Who would have guessed that a Top Gun sequel would result in the best blockbuster in years? Here’s our review of Top Gun: Maverick.
People, even when they shouldn’t, talk. As much as the story was that Top Gun: Maverick was being kept under lock and key and saved for cinemas – to the point where it’s arriving at the end of this month, two years later than planned – the whispers going around last year was that it was a great deal better than you might expect a Top Gun 2 to be. That there had been one or two screenings, and the response was ecstatic.
For a change, those whispers were right. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a movie sequel that so substantively upgraded its original, and the best I’ve got is Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to Mad Max Fury Road. Alien to Aliens doesn’t count, because both of those are outstanding. But as someone with little skin in the Top Gun game – the original I always felt was fun fluff – I’m genuinely taken aback by just what an upgrade its follow-up is.
It starts playing its cards very early. When you’re making a belated sequel that arrives over 35 years after the original, the temptation might be to scatter a few Easter eggs and start afresh. Not here. Top Gun: Maverick leans right into where it came from. The font, the music, the opening sequence, even the name of late producer Don Simpson, over two decades since he passed. Yet what it balances too is what you need to know and what you don’t. It’s a proud Top Gun film, but not one you need a Top Gun exam to appreciate. Standalone or sequel, however you treat it, it’s off the mark fast and never looks back.
We’re therefore quickly introduced to ace pilot and Navy captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, played by Tom Cruise. After he’s tightened his nuts, we see him in an exhilarating opening flying sequence, breaking a rule or two and pissing off Ed Harris. Plot duly kicks in, and he’s sent back to Top Gun school, his mission this time to train the best of the best to get even better, and take on a deadly mission. He’s as thrilled as they are, and all around him are signs that sands are shifting.
This time, the enemy clearly has the technical advantage. What’s more, he’s the old timer now – and he’s reminded of this frequently – a man coming to the end of his career, whose card bounces at the bar, and who isn’t on the Christmas card list of Miles Teller’s Rooster either.
Thus, we’ve got parallel paths. On the mission side, the preparation that goes into telling us just how tricky the task ahead of the pilots is, and why, should be printed out and put on the desk of Hollywood screenwriters. By the time the jets are fired up in the last third, I felt like I knew the mission path they had to follow as well as them. Imagine a Mission: Impossible movie with just one heist, and the whole film building to it. Do one mission, but do it bloody well. The simplicity of the approach – tell us just what you’re going to do, and why everyone’s like to die – is incredibly effective. It helps that Eddie Hamilton’s editing is vacuum-like when it matters, upping the pressure and building the tension.
Away from the skies, Cruise is reconnecting with Jennifer Connelly’s Penny, whilst this time Jon Hamm steps up in the required role of Pissed Off Navy Superior. Hamm doesn’t have much character to go with, but he knows the gig: he disapproves in all the right places.
What’s surprising and welcome though – how often can you say this about a modern blockbuster after a single two hour film? – is just how many of the other characters stick. Here’s where an Aliens parallel, one not used lightly, applies. Remember getting to the end of that film and remembering the names of the characters and what they were like after just one film (Ripley aside)? It’s the same here. I can’t really believe I’m writing the sentence, in truth. Yet the details have been attended to, and a shift has been put in.
Sure, there might be a tiny bit too much foreshadowing, and the inclusion of an F-bomb feel it’s blatantly there to lift it from a PG to a 12A, but these are minor criticisms.
Because bluntly, I’m taken aback just how good Top Gun: Maverick is. The directorial reins have passed from the late Tony Scott – who mulled a follow-up – and gone to Oblivion and TRON: Legacy helmer Joseph Kosinski. It’s his best film. The action sequences are incredible: fast, busy, exhilarating flying moments, where you can follow what’s gone on. I caught the film on an IMAX screen, and it’s just dizzying how good it looks.
Also, Kosinski – along with screenwriters Ehren Krueger, Christopher McQuarrie and Eric Warren Singer (story credited to Peter Craig and Justin Marks) – have then fashioned a film that also works on the ground. Unlike some movies that have tried to build on older hits – sorry, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, even though I quite like you – it integrates story from before, rather than feeling like it’s bringing plot points and charafcters out for a forced encore. Considering what it’s juggling, it’s surprising how organic Top Gun: Maverick feels, whilst simultaneously hitting the beats it needs to hit.
And then there’s Tom Cruise. Right before our eyes over the years, we’ve watched him morph from actor to movie star – and now he’s very much both. There’s a non-demonstrative pain underpinning the character of Mitchell, given him dimensions that we barely got a whiff of in the first film. Maverick, like the film, has surprising weight, that adds extra stakes to the action moments. In turn, Cruise gives one of his very best performances, perhaps in a film where you don’t necessarily expect it.
Top Gun: Maverick is, of course, one of the last delayed blockbusters of the pandemic era, a film where Cruise and Paramount Pictures were adamant it had to be seen on a big screen. Be glad they dug their heels in. It’s the best big blockbuster in some time.
Now for the end of level boss challenge, might they perhaps be persuaded to make Days Of Thunder: Trickle?
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