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A No BS Review of Top Gun: Maverick

The pandemic-delayed big-budget aviation flick premiered this week amid comparisons to the original 1986 film. How does it measure up?

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Review of Top Gun: Maverick

The Jerry Bruckheimer film Top Gun, which opened in 1986 to a huge box office and mixed reviews (and I’m being kind), has nevertheless become a classic Hollywood big-budget property, with all the elements that make a coming-of-age story click. Starring a young Tom Cruise (25 back then, 59 now) and an all-star cast of fighter jets and jocks fueled by the highly volatile mixture of Kenny Loggins, afterburning engines, pretty faces fast bikes and sand volleyball, it’s non-stop fun. (Spoiler alert one: There’s no volleyball in this one. Phew.)

In the eagerly anticipated sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, which opens in theaters this week, audiences will be expecting all of that good stuff and then some. Somehow, it manages to exceed even those sky-high expectations.

Tom Cruise reprises the role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who is older, wiser, has better toys but still has something missing inside.

My guess (and I was right) was that he could fill in that empty place in his heart given enough fast and loud jets, motorcycles, and the need for … redemption. Along the way, there’s an admiral out to get the brash hero and end aviation as we know it; Ed Harris kills it in a role that’s a clever commentary on his portrayal of system-fighting astronaut John Glenn in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. There’s the obligatory gruff and disapproving commanding officer (Jon Hamm) who has had it up to here with Maverick’s shenanigans and can only put up with just this one more thing. And of course, there’s a cast of six-pack abs with fighter jock handles, each one of whom, we learn, when faced with a life challenge, is so much more than just a pretty face or cocky smirk. And the plot, of course, revolves around high-stakes military drama, so Maverick is out not only to redeem himself and finally prove he’s the best fighter pilot ever but to save democracy.

And there’s the love interest, too, this time around played by Jennifer Connelly, who, in the spirit of the times is her own woman living life on her own terms. And she’s pretty age appropriate, shockingly. 

Times have changed in the 36 years since the original debuted, and thankfully the tone of the sequel is more grown up and respectful. The cast, too, is more diverse, with women and people of color figuring prominently in the story line.

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But despite what some might decry as political correctness, the film still manages to be as testosterone driven as the original, which is, let’s be honest, what we were all hoping for. There’s no law that says you can’t fly fast and be nice. And Top Gun: Maverick skillfully pulls off this sleight of hand.

The end result is a film that’s slicker, more modern, and much less trite than its predecessor. Oscar worthy-acting? Not here. Great writing? Not that either. But the players and the lines are both are (largely unremarkably) slick, which is the goal in a film like this. Besides, the movie doesn’t need any of that stuff because what it’s got is….

Fighter jets. Lots of them. And dog fighting. And bad guys. And bombs. And machine guns. And surface-to-air missiles, but all of it done with precious little loss of life. We don’t even know who the bad guys are! But, boy, can we ever tell how bad they are.

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And say what you will about Tom Cruise’s acting or everything else, the guy is a badass airplane pilot. He flies his own North American P-51 WW2-era fighter, an L-39 jet, a HondaJet…let’s suffice it to say we all want Tom Cruise’s hangar. And under his watchful eye, the look and feel and realism of Top Gun: Maverick worked with few and minor exceptions.

The recipe of the original is beyond familiar. You’ve got the talented, headstrong and handsome young protagonist with much to learn but apparently little capacity for growth, the equally brash and arrogant antagonist (Iceman, played by Val Kilmer), a phalanx of crusty old leaders who’ve seen so much they forget what it is to be young, and a great battlefield on which these scores will be settled. The Greeks were writing this stuff 3,000 years ago, and Western Civilization hasn’t grown tired of it in all that time. All we need are fresh faces, a new setting, some modern lingo and we’ll be settled in with our $10 popcorn to watch the pageant unfold as though we’d never seen it before.

But this is the sequel, which the writers won’t let you forget for a second, and instead of a coming of age story, we get to see the brash youngster finally growing up, or at least trying to—spoiler alert two: you can have it both ways.

While the original functioned for some viewers on the level of high camp—the volleyball, the motorcycle racing the Tomcat, the frat-boy camaraderie—part deux is way slicker. The dialog is better—some of the jokes are really funny—the acting, even Cruise’s,  is more credible…the music is somehow more subtle (despite the early appearance of Kenny Loggins) and the filming is absolutely spectacular under the direction of Joseph Kosinski. On top of that, the pacing is spot on, so the two-plus hour length is just right. That itself is a notable achievement.

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Top Gun: Maverick isn’t the best film made this year, never mind the best ever. But it is the best aviation movie ever made, and for that we should all thank Tom Cruise, without whose buy-in this film would never have seen the light of day. And with Cruise having a great degree of control over the way the aviation scenes were filmed—despite some hypersonic silliness early on, it’s believable. A big part of that was that Cruise successfully insisted on using actual footage of F/A-18s instead of lame CGI, and the result is a film that looks real because it is real. Is there too much flying? As if that’s possible! But there is a lot of flying, and it’s done so skillfully all while keeping the drama speeding along so smoothly that no one will be complaining. In fact, a lot of us aviation types will be beating a trail to the theater—see it in IMAX—and buying it on Blu-ray first chance we get.

For now, check out the official trailer.

Behind-the-Scenes Video: Top Gun Producers Taught its Actors to Fly! Plus, a Release Date!

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