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Top Gun: Maverick Is Not Only Superior To The Original, It Retroactively Improves It

There’s no denying the cultural impact of 1986’s Top Gun. Dialogue from the film remains a firm part of our lexicon, even for those who have never seen the movie. Pop culture is riddled with references to everything from the soundtrack to the dynamics between Maverick, Goose, and Iceman. It’s a special movie for a lot of people, which is why any sequel seemed destined to fail to live up to the hype and excitement that would inevitably surround it. Yet even in the face of these massive expectations, Top Gun: Maverick represents a major quality jump from its predecessor. So much so in fact, that it retroactively improves the original.

It is not hyperbolic to say that no action film feels more eighties than Top Gun. It goes all in on celebrating competitive masculinity, rah-rah American spirit, and hot people with big (and often singular) personalities. There’s nothing complex about the fast and furious upbeat flick. It’s meant to be gobbled up like a delicious piece of chocolate cake. It’s not a good idea to only cake, but if you like chocolate you’re going to be quite happy when you get to enjoy its particular flavor.

This always made me curious what type of follow up we would get. A potential Top Gun 2 could have gone in many directions, one of the easiest being for it to become a flat out remake of the original, perhaps with an Iceman (Val Kilmer) or Maverick (you know who) as an instructor. Many of these legacy sequels take the “rebootquel” route, such as Creed and The Force Awakens. However, while rebootquels often redo the basic plot of the original with new characters at the center and the legacy characters as major supporting players, we all knew Tom Cruise wasn’t going to take a backseat. Indeed, this is Cruise’s movie through and through. However, as is typical of his recent Mission: Impossible movies, his supporting cast members get plenty of moments to shine.

While Maverick does in fact feature its titular character as an instructor, it avoids feeling like a remake for several key reasons, the biggest of which being that it’s a much more focused story. The original film is simply about the characters going through the Top Gun Program and Maverick’s romance with Charlie (Kelly McGillis). It has a meandering approach that allows us to simply be along for the ride. The mission towards the end of the film comes out of nowhere and wasn’t something that was built up to. In Maverick, everything is driving towards a particular mission. Each character’s choices and feelings towards each other are affected by the mission, which also provides the story with a ticking clock and a clear objective. This naturally builds stakes and audience investment. We understand the daunting tasks that await our heroes, and their dynamics as a team matter much more as a result. Even this movie’s answer to “the volleyball scene” serves more of a purpose. Sure, it’s still just an excuse to see hot guys with their shirts off, but it’s not as random as last time out.

From a character perspective, the relationship between Rooster (Miles Teller) and Maverick adds a layer of human drama that wasn’t present in the previous film until (spoilers for a 36 year old movie) Goose’s death. Teller is playing Goose’s son, an elite pilot himself who has a major grudge against Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Goose was played by Anthony Edwards in the original film, and he was the source of a lot that film’s humor. Goose also helped ground the movie with his family dynamic, showing that not everyone at Top Gun was a frat boy type looking out only for themselves. Seeing a guy with a wife and kid, who was a source of joy for those around him, reach a tragic end was tough. So it makes sense that Maverick mines that tragedy some more, as there would naturally be ripple effects to losing a father so early and losing your best friend at a formative point in your life and career. Plenty to work with for the talents of Cruise and Teller.

The scenes between the two crackle with tension as their past can be felt even when neither is speaking. This relationship is the heart(‘s inspiration) of the story. Both of them are fueled by a shared love of aviation and the heartbreak of losing a man they knew long ago. We saw Rooster as a child in the first film, as he was on the piano while his father played “Great Balls of Fire,” which makes Teller playing the piano at the bar early in the film hit in an unexpected way. This isn’t just the writers redoing a beloved moment from the original to get easy points. There’s an emotional thrust here, as we see the influence Rooster’s dad had on him despite dying when he was so young.

The writers can’t get enough credit for crafting a more mature world for these characters to inhabit without sacrificing any of the fun audiences have come to expect. This is a movie where if you are driven and talented, anything is possible. Yet the proceedings feel tangible and plausible thanks to the high level of craftsmanship. The writing team is made up of Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie, with Peter Craig and Justin Marks receiving a “story by” credit.

McQuarrie in particular seems to be Crusie’s good luck charm. In addition to helping with the screenplay for the stupendously fun Edge of Tomorrow, he was behind the camera as director for Jack Reacher and the last four Mission: Impossible installments: Rogue Nation, Fallout, and the upcoming Dead Reckoning Part 1 and Part 2, in addition to writing them. McQuarrie (who also won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for 1995’s The Usual Suspects) and Cruise thrive when they can meld spectacle with a story that is emotionally engaging.

They know how to make these beats work whether you’re obsessed with the original or have never seen it. A very limited and quick use of flashback shots fills the gap if you’re unfamiliar with the story of Mav and Goose walking in. Said flashback is done in an elegant fashion, to the point where if there never was a first movie this would still feel like the way to handle this piece of the story. The pacing of the story is fast, while still allowing us plenty of time to watch Maverick and Rooster’s arc evolve. You end up rooting for both of them, even when they couldn’t seem further apart.

Everything in this movie is underlined with the grief these two share, and the unresolved problems of their shared past. Maverick is more mature and sympathetic towards everyone he interacts with than I could have imagined, which is a very welcome component to his character. He doesn’t need to prove himself to anyone, and knows where he stands with those he encounters. He deeply wants to make things right with Rooster, but he’s also prepared to do whatever he can to protect him, even if that pushes him away permanently.

This specific element of the movie makes the first film much more powerful than ever before. Maverick and Rooster have a complicated relationship, one that could have easily felt cheap or campy, but instead feels earned and emotionally rewarding. It has no business working as well as it does, and it’s a testament to the actors and the approach taken by all involved. The arc between them deepens the core of the original flick in a substantial way. Frankly, much of this movie makes the first look better.

