that they are being disciplined for “a history of high-speed passes over five air control towers, and one admiral’s daughter”….to which Goose whispers to Maverick, “Penny Benjamin?”. Goose’s wife Carole even tells Maverick that Goose had told her all about the time Maverick had gone ballistic with Penny Benjamin. So even what is new in Top Gun: Maverick has its roots buried deep in the original film.
Tom Cruise, as he often does in his other films (especially as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible films), handles his own stunts (including a trademark running scene) and here he even flies several of the aircraft himself. While he does not fly the F-18 Super Hornet, he and the other actors of Top Gun: Maverick were able to shoot scenes while in real fighter jets to allow for the effects of real g-force, during some of the maneuvers shown in the film, to come across the screen. The aerial photography looks fantastic in IMAX, by the way.
While both the original film and this sequel are strong films in their own right, what sets these two films apart for me was that the tone of fun that seemed to permeate the original Top Gun, is largely not felt in its sequel. There are still scenes of “playing with the boys”, some lively banter between the pilots of Top Gun as they relax at The Hard Deck, or Pete Mitchell’s anti-authority quips and trademark smile, but this is a more serious affair. The shift in tone though is intentional to better represent a Navy man who after 36 years still hasn’t achieved a rank higher than Captain, finds himself with many regrets, and a desire to reconcile with his late-partner’s son.
In addition to a more mature tone for the sequel, there is also a faceless enemy. We never learn the actual rogue nation-state that is the target of our elite Top Gun pilots as they train to do an impossible mission (wait, wrong franchise, Tom!). Maybe a faceless enemy allows for the film to be screened literally everywhere with no blowback, so I guess this sequel won’t get caught in a jetwash geopolitically speaking. We only know that whoever this Rogue Nation (another Mission: Impossible reference…sorry) is, they have enriched uranium and “next-generation” fighters to worry about. How ironic though that 31 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Top Gun: Maverick chooses to have a faceless enemy when they still could have used the Russians as the big-bads based on their current global pariah status for their invasion and war on Ukraine?
Finally, be prepared for the most touching scene in the film to involve Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his one time rival/frenemy, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). Will these two ever solve the question of who will be who’s wingman, anytime?
Top Gun: Maverick flies into theaters on May 27th and hits the target for fans of the original and for the uninitiated as well. So, for all of those who are feeling the need, the need for speed…see this on the biggest screen you can. It will take your breath away.