Director – Joseph Kosinski – 2022 – US – Cert. 12a – 131m
The eponymous Maverick (Tom Cruise) returns to the Navy pilot Top Gun school to train a dozen new recruits to fly an impossible bombing mission and come back alive– out in cinemas on Wednesday, May 25th
Welcome back to the world of US Navy aviation where pilots all have their own self-given flying nicknames. While his contemporaries such as Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now an admiral in charge of the Pacific fleet, have advanced in ranks, Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) has remained a captain in order to stay on active service in the field. He’s now a test pilot and loves his job.
However, Maverick has got into trouble one too many times, most recently by disobeying orders when he went ahead with a Mojave Desert test flight on a programme which a rear admiral (Ed Harris) wanted shut down. In doing this, and proving that the plane in question can fly not just at the untried Mach 9 but also at Mach 10…10.1… 10.2… Maverick sees himself safeguarding the jobs of all those working on the programme. The Navy, however, sees it as insubordination and want him grounded. Permanently.
He is summoned to see superior Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (Jon Hamm) who gives him a good talking to and informs him that the way things are going, the Navy won’t need to use human pilots for ever, so what Maverick does is destined for redundancy. He won’t be grounded just yet, however, because Iceman has put in a request for his involvement in an upcoming mission, “although,” says the clearly exasperated Cyclone, “what he sees in you I don’t know.” So Maverick is summoned back to Navy flight school Top Gun for a mission to destroy a nuclear site in Iraq due to become operational in a mere three weeks. But not to fly. To teach.
We are introduced to the new raft of a dozen Top Gun recruits in a bar owned by Maverick’s former flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), a character mentioned in passing in the original Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986). These new recruits include Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late colleague Goose (Anthony Edwards in Top Gun) for whose death Maverick continues to blame himself. Maverick previously stalled Rooster’s career by pulling the latter’s papers from flight school application, believing that his mother didn’t want her son to be a pilot. Rooster knows this, so there’s bad blood between them, the working out of which could impact the effectiveness of the mission.
Other pilots include Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin (Glen Powell) whose attitude to authority resembles Maverick’s own and who his contemporaries think would be a bad choice of mission leader because he won’t look after those underneath him, Reuben ‘Payback’ Fitch (Jay Ellis), token female pilot Natasha ‘Phoenix’ Trace (Monica Barbaro) and dependable introvert Robert ‘Bob’ Floyd (Lewis Pullman).
From here, the narrative follows the training for the mission through to its taking place, punctuated by the ongoing potential romance between Maverick and single parent mum Penny and underscored by the complex relationship between Maverick and Rooster. The screenplay by heavyweights Ehren Kruger (writer of three Transformers movies 2014, 2011, 2009; two US The Ring movies, 2005, 2002), Eric Warren Singer (writer: Only The Brave, 2017; American Hustle, 2013; The International, 2009) and Christopher McQuarrie (Mission Impossible: Fallout, 2018; Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, 2015; The Way Of The Gun, 2000) never misses a trick.
The flying sequences are fantastic (just as they were in the original film), here augmented by easy to follow, animated graphics with all the planes labelled by pilot presumably supposed to be a computer interface directly resulting from modern computer technology’s ability to track all of the planes in-flight. This is never stated too clearly, presumably at least in part because, with the mission flying below enemy radar tracking the planes, this might be difficult if not impossible. But no matter.
The mission involves flying past SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) to drop first a marker (“miracle one”, although it’s not clear to me why you would need to do this) then an actual bomb (“miracle two”) on to the tiny target before getting back alive. It’s the Death Star run from Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) all over again. To Maverick, this chances of this succeeding and the pilots coming back alive seem slim, so he trains his charges to fly below radar thus avoiding the SAMs.
There’s also a downside, flying along a twisting and turning valley pulling enormous amounts of G-force which might make the pilots black out. After this comes a tortuous climb up and over a ridge followed by an upwards flight bringing the planes into the sight of the SAMs (presumably going back down the valley the way they came in wouldn’t be as exciting to watch, even if the alternative makes little sense when you stop and think about it). When all this seems to be too much for his recruits to handle, Maverick goes out and does a practice run himself to prove it’s possible and get a none-too-pleased Cyclone to agree this option.
At this point, I note that referring to a bomb drop as a miracle seems disingenuous to say the least, since you’re referring to weapons of war as agents of supernatural goodness and restoration. Indeed, there’s a general problem with movies like this: you feel as though no-one ever dies (even though the death of Goose hangs over this film and informs its plot and characterisation) despite constantly tangling with death. You certainly never feel that, for instance, any enemy pilots shot down are real people – they’re just enemy planes to be shot down. It’s a sugar-coated vision of war and although there’s an army (no pun intended) of visual effects people working on the film, not to mention cooperation from various US Navy departments, there remains something worrying about the gung ho element.
You probably won’t find yourself thinking thoughts along these lines while you’re watching it, though, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t completely engrossing and compelling throughout. That’s not just the flying: the romantic interludes between Maverick and Penny are also deftly handled and are even, on occasion, hilarious.
Later on, a very moving meeting takes place between Maverick and Iceman, the latter dying from an incurable disease.
All this will appeal to admirers of the original film (of which I’m not one – I was never especially impressed with it) who want to find out what happens to the older versions of those characters. Such viewers may well have advanced in their own careers at the expense of doing what they loved in the first place (if they are lucky enough to be in careers they felt that way about to start with, which not everyone is). Equally, those new to the franchise can root for the younger, new recruits. Something for everyone, in other words.
Even if its predictably gung ho attitude to warfare is deeply questionable, the movie is beautifully put together and far more impressive than I would have imagined.
Top Gun: Maverick is out in cinemas in the UK on Wednesday, May 25th.