Top Gun: Maverick Is as Perfect as a Sequel Can Get
How do you make the perfect sequel to an iconic film? As it turns out, you wait 36 years. Top Gun came out in 1986 and has since become a cult classic and one of the defining films of the era, cementing Tom Cruise's place as one of the world's biggest movie stars. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell is one of Cruise's most iconic roles, which is saying a lot for a man who has played characters like Lestat, Ethan Hunt, and Jerry Maguire.
The film opens with Maverick serving as a test pilot for the military, testing the speed threshold of the fictional SR-72 Darkstar, the successor to the legendary SR-71 Blackbird.
Maverick is the classic rebel, breaking the rules at every turn and—for good or bad—manages to get away with it. It's 2022 and he's still breaking the rules but now he's doing it to help others and not just to aggrandize himself.
The producers worked closely with Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works (their logo appears on the tailfin of the Darkstar) to produce a life-sized mockup of the plane, a necessary conceit in a film that eschews CGI in favor of footage of actual planes in the air and actors in the cockpits of actual F/A-18 Hornets. Cruise was so invested in Top Gun: Maverick's authenticity that he was adamant that there would be no CGI and that everything be done through practical effects. And boy does it work.
As exhilarating and exciting as Top Gun was in 1986, the aerial maneuvers and action sequences in the sequel goes full throttle and then some, the same way Maverick takes the Darkstar to its limit. Viewers will most certainly feel the need for speed in the dogfights, which is hands down some of the best aerial action scenes you'll ever see.
While it isn't strictly necessary to watch the original film to appreciate Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel is loaded with so much fan service and homages to the first that it would be an incomplete experience to not have at least some familiarity with it. From "Great Balls of Fire" to beach volleyball, there are plenty of moments in the sequel that echo the original but that doesn't mean it gets bogged down in its own nostalgia.
The film's plot revolves around Maverick's unresolved issues, particularly involving his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Goose's son Lt. Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw (Miles Teller). In the first film, an accident sends Maverick and Goose's F-14 Tomcat into a tailspin, forcing them to eject and killing Goose instantly when he slams headfirst into the canopy.
Although Maverick tosses Goose's dog tags overboard at the end of Top Gun as a sign of being at peace with his friend's death, Top Gun: Maverick reveals that he hasn't truly moved on. With Rooster now also a Top Gun graduate and about to head into a dangerous mission, Maverick comes full circle and gets an opportunity to heal from wounds of the past.
Also from his past is Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), a single mother who owns the Hard Deck, a bar in the middle of nowhere that for some magical reason happens to be always full. Kelly McGillis played Maverick's romantic interest in 1986 but Cruise, 59, paired with an equally ageless Connelly, 51, is just perfect, implying that while some things stay the same, there's a lot that's happened between then and now.
Perhaps the best and most poignant part of Maverick's past that shows up in the movie is Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who's now an Admiral (Maverick is still a captain for reasons known and unknown). Maverick's rival in 1986 is now his closest friend and essentially responsible for everything that happens in the sequel. There was no way Top Gun: Maverick would have worked without Iceman and fans of the original will appreciate how Kilmer, who battled and survived cancer, was woven so significantly into the story.
Of course, there are new faces, too. Jon Hamm is Admiral Beau "Cyclone" Simpson, a superior officer who doesn't have the same soft spot for Maverick as Iceman and makes clear his disdain for Maverick's unorthodox and rule-breaking approach that would get a pilot permanently grounded in the real world. Thankfully this is a movie and what we get is Maverick at his unorthodox, rule-breaking best and it's a joy to watch.
Top Gun: Maverick is also about the impending obsolescence of manned fighter aircraft, and the film jumps through hoops to justify the mission using live fighter pilots. In a world where drone technology is so ubiquitous, available, and affordable to consumers, it gets harder and harder to imagine a military scenario where manned aircraft can do things that drones can't do better and cheaper. In fact, the reason why the SR-71 was retired despite its unparalleled mission success is because of the advancements in unmanned aircraft.
The film may be a story of manned fighter jets' last hurrah the same way it may be one of the last blockbusters to ever utilize purely practical effects. It's a testament to director Joseph Kosinki's ability that he's crafted something so adrenaline-pumping with practical effects despite building a reputation with CGI work.
Cruise continues to defy nature as a man pushing 60 simply shouldn't look this good and move this well. In fact, in a film that uses purely practical effects, perhaps the most incredible one is how a practically sexagenarian man can keep up with a cast almost half his age. In a film where planes routinely perform unrealistic maneuvers, there was nothing more unrealistic than Lt Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) calling Maverick an ‘old man’ when he first sees him at the Hard Deck. Maverick in his leather G-1 jacket looks nothing like an old man even as he’s implied to be a relic of the past.
Top Gun: Maverick is about as perfect as a sequel can get. It pays adequate homage to the original while having a fairly solid story on its own, giving Maverick the cinematic sendoff he deserves. Cruise is so thoroughly entertaining and lovable in the role that fans will feel like meeting an old friend. The film actually began production in 2010 and saw the death of original director Tony Scott by suicide in 2012. The sequel is dedicated to Scott and while originally slated for a 2020 release, it was pushed back because of the pandemic and will only finally hit theaters this May, 36 years later. Good things take time, as the saying goes, and Top Gun: Maverick certainly took time and is most certainly a really good thing.