TOP GUN: MAVERICK – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible), Miles Teller (Whiplash), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Glen Powell (Set It Up), Lewis Pullman (Bad Times at the El Royale), Ed Harris (The Rock), Val Kilmer (Batman Forever)

Director: Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy)

Writers: Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)

Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes

Release Date: 25th May (UK), 27th May (US)

Synopsis: Rebellious ace pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell heads back to the Top Gun academy to train a new generation of fighters for a highly dangerous mission, where he must confront the mistakes of his past and come to terms with the possibility of his high-flying days being numbered.

The original Top Gun carries a lot of weight in cinematic circles. It shot both its lead Tom Cruise and director Tony Scott to superstardom, its dialogue and soundtrack are constantly referenced throughout pop culture, and its homoerotic undertones have doubtlessly inspired many queer theory essays and slash fics alike. At the same time, it’s one of those movies that is never as good as you remember it, as outside the moments that have become 80s iconography, it’s a meandering and formulaic film that mostly gets by on style and charm. Even as Cruise’s career only continued to reach greater heights, the prospect of a sequel never fully went away, and with the tragic passing of Scott in 2012, for a while it seemed like the idea was officially retired. Now though, after several delays both pre and post-pandemic, the need for speed has finally returned to cinemas and the wait has been more than worth it. Top Gun: Maverick is not only the rare sequel that is superior to its predecessor in every facet, but one of the most exhilarating and just plain fun blockbusters in recent memory.

Picking up roughly in real time from the events of the first film, Maverick‘s reuse of the same blurb explaining the history of the titular flight academy and opening credits over footage of jets taking off and landing on aircraft carriers to the rocking guitar of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” immediately bombards the audience with nostalgia. In much the same vein as recent legacy sequels like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, on a structural level it’s practically the same film as the original Top Gun but with Cruise now teaching the class rather sitting amongst the students. However, whereas the first film was an episodic affair with only the loosest of story and character development stitching the scenes together, the second quickly sets its stakes with a high-stakes mission and remains focused on building up towards that finale throughout; every plot development is in some way connected to completing that objective.

There’s certainly evidence that the film may have originally had the looser approach of its forbearer, most evident by a second group of pilots (which notably includes The Good Place‘s Manny Jacinto) who are briefly introduced before fading into the background, but if these threads had to be sacrificed to get the film’s tension and pacing to where it is, it was the right call. There is hardly a wasted moment in Maverick‘s two-hour-plus runtime, consistently thrilling with its stunning airborne action whilst telling a compelling tale of defying the odds and finding redemption. Yes, it may use many of the same building blocks as its predecessor, but it does so with far more confidence and intention, and when it finally breaks from that formula and enters uncharted territory, it soars even higher. Whilst a fondness for the first film may enrich the experience, knowledge and affection for it is far from neccessary; in fact, I’d happily reccomend it even to those who hated the first. Name recognition and nostalgia may be what will initially draw audiences to Top Gun: Maverick, but they’ll leave loving it because of how it builds on the foundation and brings new ideas to the table.

Tom Cruise as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and Jennifer Connelly as Penelope “Penny” Benjamin in TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022, d. Joseph Kosinski)

Many consider Tom Cruise one of the last classic movie stars; an actor who can sell a movie based on his name alone rather than through IP recognition. After Ethan Hunt and Jack Reacher, this is only the third time he’s ever reprised a role, and even all these years later Pete “Maverick” Mitchell remains the character he will probably be most remembered for. His daredevil attitude and penchant for rule-breaking that masks a gold-hearted hero with an impeccably natural skill has been imitated in blockbusters for decades, some well (Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk) and others…not so much (Taylor Kitsch in Battleship), but what does Cruise bring to the role now thirty-six years later? The Maverick of this eponymous sequel is something of a Peter Pan figure, having the skills and experienced of a hardened veteran but retaining the adolescent mindset and rebellious streak of the young hot shot we remember, and the film is essentially about him having to finally grow up. This evolution is dramatised through his strenuous relationship with Miles Teller’s Rooster, the son of Anthony Edwards’ Goose from the original, having to both teach the young pilot how to survive their mission and overcome his remaining guilt for his role in Goose’s demise. Being something of a boy who never grew up himself, Cruise perfectly captures that dichotomy of a young soul trying to be responsible and delivers an entertaining yet layered performance brimming with both humour and ennui; it may indeed be one of his best.

