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Dir: Joseph Kosinski. Starring: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer. 12A, 131 minutes.
Top Gun, released in 1986, might be the most effective and insidious military recruitment ad ever made. Bolstered by the shuddering synths of Harold Faltermeyer’s score and a lifetime’s supply of high fives, Tony Scott’s fighter pilot fever dream represented an amoral, apolitical ideal of navy life. The enemy was unnamed. The war was barely defined. Here, a true brotherhood could be built on nothing but brass balls and good vibes. And a man could sit in a cockpit and feel like he could climb past where Icarus fell. According to the actual US Navy, Top Gun resulted in a 500 per cent boost to their recruitment rates in the year after its release.
One day, there’ll need to be a reckoning over what exactly these films do and who they benefit. But, for now, there’s another truth that’s hard to swerve: the belated follow-up Top Gun: Maverick is as thrilling as blockbusters get. It’s the kind of edge-of-your-seat, fist-pumping spectacular that can unite an entire room full of strangers sitting in the dark and leave them with a wistful tear in their eye.
The film is a true legacy sequel. In the tradition of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s a carefully reconstructed clone of its predecessor, tooled not only to reflect changing tastes and attitudes, but the ascendancy of its star Tom Cruise to a level of fame that borders on the mythological. Do we still think of Cruise as a man these days, or as an idea?
In Maverick’s opening scenes, we reunite with his character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, now head of a programme that tests high-altitude, hypersonic reconnaissance planes. He’s about to be shut down, his pilots replaced with drones. The only way he can save the day is if he can hit 10 times the speed of sound in his next test run. Anyone who knows the old Maverick will not only predict whether or not he can pull it off, but also if he’ll decide to push things a little too far. After he crash-lands, he strides into some rustic-looking diner, covered head-to-toe in ash. The most gee-whiz kid you’ve ever seen gazes up at him in awe (place your bets now on whether he joins the navy when he grows up).
But people do change, and this Maverick is a man haunted by his past. The military may have cleared him of responsibility, but he’ll never shake the feeling that his own bravado caused the death of his best friend Goose during a routine training exercise. In Top Gun, it humbled him. Here, his feelings are less clear-cut and all the more interesting for it. He’s so eager to put himself in harm’s way that it almost seems like a death wish. He’s also suffocatingly protective of Goose’s son, Bradley, otherwise known as Rooster (Miles Teller). Maverick tried to block his path into flight school. Rooster bitterly resents him for it. When Maverick is called in to train naval recruits in what, on paper, comes across as an impossible mission – hint hint, there’s a generous dollop of Ethan Hunt in this film – their relationship becomes all the more fraught.
Due to the practical limitations of the time, Top Gun’s original dog fights were robust but always a little hard to follow. Here, they’re the true meat-and-bones of the film – breathtakingly balletic, and grounded in the increasingly rare pleasure of the tangible. Cruise and his co-stars sit in actual cockpits. The aerial stunts are (mostly, at least) real. It’s a true feat for director Joseph Kosinski to make something this ambitious look this effortless. He also works enough in the language and tone of Cruise’s recent collaborations with Christopher McQuarrie (the screenwriter of Edge of Tomorrow and the last two Mission: Impossibles) that Maverick plays as much as a Top Gun film as it does a Cruise film. And, as can be expected now, the star attacks the movie with such dedication that it completely outsizes every single element around him.
Fortunately, that does a good job of hiding quite how much Top Gun: Maverick is structured like Top Gun. Entire sequences – including the “Highway to the Danger Zone”-soundtracked opening of jets taking off – are lifted wholesale from the original film. The new recruits are roughly reshaped versions of the old characters: we’ve got a new Iceman in Glen Powell’s Hangman (he finds just the right level of assholery for the role), while Monica Barbaro’s Phoenix is, like Kelly McGillis’s Charlie before her, the one woman on the base with any lines. This time, at least, she gets to be one of the pilots. Rooster isn’t really like his dad, but he does dress just like him – right down to the sunglasses and the unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt.
But Top Gun: Maverick really isn’t packed with the kind of craven nostalgia that we’re used to these days. It’s smarter, subtler, and wholly more humanistic. Kosinski allows space for Val Kilmer’s Iceman, whose rivalry with Maverick was so integral to the original, to be celebrated, without the film cruelly papering over the loss of Kilmer’s voice due to cancer.
The film, unfortunately, doesn’t extend as much of a loving hand toward the women of Top Gun – neither McGillis nor Meg Ryan, who played Rooster’s mother, make any kind of return. Maverick, instead, gets a new love interest in the form of Jennifer Connelly’s Penny, the admiral’s daughter offhandedly mentioned in the first film, now a bar owner and a single mother. Again, there’ll come a time when we need to talk about why Hollywood only accepts older women who look a certain way. Until then, who can be blamed for getting swept up by a film this damned fun?
‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is in cinemas from 25 May