When I went to see Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I was more excited by the “extended look” at Top Gun: Maverick than I was by the movie I had come to the theater to see. The ad was the dogfight training montage sequence that occurs early in the film, in which Tom Cruise’s Maverick hunts the helpless young Top Gun graduates with an all-out aerial assault, all set to the tune of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
It is a cracker jack sequence, very exciting and well-edited. Within the context of the film, you realize that the joke of the sequence—that the first person to get “shot down” by Mav has to do 200 push-ups—doesn’t track across the entire montage. For some reason, the rules change halfway through the montage so that everyone who gets shot down by Mav has to do push-ups. But as an isolated sequence where the rules are not very important, it is a superb set piece.
This ad was the first time I felt genuinely excited for Top Gun: Maverick. Sitting in the theater for this sequel, coming 36 years after Tony Scott’s original, I soon realized that this advertised sequence might have been more than a sneak peak — it might in fact be the peak of the film.
Don’t get me wrong, the aerial choreography, matched with (mostly) sound editing choices, make for scene after scene of clean and effective action in the skies. And, for what it’s worth, I think fans of Top Gun will feel satisfied with this belated sequel, which benefits from the technological advances in cinema that have come about since the ’80s. For a more casual observer (Top Gun is pretty good, in my opinion), Top Gun: Maverick suffers from its reverence to its namesake.
I feel like a broken record at times when I levy this criticism at sequels and reboots. Perhaps it is a cheap critique. I acknowledge that having a glossy new version of the same exact toy is all some viewers want. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not my thing, I suppose.
Top Gun: Maverick shares a number of story beats of its predecessor. Both are fundamentally stories about competition, where the real value in the competitiveness is that characters learn that the goal cannot be achieved alone. Both involve characters with chips on their shoulders. Both have a reckless, loose cannon character who prefers to ride solo. Both have a by-the-book character who knows the rule book cover to cover and uses those skills with tactical precision (but maybe the rule book just is not enough…).
Both also have romantic B-plots which are thin as a coward’s skin. This time, it is between Maverick and Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a character who is only ever mentioned by name in the original film. I find this to be a baffling choice, given this character is more or less a crude punchline in the first film. Here, the pair’s relationship is treated as if it originated within a soap opera, as opposed to being the youthful one-off fling that it is written as in Top Gun. This anachronism aside, Cruise and Connelly have a black hole where chemistry ought to be. Their scenes together seem to be in perpetual slow motion, roping an anchor onto the tail wing of this movie.
The similarities between the two films, from the narrative angle, are forgivable. I expected as much. That the script also crams in allusions to lines (and, in one instance, the clunkiest, shoe-horned in reference to original film iconography) is more of an annoyance. Moreover, transferring a fairly simplistic set of characters and story beats into an even more simplistic sequel results in an experience which is only visually engaging, and it is only that in spurts.
The introduction of our cadre of fighter pilots, taking place in an awkwardly constructed barroom sequence, shows little finesse in establishing the character dynamics which will fuel the next two hours of screentime. Every character’s call sign, the flier nickname which in this world are more precious than one’s Christian name, is spoken one after another as if someone is dictating a grocery list. Then, each character gets a line to establish each other’s sole personality trait — ultimately, the one thing that either needs to be heightened or adjusted in the climax in order for the mission to run smoothly. If you felt compelled to take notes, this would be the scene to get your pen ready.
These personalities are fairly rote, and the minor conflicts that they inspire are wholly uninspired. Hangman (Glen Powell) is named as such because he is more likely to leave you hung out to dry than come to your aid (how he ever graduated from Top Gun in the first place is a reasonable question). Rooster is a first class flier, but he is timid when it comes to “taking the shot.” If you don’t catch these character flaws the first time around, don’t worry, as you will be reminded with dialogue and shot choices time and again as to what is going on here.
I am less concerned that these one-dimensional characters and flaws exist within a Top Gun movie. It is how these characters’ arcs culminate that really let me down. It is so baldly predictable and uninteresting that I almost audibly groaned when the climax brought these flaws to bear. Multiple key shots at the start of the climax (hovering on a character’s idle hand on the throttle) nearly caused me to involuntarily laugh at how silly the execution was. The exciting climax, which has delightfully simple yet effective stakes, is hampered over and over by these turgid and obvious scripting choices.
This climactic mission is what the whole movie is ramping up to. Many scenes involve Cruise explicating to the potential crew, all populated by former Top Gun recruits, what is at stake. The pilots must fly dangerously low to the ground, weaving in and out of winding cliff faces, toward a small target which they need to hit twice over in order to destroy. Each hit of the target is called out by the dialogue (twice) as “miracles.” Assuming they survive those one-in-a-million objectives, they must then pull up to an extremely severe angle to get out of the trenches (a maneuver so difficult that it damages the plane and may cause the pilots to pass out from the literal pressure). It is only after all of this that the dog-fighting will begin.
The design of this mission is one of the highlights of the film. And witnessing the young pilots struggling to train for each leg of the mission raises the stakes all the more. Everything in this film is pointing toward the final 20 minutes or so, which puts a lot of weight on this sequence to deliver. For me, it simply did not deliver. It was doomed from the start, perhaps, when Maverick’s decision for who will fly the mission hinges more on what is necessary for the script than what logically makes sense for the completion of the objective. (Not to mention that the humor sprinkled throughout the climax is wildly ineffective).
One must credit Cruise, though, for his full investment into this character. The most electrifying sequences of the film are when Maverick is in the air. The film opens with a set piece where Maverick tries to break Mach 10 speed in an experimental aircraft, and it is a great bit of set dressing for the character while also being an awesome scene in its own right. And one scene late in the film that mirrors this first scene, where the only place Maverick can prove his worth is in the cockpit, is similarly breath-taking.
But Maverick cannot carry the film that shares his name on his own. The plot really needs other characters to step into the forefront, and the script calls on two or three to do just that. And it really doesn’t work for me.
Top Gun: Maverick: B-
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)