As for the rest of the cast, there isn’t really a weak link amongst them. Teller plays Rooster as almost the antithesis of his on-screen father, making him a bitter and reserved character who resents Maverick’s attempts to help him, but underneath you can still tell he’s cut from the same cloth as Edwards (and I’m not just talking about the moustache). Glen Powell is perfectly cast as the unapologetically brash Hangman, whilst Monica Barbaro and Lewis Pullman make for a fun double act as the determined Phoenix and socially-awkward Bob respectively. Jon Hamm makes the most of his generally perfuntory role as the head of the Top Gun academy, whilst Ed Harris leaves a strong impression in his brief appearance as the sequel’s answer to James Tolkan, but the real tear-jerker is Val Kilmer’s return as Iceman. It’s a small but beautifully-handled scene that doesn’t shy away from Kilmer’s disability and allows him to give a full performance; I only wish he was given similar dignity in all of his recent films. One of the weaker elements of the first film is the romance subplot between Maverick and Kelly McGillis’ Charlie (who isn’t even acknowledged beyond a brief archival appearance), and whilst the similar storyline with Jennifer Connelly’s Penny is also not the strongest, it’s still an improvement. Not only do Cruise and Connelly have a more natural chemistry, Penny’s role serves to humble Maverick and strengthens his motivation beyond trying to save his legacy; again, everything is in service to the story.

Miles Teller as Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw in TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022, d. Joseph Kosinki)

There’s a reason most great fighter pilot movies are set in World War II: once the planes are able to move a certain speed, it’s hard to keep up with the action. The original Top Gun got around this by focusing more of the pilots themselves rather than the literal dogfights, but with advances in modern filmmaking, the technology is now there that can better keep up with the unbelievable speed and acrobatic capabilties of these aircrafts. To put it simply, Maverick contains some of the most edge-of-your-seat action sequences ever put to screen, and right now I couldn’t possibly tell you which parts were crafted in a computer and which parts they had the gall to do for real. Much like his Mission: Impossible films, Cruise’s dedication to doing as much practically as possible has once again paid off and delivers a spectacle that is quickly becoming a relic in a CGI-dominated age.

Director Joseph Kosinski’s previous films, particularly Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, have often been lauded for their visual splendour even if their stories were ultimately lacking, but here the solid script is only further enriched by his eye. Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda capture the spirit of the visual language crafted by Tony Scott and Jeffrey L. Kimball in 1986 but gives it a sleek, modern coat of paint, most evident in the jaw-dropping cockpit photography that pulls the camera back and shows off the environment whizzing past the actors’ heads. Combined with the pounding sound design and a fist-pumping score that combines the talents of Lorne Balfe, Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer and Lady Gaga (who also provides its excellent tie-in ballad “Hold My Hand”), and you’ve got yourself a film that demands to be see on the biggest and loudest screen possible. If you have an IMAX venue anywhere near you, it’s more than worth forking out the £5 upcharge to get the full experience.

Monica Barbaro as Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace in TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022, d. Joseph Kosinski)

There are still a fair few high-profile blockbusters to come in 2022, namely a couple more Marvel movies and the long-awaited Avatar: The Way of Water, but Top Gun: Maverick has now set the bar for the rest of the year incredibly high. Whilst most legacy sequels are content to wallow in their own nostalgia, Cruise and Kosinski haved instead enriched the iconography and created a film that stands on its own as just an excellent example of cinematic entertainment. There isn’t really more I can say other than that, so…just go see it for yourselves. I can guarantee you’ll have a blast.


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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