The original Top Gun was a cultural milestone and one of those movies which is still fondly remembered, especially more so now that the artistic industry around 1980’s nostalgia is in overdrive (the movie released in 1986). The film made Tom Cruise into a bonafide superstar, a level from which he hasn’t descended in the intervening decades despite the best efforts of his Scientology utterances. It also helped the US military see a huge rise in its recruits in the aftermath of the film’s popularity. I didn’t watch the movie in the decade it came out in but, intrigued by the beautiful beats and sensually romantic video of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away which I saw in the 1990’s, I finally did watch it around the turn of the millennium and loved it. There was another reason why I watched it and fondly remember it though. Tony Scott, the lesser critically appreciated brother of Ridley Scott, was one of my favorite filmmakers. I loved the style, thrills and panache he brought to the screen in various ventures and when I heard that a sequel to Top Gun was belatedly in the works was excited to say the least. Alas, life doesn’t follow the script most of the time and his untimely demise meant that he would not be returning anymore for ever behind the screens and the project was delayed again, perhaps indefinitely.
Joseph Kosinski is not a director I knew much of, except that he directed the belated Tron sequel which I didn’t watch and which I remember as not exactly getting glowing reviews, though I did like his underrated Oblivion (again with Cruise). But, after finally catching Maverick on the biggest of screens (IMAX), I’m immensely glad to say that Scott’s movie’s original legacy has been suitably honored. It’s an exciting, heartfelt sequel which captures the spirit of the original, wallowing in its nostalgia without ever forgetting to create a new story and characters which we care about, and it brings back Cruise in brilliant form. The elegant Kelly McGillis is missing here, but Cruise has a new love interest in the form of the equally elegant Jennifer Connelly, a bar owner when Cruise is brought back to base.
The reasons for that posting back to Top Gun as an instructor is another maneuver in the sky which went against the orders from his superiors (a cameo from Ed Harris). Maverick remains a Captain despite his ageing years, seemingly content where he is while not being able to retire. As a way of virtually grounding him he is sent to the academy where he graduated from and tasked by the Admirals, played impressively by Jon Hamm and Charles Parnell, to infiltrate an unlawful nuclear facility, entrenched in between mountains and protected by various levels of defense systems, in a rogue state and destroy it before it becomes shortly operational. Well, to be more precise, to train a bunch of the best young pilots like he once was to do the mission and not, contrary to what he thought, to fly the mission himself. To complicate matters even more, one of the young pilots, Rooster (Miles Teller), is the son of his old best friend and wingman, Goose, who died tragically while flying with Maverick in the first movie. For reasons explained during the course of the movie, the son holds a grudge against Maverick and their interactions are frosty. The constant banter and one-upmanship between Teller and another cocky young pilot (Glen Powell) also doesn’t help matters or team spirit, spirit which is all the more important considering the almost suicidal nature of the mission. Speaking of one-upmanship, there is a dignified cameo from Val Kilmer, who played Iceman, Maverick’s own nemesis in the first movie. In the intervening period it looks like their relationship has thawed to one of mutual respect and friendship and it is Kilmer’s Admiral who helps keep Cruise in his plane and who was instrumental in getting him back to Top Gun. It’s poignant when one considers that his character mostly types his statements on the screen because in real life Kilmer is battling throat cancer and can no longer speak.
As in the original, the heart of the movie is in its suave coolth and the camaraderie and conflicts between the young pilots and with their superiors, as well as in the daredevil flying sequences. The weak link in both movies is the particulars of the purported mission. It’s obvious that the nameless, faceless villain is more of a generic construct purely for the purpose of cooking up a goal for the team to work towards. But that’s fine. The movie scores where it needs to; the prime style statements of Maverick from the old Top Gun are back, including the iconic aviator shades and jacket and so is the banter and tense comradeship between the pilots as well as snippets of some of its iconic music. There is even a beach football team bonding sequence which takes old fans back to the famous volleyball sequence from the original film. Glen Powell’s cocky, self-confident act gets a bit grating after a point, but he redeems himself towards the climax. Miles Teller looks quite different from what I remember of his early movies, with the pumped-up body and moustache, but he nails his part and exudes the requisite charm. Jennifer Connelly is lovely and believable in her chemistry with Cruise (though their scenes don’t have the unforgettable sensuality of the Cruise-McGillis scenes) and provides a few lighter moments as well. But it is Tom Cruise, that most endurable of headline movie stars (a breed which seems to be diminishing in the age of superhero franchises), who is the soul of the film. He captures the spirit of Maverick again while also adding subtle touches of the weariness that the interim period would have done to a character like his. And of course, he still looks super-fit and believable in the role. And as is known about his dedication to his roles and stunts, he helped design the crash course in aviation for the young actors, being a bit of a pilot himself in real life. It appears he also insisted on minimal CGI to get the effects right and it is visible on screen in the enthralling effectiveness of the numerous scenes inside the planes.
Tony Scott is sadly never coming back, but the movie he made has now got a worthy follow up that is a must watch for anyone in need of a good time at the movies.