And we’re back. A full 36 years (including some Covid-related runway delays) after Tony Scott’s big-screen recruitment advert for US naval aviators became an epoch-defining cinema hit, Tom Cruise is back doing what he does best – flashing his cute/crazy superstar smile and flexing his bizarrely ageless body in an eye-popping blockbuster that, for all its daft macho contrivances, still manages to take your breath away, dammit.
From the burnished opening shots of planes waltzing off an aircraft carrier to the strains of Kenny Loggins’s Danger Zone, little has changed in the world of Top Gun – least of all Cruise. Maverick may be testing jets out in the Mojave desert, but he’s still got the jacket, the bike(s), the aviator shades and (most importantly) the “need for speed” that made him a hit back in 1986. He also has the machine-tooled rebellious streak that has prevented him rising above the level of captain – showcased in an opening Mach 10 sequence that doesn’t so much tip its hat to Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff as fly straight past it with a super-smug popcorn-eating grin. See ya, serious movie suckers!
“Your kind is headed for extinction,” growls Ed Harris’s forward-looking rear admiral (nicknamed the “Drone Ranger”) before admitting through gritted teeth that Maverick has in fact been called back to the Top Gun programme – not to fly, but to teach the “best of the best” how to blow up a uranium enrichment plant at face-melting velocity, a mission that will require not one but “two consecutive miracles”. “I’m not a teacher,” Maverick insists, “I’m a fighter pilot.” But, of course, he can be both.
True to form, Maverick promptly throws the rulebook in the bin (literally – the metaphors are not subtle) and tells his team of fresh-faced hopefuls that the only thing that matters is “your limits; I intend to find them, and test them”. Cue dog-fight training sequences played out to classic jukebox cuts, while thrusting young guns do 200 push-ups on the runway. In the local bar, an underused Jennifer Connelly serves up drinks and love-interest sass (Kelly McGillis was apparently not invited to this party) while Miles Teller’s Rooster bangs out Great Balls of Fire on the piano, prompting a flashback to Maverick cradling Anthony Edwards’s Goose, who got famously cooked in the first film.
And therein lies what passes for the heart of the piece; because Rooster is Goose’s son, and Maverick (who still blames himself) doesn’t want to be responsible for history repeating itself. “If I send him on this mission,” Cruise emotes, “he might not come back; if I don’t send him, he’ll never forgive me. Either way I could lose him for ever.” Tough call, bro.
Cruise has described making a Top Gun sequel as being like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet – which is exactly the kind of thing that Maverick would say. Yet working with director Joseph Kosinski (with whom Cruise made Oblivion) and scriptwriters including regular collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, he has done just that. For all its nostalgic, Miller Time sequences of shirtless beach sports and oddly touching character callbacks (a cameo from Val Kilmer’s Iceman proves unexpectedly affecting), Top Gun: Maverick offers exactly the kind of air-punching spectacle that reminds people why a trip to the cinema beats staying at home and watching Netflix.
The plot trajectory may be predictable to the point of ridicule (like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, Tom is going up where he belongs) but the emotional beats are as finely choreographed as the stunts. As for the “don’t think, just do” mantra (a cheeky rehash of Star Wars’s “Use the force, Luke”), it’s as much an instruction to the audience as to the pilots.
Personally, I found myself powerless to resist; overawed by the ‘“real flight” aeronautics and nail-biting sky dances, bludgeoned by the sugar-frosted glow of Cruise’s mercilessly engaging facial muscles, and shamefully brought to tears by moments of hate-yourself-for-going-with-it manipulation. In the immortal words of Abba’s Waterloo, “I was defeated, you won the war”. I give up.