Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

So, after two full years of avoiding movie theatres (thanks, COVID!), I said Fuck It…now is the time. And this…this is the movie getting me back into the pilot’s seat.

I have a long history with the original Top Gun, which I recounted back in 2012 when I wrote my ‘In Memory of Tony Scott’ (the original’s masterful director, may he Rest in Peace) article, after the man tragically opted to take his own life, for reasons we STILL don’t know. I also have an odd Love / Hate relationship with the now iconic 1986 hit, with part of me thinking the story is preposterous and asinine, while the action, cinematography and editing crackle along at a blistering pace, even 36 years later.

I first encountered Top Gun when I was 8 or 9, at the birthday party sleep-over of some elementary school classmate named Robbie. I, and a small group of other pre-pubescent male dip-shits, jacked on pizza and sugar, took in a Double Feature in Robbie’s darkened basement rec-room on a stormy night (odd that that detail stands out), with the new-on-VHS Top Gun, being followed by D.A.R.Y.L. (1985) being used to babysit us. Being an avid plane spotter (while REALLY not liking being in them these days…weird huh?), I was captivated by the shadowy, maroon-tinged, slo-mo opening shots of US Navy aircraft carrier deck crews going through the various motions in support of take-off / landing operations. This naturally explodes into Kenny Loggins’ classic rock tune ‘Danger Zone’, when the first F-14 Tomcat catapults off the carrier’s deck, and we were off! By the time the credits rolled, I KNEW I was destined, DESTINED I tell you, to become a fighter pilot (SPOILER – I didn’t) and I now had my eye out for movies from this Tony Scott guy, having never seen a film that looked like Top Gun before.

*To those who may be interested, here are my thoughts, which have not changed, about Tony Scott and the impressive filmography he left behind: https://thekneejerkreaction.com/2012/09/20/tony-scott-1944-2012/

Now we fast forward a couple decades. Toward the end of the 00’s, Tony Scott, now a major directing force (like his older brother Ridley), had been circling a few new projects, and one of them was a sequel to his game-changing ( and unintentionally gay-friendly) 80’s action/thriller/romance/Navy recruiting tool. He was actually in Pre-Production on it, having just recently visited a Naval Air Station to scout locations with Tom Cruise and mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, when he sadly opted to toss himself off a bridge in California, to his death. Obviously, this halted production of Top Gun 2 in its tracks, and there it languished for a few more years until director Joseph Kosinski (Only the Brave) was brought into the fold, after having successfully worked with Tom Cruise on the under-rated science fiction flick Oblivion (2013).

Top Gun: Maverick completed filming in 2018. It’s now 2022.

Unfortunately, that contemporary plague that we all know and love (thanks, China!) made a serious nuisance of itself and Top Gun: Maverick was plagued by all kinds of shut-downs and release delays. While other studios were opting to lean more heavily into streaming to get their product out there (and who can blame them), Paramount and Tom Cruise dug their heels in, insisting that this long-gestating sequel would be granted the theatrical release it deserved, when it was safe to do so.

So, these days, with everyone seemingly forgetting that Covid-19 is still a serious thing (the B5 variant is now starting to burn through certain populations), most of the world has opened back up…including theatres. And that was Paramount’s cue.

3 weeks ago, Top Gun: Maverick hit the scene like a goddamned missile and scared up over $100 million in its opening weekend alone. Coupled with solid reviews and word-of-mouth (seriously, I don’t remember the last time so many unconnected people all told me the same thing about a flick), my apprehension about starting to get out to the movies again began to wane, for better or worse.

And suddenly I had a free day off I wasn’t expecting. I’d completely forgotten (due to other shit in my life) that THIS Friday (ie today) was Canada Day (how patriotic of me, I know)! For some idiot reason, I thought the Monday coming up was the day off, so imagine my surprise when I stumble on this fact the day before I don’t have to turn up at work. As I sat there pondering what to do with my unexpected day away, a dim lightbulb flickered and crackled to life in my noggin and I decided to dig back into the $160 dollars I still have sitting on a gift card my awesome sister hooked me up with two birthdays back, and treat myself to a movie that just screams “SEE ME ON THE BIGGEST SCREEN EVER, ASSHOLE!”

So, on a hot summer Friday morning, I jumped in my Trailblazer and headed to the local multiplex to see the years-in-the-making sequel to Top Gun.

Fast forwarding to 2019, we catch up with ‘Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell’ (Tom Cruise) as he dares to proceed with a cancelled high speed / high altitude test of a Skunkworks X-plane code named Darkstar, intent on setting a world record while also fighting to keep his team employed. In true ‘Maverick’ form, he battles the odds and achieves his goal, only to then push just a little too much…subsequently destroying the aircraft and barely escaping with his life. Military brass, in the form of a pissed off Ed Harris (The Abyss), wants his ass ground into dog meat, but the intervention of an old friend sends ‘Mav’ on a new trajectory, one that takes him back to the titular Top Gun aka Fighter Weapons School, in order to prep an elite strike team of pilots for a high-stakes operation against a ‘rogue nation’ (unnamed, just like in the first one) to stop an illegal, weapons grade uranium enrichment facility from becoming fully operational. Along the way, he has to navigate a strained relationship with ‘Bradley Bradshaw’, call sign Rooster (Miles Teller), who is the son of ‘Maverick’s former RIO ‘Goose’, killed in a training accident with ‘Maverick’ in the first film. ‘Maverick’ also sets about rekindling a checkered romance with ‘Penny Benjamin’ (Jennifer Connelly), a character referred to in the first film more than once, but never seen. Along the way, rivalries are formed, stakes are raised, military brass is shown up, and a lot of kick-ass flying sequences ensue.

