Occasionally in “Top Gun: Maverick”, Pete Mitchell (that’s Maverick) is called in for a one-on-one with an Admiral. Pete, after all these years in the Navy – over 35, but counting – has stalled at the rank of captain. He’s one of the best fighter pilots to ever fly, but America’s military hierarchy can be a treacherous political enterprise, and Maverick is anything but a politician. In the presence of a senior officer, he is likely to salute, smile and push his career to the middle of the table like a stack of poker chips. He is thoroughly. Still.
The first of these encounters is with Rear Admiral Chester Cain, a piece of weathered brass played by Ed Harris, who himself has an impressive flying record in the film. (Without “The Right Stuff,” there would have been no “Top Gun.”) He appears to tell Pete that the game is over. Thanks to new technologies, flyboys like him are almost obsolete.
Based on this scene, you might think the film is intended to be a meditation on American air power in the age of drone warfare, but that will have to wait for the next sequel. Pete still has work to do. A teacher’s job, officially, but we’ll come back to that. The conversation with Cain is not so much a red herring as it is a meta-commentary. Pete, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, is the avatar of Tom Cruise, and the central question posed by this film has less to do with the necessity of combat pilots than with the relevance of stars movies. With all this cool new technology at your fingertips – you can gorge yourself on 37 episodes of Silicon Valley without leaving your couch – do we really need guys or movies like this?
“Top Gun: Maverick,” directed by Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”), answers in the affirmative with a confident, aggressive swagger that might sound like overcompensation. Not that there’s a hint of insecurity in Cruise’s performance — or Maverick’s. On the verge of sixty, he still projects the nimble, arrogant, eternally boyish charm that conquered the box office in the 1980s.
Back then – in Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” – Pete was a brash upstart striving to stand out amid the camaraderie and competition of the super-elite Top Gun program. He seduced instructor Charlie (Kelly McGillis), locked horns with his nemesis, Iceman (Val Kilmer), and lost his best friend and radar intercept officer, Goose (Anthony Edwards). Ronald Reagan was president and the Cold War was in its final throes, but “Top Gun” wasn’t really a combat picture. It was, basically, a sports movie decked out in combat gear, about a bunch of guys who were showboating, talking trash, and trying to outdo each other.
Times have changed somewhat. Pete is now the instructor, called to Naval Base North Island to train a squad of young, passionate pilots for an urgent and dangerous mission. The 80s brotherhood vibe has been toned down and the pilots are more diverse and less obnoxious.
One of the benefits of the long gap between chapters is that the many credited writers are free to fill in or leave blank as much as they wish. Over the past few decades, Pete has seen plenty of fighting — Bosnia and Iraq are both mentioned — and pursued an on-and-off romance with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). Now he finds her working in a bar near the base and an old spark reignites. She has a teenage daughter (Lyliana Wray) — Maverick isn’t the father — and a world-weary way that matches Pete’s mix of cynicism and sentimentality.
Other reminders of the past include Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Goose, and Iceman himself, who rose to the rank of admiral and kept a protective eye on his former rival. Kilmer’s brief appearance is particularly poignant. Other than the 2021 documentary “Val,” he hasn’t been on screen much since losing his voice to throat cancer, and seeing him and Cruise in a quiet scene together is as sad and moving as something from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The first “Top Gun” was set against the backdrop of superpower conflict. There was a formidable – albeit mostly off-screen – adversary from the real world (the Soviet Union, in case you’ve forgotten) and the hovering possibility of a nuclear apocalypse. This time there is a real live ammunition skirmish with an unidentified enemy, a mysterious entity in possession of very high-tech aircraft that is building an “unauthorized” weapons facility in a mountainous region of any where. No name is mentioned, just “the enemy”. Circumspection is a bit odd. Who or what are we supposed to fight? China? (In this economy?) The Taliban? Netflix? Covid?
It does not matter. We never see the faces of enemy pilots once the mission is underway. Which only confirms the sentiment that “Top Gun: Maverick” has nothing to do with geopolitics and everything to do with upholding old-school cinematic values in the face of streaming-age nihilism.
Is the defense successful? The action sequences are tense and exuberant, reminding us that flight has been one of cinema’s great thrills almost from the start. History is a mixed bag. Despite the emotional cross-currents and physical dangers rocking poor Maverick — his career, his love life, and his duty to the memory of his dead friend, not to mention G-forces and flak — the dramatic stakes seem oddly low.
The junior pilots put on a kind of children’s theatrical production of the first film. The cockfight between Maverick and Iceman finds an echo in the rival posture of Rooster and the arrogant Hangman (an interesting Kilmeresque Glen Powell). We’re treated to a shirtless touch football game on the beach, which doesn’t quite match the original volleyball game for the sweaty camp subtext. There are some memorable supporting performances – including from Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro and the ever-solid Jon Hamm, as the book-true, mud-sticking Admiral – but the world they inhabit is textureless and generic.
At times, Kosinski seems to be looking for an updated version of the sunny, stylish ’80s aesthetic that “Top Gun” so easily and elegantly typified. What he offers is something bland and basic, without the cheeky, trashy sublimity found in the work of genuine pop authors like Scott, his brother Ridley, James Cameron or Michael Bay.
Although you might hear otherwise, “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t a great movie. It’s a thin film, too tiring and sometimes very pleasant. But it’s also, and perhaps more importantly, a serious affirmation of the thesis that movies can and should be great. I’m old enough to remember when that went without saying. For Pete’s sake, I’m almost Maverick’s age.
Top Gun: Maverick
Rated PG-13. Duration: 2h11. In theaters.