Maverick has become much more interesting and fleshed out since we last saw him. Cruise gets to infuse Maverick with his charming cockiness, but also with the mourning of man who knows his days of doing what he loves are numbered. He’s still living life his own way, but he very clearly recognizes his mistakes and wishes he had made some different decisions along the way. He’s not trapped in the past, but he does look back there often. This is also showcased and represented beautifully through his interactions with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), a character briefly mentioned twice in the original movie. They’ve had an on and off again relationship for most of their adult lives, and while there’s real love there, they always seem to end up apart.

Connelly infuses her character with a remarkable swagger. Penny is a smart woman who lives thoroughly in the present. She’s comfortable with herself and the life she has as a single mother to a teenage daughter. For those wondering, no, Maverick is not the girl’s father, something that is established immediately (thank God). Too often the play by the writers in these situations is to give the older legacy character a long lost kid that they either didn’t know about or abandoned in some way. It’s usually to establish their immaturity or their unwillingness to move on, but Maverick already has a full plate and genuinely seems like a nice guy trying to navigate the end of his career and a unique set of circumstances.

The chemistry between Cruise and Connelly is easygoing and highly watchable. These are two performers who light up the screen and look great together. It’s delightful to watch a big action spectacle that has its key romantic relationship be two people in their fifties. Not only does having Maverick with a woman his own age make sense, but it deepens another element of the previous film. Penny isn’t just some unseen character referenced as a joke to establish how reckless Maverick can be anymore. She represents one of the most important pieces of Mav’s past and future. Penny and Maverick’s history can be felt through their eyes and the tone of their conversations. We don’t need every detail spelled out. What could have been a much less interesting subplot instead is just as watchable as everything else for those of us who enjoy a good onscreen romance.

Outside of these three key roles, the biggest stand out is a devilishly engaging Glen Powell as Hangman, who very much feels like the Iceman and Maverick of the first movie rolled into one. He’s arrogant, combative, and often…the best of peers in the sky. Powell commands the screen and absorbs every second he’s given with a snarky grin. Hangman wants to be the team leader of this mission, and he maintains his confidence no matter what gets thrown his way. He’s not necessarily someone you’d love to be friends with, but damn if he isn’t fun to watch. I’d call him a scene stealer, but nobody “steals” a scene from Tom Cruise. Not when he’s on his A-game. Still, Powell gives it everything he’s got and has a charisma all his own.

Other welcome additions to the cast include Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell, Monica Barbero, and Jay Ellis. Really, everyone in the cast is solid. It also must be said that although Val Kilmer appears only briefly, his performance adds a lot to the proceedings. The character of Iceman looms large over many elements of this story, and it was truly heartening to see how it was handled. Mr. Kilmer can be a movie’s wingman anytime.

As for the aerial sequences, they’re flat out impressive. There’s a lot of flying in this movie, and they never waver in their ability to thrill. The decision to film in the cockpits and do the stunts practically results in some of the most immersive and exciting aerial sequences ever committed to film (or SD cards). This is easily another grand slam of an action movie for Tom Cruise. Between this and the last few M:I flicks, he has cemented himself as one of the greatest action stars of all time, which somehow undersells his commitment and ability to craft compelling stunts. Everything on the technical level is a massive step up from the first Top Gun, thanks to the major advancement in technology and Cruise’s relentless pursuit to constantly top himself.

The score continues the work done on the first by Harold Faltermeyer, with Lady Gaga and Hans Zimmer adding additional flavor this time out. Faltermeyer provided the score to one of my favorite Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson movies, Beverly Hills Cop, composing an iconic theme in “Axel F.” Obviously, Gaga and Zimmer are two of the most well known artists in the music industry. This combination proves potent, as they perfectly blend this cinematic concoction together through their work. Of course, we also get a great soundtrack, again blasting off with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” and closing with Gaga’s song “Hold My Hand” over the end credits. It’s a fitting way to end the picture, which by the end has found a way to both honor where it came from while being something new, something grander.

Joseph Kosinski deserves a lot of praise for his direction. He’s come a long way from Tron: Legacy, where he served up great visuals set to a rad Daft Punk score, but a mediocre script led to a mixed bag overall. With Oblivion (his first collaboration with Cruise) he crafted another impressive looking film based on his own story. While it was under-cooked in some narrative areas, it showed his potential behind the camera yet again. Only The Brave proved he could tell an emotionally grounded tale, as the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was delivered with high levels of thoughtfulness that showcased the camaraderie and tragedy that surrounds the lives of heroes. No doubt the brotherhood on display between the hotshots was a big reason he got the keys to Top Gun.

Here, with his second stab at a legacy sequel, he conjures up his most visually stunning and entertaining film yet. A little over a decade after his emergence to blockbuster filmmaking he has delivered on the promise of that early work. I certainly hope this is merely the beginning of him and Cruise working together, as I’ll watch anything they do after this. Actors certainly seem to enjoy working with Kosinski, as Teller and Connelly were also in Only The Brave, and Teller can next be seen in Kosinski’s upcoming Escape From Spiderhead, hitting Netflix this June.

In the end, Top Gun: Maverick is better than it had to be to satisfy fans and reach blockbuster heights. It’s perhaps better than it has any right to be. By shooting for Mach 10, the filmmakers have made a follow up that’s so well done it improves the viewing experience of the original. It’s the rare sequel that long time fans and newcomers will be able to enjoy in equal measure. A visual feast that provides an adrenaline rush and plenty of heart.

This is not your dad’s Top Gun, but they’re gonna love it.

See it as big and as loud as you can.

Score: A

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