I got pretty much what I hoped for with Top Gun: Maverick and I’m pretty happy about that. While I personally feel that some of the editing and pacing was a wee bit ‘off’…this is a solidly constructed and entertaining sequel. It doesn’t embarrass the legacy of the original…but it also helps enhance it, in my humble opinion. I thought all the connections, blatant or implied, to the first one worked and didn’t feel like mere nostalgia-baiting. Of course, some of that is present (really, how could it not be?), but I didn’t once catch myself inwardly rolling my eyes when it happened.

But the big question for me, is how does the aerial action / cinematography match up to Tony Scott’s still slick visuals, which has ALWAYS been Top Gun’s glaring strong suit?

Pretty fucking nicely, if I’m honest.

If the percentage of actual in-camera flying that I keep hearing about is true, then kudos to Cruise, Kosinski, and Co., because they captured some absolutely stunning and breathtaking sequences of aerial choreography, both from the ground and in the air among real US Navy F-18 Super Hornets. There were some shots that literally caught the breath in my throat from the sheer ‘they-actually-fucking-did-thatness’ of some of the scenes. As much as I love Tony Scott and his 1986 film, I have to admit that the ‘rear-projection’ for the in-cockpit sequences look pretty rough now. They did manage to get a few shots from inside actual jets in flight at the time, but they are far and few between. That technical detail has been greatly improved here, with MANY (if not all) of the cockpit scenes being real, with the actors in the backseat of a real F-18 in flight, having to singlehandedly run the cameras, adjust lighting and sound and sometimes even re-do make-up, mid-flight. Just seeing the landscape, clouds and other aircraft all around the characters, and KNOWING that they’re actually there, really lent a feeling of authenticity and effort.

The same can also be said about the sound design. That’s another aspect of the first film that always sticks with me…just how cool the movie sounds. Sure, the rockin 80’s song line-up is iconic, but what I mean is the robust and dynamic sound design, especially when it came to the smorgasbord of jet fighter sound effects we get assaulted with, in the best way possible. The sequel is no different and sounds sexy as hell. Like the original, I’d classify this one as Home Theatre Demonstration quality.

If I have to dredge up a Negative or two (which I should, if I’m fair), my gut tells me that, as much as I LOVE Jennifer Connelly (have for years, especially in her The Rocketeer / Career Opportunities days…yummy), I did NOT feel that her ‘Penny’ character was a necessity to the core story. I understand that since there was a strong(ish)-but-silly romance in the original, ya gotta give Tom some skirt to fall for again. Poor Kelly McGillis (‘Charlie’, the romantic interest in number one), not even asked to return for a cameo, as I understand it. But Hollywood is cruel and Jennifer is a superior female specimen in comparison to how age and life has treated the elder McGillis (sorry, Kelly!), that it’s not a tough argument. Also, having a 30+ year gap between films can allow for past relationships to be written away, if need be. It’s not that much of a stretch.

Also, on a bit of a weird note, I found the 3rd Act, while genuinely exciting and kinetic, to almost take a page too many from the Book of Far-Fetched Action Movies, with a Behind Enemy Lines aspect sticking its nose in, involving two shot-down characters and the daring (and very unlikely to succeed in real life) plan they concoct to escape. For SOME reason, this didn’t ‘feel’ like ‘Top Gun’ to me…but then again, why the hell not? It worked and the whole sequence turned out to be a fun time, leading to a rousing conclusion.

But for the most part…I’m really happy with how Top Gun: Maverick turned out and genuinely look forward to seeing it again someday.

All in all, Tom Cruise has another undeniable hit on his hands and I think it’s deserved. This sequel is an example of how to do it right, with just the right amount of nostalgia, while also making an effort to both flesh out what came before and continuing with a next logical step in the overall narrative. The cast is solid and while the new crew of ‘pilots’ / actors came to get the job done, for me the MVP was Val Kilmer, back to reprise his role as ‘Maverick’s once rival/now long-time friend, ‘Tom ‘Iceman’ Kasansky’. Kilmer has fought a very public battle with throat cancer recently, that has unfortunately destroyed the man’s ability to speak, and I appreciated that they were brave enough to include that for the character. He’s not in it for much, really one key scene, but his presence is felt more than I expected. On a technical level, there’s not much more to say – this movie looks and sounds fantastic and does genuinely deserve the Big Screen treatment. In fact, if you’re a fan of the first one, or love Tom Cruise or dig military flicks in general, then I can effortlessly say that you owe it to yourself to get your ass to the theatre to see it on the biggest screen you can find.

To Summarize: Top Gun: Maverick is a solid sequel and a straight up good movie. Check it out.

*Though I didn’t stick around to see it, I understand that the movie is dedicated to Tony Scott’s memory, which I think is a stand-up gesture for a director who left such a distinct impression of the landscape of cinema, arguably starting with the original Top Gun. I think he would be proud of how this one turned out.

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