The original 1986 film Top Gun enjoyed wide success with its pedestrian coming-of-age story significantly enhanced by the testosterone-fueled setting of the US Navy’s Top Gun aviation school. The film revolved around hotshot pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), for whom the rules didn’t apply. He was a brilliant pilot, but he was reckless and completely self-absorbed, which led to the tragic demise of Goose (Anthony Edwards), his co-pilot. Wracked by guilt, Maverick quit flying but was pulled back into service for a dangerous overseas mission. He proved his mettle, resolved his feelings of guilt and got the girl. Produced with the assistance of the U.S. Navy, Top Gun ignited the imagination of a generation and the Navy saw a noticeable uptick in recruits as a consequence of the exciting and unabashedly patriotic film.
Thirty-six years later, Maverick is still part of the U.S. Navy, top pilot for a team developing a next-generation fighter jet. He’s still a loner, still a rebel, still ignoring the rules, and still appreciated by his peers. The Navy is at a turning point in its new combat weapon development, however, with many of the top brass convinced that the future is drones, not manned aircraft. The project is scheduled for shut down but Maverick defies orders and pushes the experimental fighter to incredible speeds to prove that it is worthy of further development.
Surprisingly, he’s not court-martialed but instead instructed to head back to Navy Fighter Weapons School in San Diego. An undisclosed foreign power has surreptitiously built a prohibited manufacturing facility and the U.S. Gov’t wants to destroy the complex before it comes online. Diplomacy? That’s for a different movie, y’all. And we’re back to the testosterone-powered world of Top Gun school with the “best of the best” Navy pilots. They’re immediately told that the mission won’t require all of them; some are going to wash out, while others will go on the highly confidential mission. Who’s going to make the cut once they’re trained by that fossil of a pilot, Maverick?
While Top Gun might have ended with Maverick and Charlie (Kelly McGillis) together, in this new film “the girl” is Penny, as portrayed by Jennifer Connelly. Hollywood is not kind to older female stars, unfortunately, so while Kelly McGillis did a great job as Maverick’s love interest in the first film, she didn’t make it into the sequel. Interestingly, Penny lives in the house Charlie inhabited in the first film, offering a somewhat confusing element of character continuity.
For his own part, Maverick has moved on from being the center of a coming-of-age drama to a wise Yoda-like figure whose task it is to teach a new group of Top Gun candidates how to put their egos aside and become the best pilots they can be. They’re an appealing group, including Rooster (Miles Teller), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Hangman (Glen Powell), and Bob (Lewis Pullman). That manufacturing facility is coming online soon, though, so these pilots need to be trained, and trained quickly!
Does the training work? Do they save the day for America? Does everyone come home? Does Maverick get the girl? Do the top brass have to reluctantly admit that Maverick is the best, even as he defies their orders? Suffice to say, there are no surprises in Top Gun Maverick. But that doesn’t detract from a really fun cinematic experience that’s undoubtedly going to be one of the biggest hits of the summer. Top Gun Maverick is also significantly better than the original film, with a more mature sensibility, more sophisticated storytelling, and more logical story (well, for the most part).
Top Gun Maverick follows a long parade of war films that use a similar story structure of introducing the rogue or rebellious character, showing us the transformation of raw recruits into tough fighters, then demonstrating how they tackle a challenging mission that you never doubt they will complete. Cue National Anthem, wave flag in the sunset, fade to black. Booyah!
Everything else aside, though, the pulsing heart of the film is its fantastic flying sequences that are as visceral an experience as you’ll ever have in a movie theater. If there was ever a film to see in IMAX, this is it. Yes, the film is so patriotic that it verges on jingoistic pro-military propaganda, but you’ll forgive that as the story unfolds in a predictable, yet entirely satisfying manner. I really enjoyed Top Gun Maverick and can’t wait to see it again.