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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ review: Maverick soars and hits his targets

Carljoe Javier
‘Top Gun: Maverick’ review: Maverick soars and hits his targets

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'One of the things being touted by the film is that it uses no CGI. This pays off so well.'

The cynical way to look at Top Gun: Maverick is to see a studio trying to revive a well-known property. It’s not wrong to wonder why, after over three decades since the original film, there would be any need to revisit and add onto the Top Gun narrative. But if you responded to the news of another Top Gun movie with a “sure, why not,” then this movie won’t disappoint. 

Thinking of the original, it feels almost more of a cultural milestone than important film. And I think that’s an important point here: Top Gun was a good solid action flick that had a cultural moment. Memorable things from it inhabit the imagination in a way that more well-crafted movies don’t. Maverick understands this and doesn’t try to change what worked. It makes the right choices in basically taking an ’80s movie aesthetic, updating and improving things to make it feel sleek and modern, and giving audiences a well-calibrated blockbuster. 

Now a big thing to get out of the way is the world that Top Gun occupies. In the same way that its sensibilities are rooted in the ’80s, so goes its politics. When the original film was released, it was part of an innovative collaboration with the US Navy to basically build a piece of propaganda with Hollywood, glamorizing the military and serving as a way to show American exceptionalism. 

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Maverick returns to that and I waffle between calling it aggressively apolitical (because it really manages to evade the Right/Left divide the US confronts now) to in your face political commercial for the US military. This amid all of the problematic behavior of the US, even if you were just looking at what has happened in, say, Afghanistan and Ukraine. And rather than reflect anything in the real world, this movie decides to have as its Big Bad an unnamed rogue state that has access to nuclear materials. We are given no sense of their geography or anything like that. Instead, we follow these American pilots who are going to make the world safe for all of us. 

I actually don’t fault Maverick for this specific evasion. If you can accept this as a military fantasy, where the “bad guy” targets are just sort of randos who help to advance the story, and that a lot of this inhabits an almost video game-like framework, then you can have a lot of fun here. 

Once I checked my politics at the door, I was ready to enjoy the movie. Story-wise, well, it’s pretty much School of Rock/Dead Poets Society/(Insert title of movie with inspiring non-conformist teacher) but with fighter pilots. It has a much tighter form than the first film. There’s a ticking clock, which is when the aforementioned rogue state gets a nuclear site operational. The US military needs to destroy the site before then. And the only man who can train a new batch of pilots is Tom Cruise’s Maverick. Hijinks ensue. 

The young pilots are a fair mix, appropriately diverse enough for the times, but still at a level that won’t freak out people who are afraid of diversity (though it could have definitely used more women). This new batch is led by Miles Teller’s Rooster, who is the son of Anthony Edwards’ Goose. He has the same mustache and Hawaiian shirts, but bears a grudge against Maverick, which sets up the main narrative drama. It’s not father and son issues, but it might as well be. Throw in an annoying alpha male dude, a nerdy guy, and a few other people to sit in seats while you’re given lectures and montages, enough to make for a beach sports scene. 

Alongside the young ones is a romantic storyline featuring Jennifer Connelly as Penny, a character named in the first film. I have to say that it’s a credit to Connelly that she manages to put weight to the role, conveying the past relationship with Maverick that is mentioned and never actually shown. 

And as is inevitable in a movie like this, we need a principal/dean/administrator of some sort to yell at Maverick when he isn’t following the rules. That’s played to the letter by Jon Hamm. Val Kilmer also makes a short, but very emotional, appearance here. When you consider how much Kilmer has had to deal with in recent years, then there’s an added impact, too. 

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If I’m talking about this movie as if it’s paint-by-numbers, that’s because it is. In the opening titles, you see the Bruckheimer/Simpson logo, and if you’re familiar with it, then you know you’re getting set up for a very specific kind of movie experience. It’s one that’s heavy on spectacle, big on action. And if it’s an action movie you want, it is what you get. 

One of the things being touted by the film is that it uses no CGI. This pays off so well. There’s an immediacy to this movie and a “real-ness” to it that’s undeniable. When there would be intense dogfight sequences I would find myself gripping the handles and pushing back into my seat as if I were feeling what was happening. It did feel at some point that I wasn’t thinking about watching a movie, but instead that I was having an immersive experience. By combining the practical effects, stellar sound design, and great action directing, I did feel transported by this movie. 

Top Gun: Maverick aspires to bring us into the cockpit and get us to feel the excitement of a dogfight. And then building around that experience, it recreates an ’80s action movie, with all the fun and silliness that this might imply. It might be predictable, but there’s a real comfort and pleasure to be found in getting exactly what you want and a little more. –

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