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'Top Gun: Maverick' movie review: Tom Cruise goes supersonic in this lean, mean flying machine

Top Gun: Maverick soars far above the original, which makes it your essential theatre outing this weekend

May 29, 2022 / 11:32 AM IST
'Top Gun: Maverick' premiered at the 2022 Cannes film festival. (Image via Twitter/TomCruise)

'Top Gun: Maverick' premiered at the 2022 Cannes film festival. (Image via Twitter/TomCruise)

Top Gun: Maverick begins almost exactly the way Top Gun did: A series of aerial shots of a naval base in the middle of an ocean bathed in golden hour sunlight, dudes in overalls revving up for the day to the slow drum roll of the iconic synth-laden “Top Gun Anthem”, and pushing into high gear with Kenny Loggins’ equally iconic “Danger Zone”. The Top Gun sequel was always going to lean heavily into the enduring nostalgia for the 1986 blockbuster. The trailers that came out in 2019 made that clear. But watching this opening sequence, you’d be forgiven for thinking you walked into the wrong theatre – indeed, the wrong year.

Which is why it’ll feel like a small miracle when, at the end of a spectacular third act, you leave the theatre with an adrenaline rush you may not have felt after watching a movie since maybe Avengers: Endgame or, if you braved it, Tenet. Top Gun: Maverick is slick and supersonic, stunning and surprising. Not only is it so much better than the original, it is also proof of the future of the box office blockbuster. One that has Tom Cruise embedded deep in it.

Like its predecessor, Top Gun: Maverick is about a bunch of annoyingly good-looking, cocky pilots; lean mean flying machines; and “the need for speed” that drives them all. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is older and wiser, but not by much. He still scorches the roads on his Kawasaki Ninja – aviators, leather bomber jacket and melt-you-on-the-spot grin intact. By now,  he has been passed over for promotion several times, remaining a captain albeit a “much decorated one”, because he still can’t respect authority. And perhaps, you suspect, because losing his best friend and wingman Goose in a tragic incident 36 years ago has left him in something of an arrested development situation. 

Always going for “just a little more”, Mav is dispatched once again to the Top Gun training base in Miramar when he maxes out a bomber jet which explodes in the sky like fireworks. He could have been dismissed dishonourably, but because he has friends in high places – Iceman is admiral now – he has been sent to train a new batch of pilots on a truly dangerous mission. But there’s a twist: part of this bunch is “Rooster” (a buffed-up Miles Teller), Goose’s son. And things are not alright between this reluctant mentor-protégé pair. 

The mission itself feels like a real challenge. It involves the pilots flying way below the “hard deck”, inside a mega-curvy canyon, before flying almost vertically to speed out of a valley. They’re also up against an enemy with far superior jets and technology, but like Maverick says, “it’s not the plane, but about the pilot”. At a time when unmanned weaponry is being touted as the future of warfare – as Ed Harris’ cynical character points out to Maverick early on – here is a film making a statement about that indispensable human element. War is no video game, it seems to say.

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Top Gun: Maverick is a comment on this culture of dispensability and obsolescence, and in that, a pretty personal one for Tom Cruise. Mercifully, this is only subtext and the film is not trying to be woke on any other level – it never was and never will be concerned with things like passing the Bechdel Test, for instance. Instead, it is a wildly entertaining 137 minutes of screen time. Director Joseph Kosinski, working off a tightly wound story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks, links the past and future to arrive at a magnificently aerodynamic thing of its own – in a way that the original Top Gun could never be. 

Because, let’s be honest, if you’ve seen Tony Scott’s 1986 film lately, you may have wondered if its appeal lay in the ‘so bad it’s good’ crop of Hollywood movies. The choppy plot; the complete lack of chemistry between Kelly McGillis’ Charlie and Mav, despite one very blue sex scene; and the abundant homoeroticism: Top Gun may now seem like it was parodying itself. In reality, it was such a hit that a whole generation of American youth enlisted in the Navy with gusto.     

In the 36 years since, Tom Cruise has learned to emote (yes, you can see it under all that botox). He has also decided to deploy his stardom for a different kind of impossible mission: To stubbornly continue to make movies for the big screen, and not heed the clarion call of the streaming platform. 

Kosinski has taken that adamance, along with the best of Tony Scott’s Top Gun – the tone and tenor, the emotional bond that only soldiers can form, that volleyball scene (now football, and definitely still one of the highlight scenes of the movie), a solid lead character whose roguish exterior hides a good, honourable man with a troubled past – and swilled in some much needed plot, pace and pathos.   

That last comes from a particularly moving scene featuring a throat cancer-ridden Val Kilmer as Iceman, pretty much the only other character from the original to make a reappearance. There’s also Jon Hamm as a jealous, indignant admiral whose main job is to take down Mav a peg or two; and the beautiful Jennifer Connelly as Penny, a sassy bar owner and ex-flame to Mav, now picking up right where they left off. Top Gun: Maverick is buoyed with seamless performances across the board. Indeed, it’s almost eerie just how much Miles Teller looks and behaves like Goose.

Real planes, real actors flying them: The great achievement of Top Gun: Maverick is that few of its exceptionally shot action scenes are CGI. Before the Cannes world premiere, where the movie got a long standing ovation, Tom Cruise was asked why he insists on doing his own stunts, even now, at 59. “No one asked Gene Kelly, ‘why do you dance?’” was his pithy retort.   

“You dance love, and you dance joy, and you dance dreams,” Gene Kelly, the man who made musicals mainstream in Hollywood, is believed to have said. “And I know if I can make you smile by jumping over a couple of couches or running through a rainstorm, then I'll be very glad to be a song and dance man.”

Tom Cruise, Hollywood’s greatest action star and stunt man alive, is happy to drive off a few cliffs – or fall out of the sky – for as long as he can entertain you.  
Nidhi Gupta is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and editor.
first published: May 29, 2022 11:26 am
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