“Top Gun Maverick” is movie about how people don’t change, and how hit movie formulas shouldn’t be messed with.
It’s a sentimental stroll through 1986’s “Top Gun” — a sentimental stroll at Mach whatever, pulling seven, eight or nine “G’s” along the way.
Every bit as simply-plotted as the original, it’s built around seriously impressive flying footage involving a lot more stunt work than digital trickery, and the stoic “Let’s make this REAL” presence of Tom Cruise. Starting with “Top Gun,” he set the bar for what movie stars should put themselves through in the “Holy crap, he’s really DOING that” realm of action stunts.
And that spreads throughout the cast of Joseph Kosinski’s adrenalin rush remake. Look at Cruise’s grimace as his character’s F-18 launches from an aircraft carrier, twists, rolls, dives and climbs. Look at the eyes and faces beneath the helmets of young co-stars Miles Teller, Monica Barbaro, Jay Ellis and Danny Ramirez.
If they aren’t “in there” and “up there” experiencing a version of what their characters go through learning to dogfight and carry out a desperate “Star Wars” bombing mission in a “rogue state” about to start enriching uranium, that’s the most impressive stunt fakery and acting in the picture.
This “Top Gun” shamelessly repeats huge chunks of the original film, and makes no bones about stealing from “The Right Stuff” and every action pic about feuding pilots and zig-zagging through “canyons” to evade radar (“Firefox,” etc.) and strike a target tucked into a mountain (“633 Squadron”) ever. Including “Star Wars.”
If screenwriters Ehren Krueger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie aren’t blushing, that’s OK. Let’s just hope they donated the DVDs of all the pictures they memorized and ripped off to their public libraries.
But none of that strips the fun from this nostalgic, jokey and balls-to-the-wall sequel. It’s pure popcorn fun at its corniest.
Cruise is a wizened if not wiser test pilot Maverick still given to “breaking the rules,” still “just a captain” over 30 years into his career. He gives us a little of the “Right Stuff” as he takes a prototype spy plane to its limits and beyond, inviting a chewing-out and dismissal from “The Drone Ranger,” the commanding officer (Ed Harris) who kills that program on the spot.
“The future is coming, and you’re not in it.”
But Maverick’s Navy flying career has a “guardian angel.” That’s how he ends up back at the dog fighting school he so disrupted during the ’80s. There’s this mission, the CO there (Jon Hamm) informs him, prompting Maverick to leap to the wrong conclusions.
“We don’t want you to fly it. We want you to teach it.“
A brash corps of Navy fighter jocks is to be trained, tested and culled to find the right ones to stop this over-armed and unnamed “rogue state” from going nuclear. One of them has a mustache, just like his old man.
Goose (Anthony Edwards) may be gone. But his kid (Miles Teller of “Whiplash”) is here. And “Rooster” holds a grudge. How will that endanger the mission, and can there be bro bonding between young pilots when not all of them are “bros,” and one of them is a geezer with a flight jacket covered with service patches?
Aside from fighting female Phoenix (Barbaro, of TV’s “The Good Cop,” “Stumptown,” etc) reminding us that the Navy’s not just a boy’s club any more, this “boy’s club” engages in the same camaraderie, hijinks and pilots’ piano bar sing-alongs that every fighter pilot movie since “Hell’s Angels” has showcased.
They’re still playing pool, only the cloth covering the table has fighter plane schematics drawn on it, still singing along to “Great Balls of Fire,” only Rooster’s now tickling the ivories, still pranking “the new guy.” Only now he’s an “old man.”
Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly classes the picture up as the old flame who’s now the owner of “The Hard Deck,” as that bar is named. Penny has her own “need for speed.” She likes bombing around the waters off San Diego under sail in her racing J-boat. When she digs the lee rail in the water and rattles her old beau hanging on for dear life, it may be the most impressive stunt in the movie.
Naturally, she’s reluctant to take up again with hit-it-and-quit-it Maverick. But she looks so natural and at home on the back of his latest Kawasaki.
The wisecracks fly and characters shout out their “issues” mid-dogfight. Everybody takes a break from training for a rough, shirtless but Raybanned game of touch football in the surf.
And the homages to the first film begin with the recycled opening credits (original co-producer Don Simpson, long dead, turns up) and a near shot-for-shot Kenny Loggins-scored carrier flight operations montage remake, and continue through to a moving reunion between Maverick and the Iceman.
It’s all in good fun, even if you’re never really surprised by anything, even if you your eyes roll with every barrel roll of a plot twist in the later acts. The stunts, the knock-you-around-in-your-seat dogfighting, still has “the need for speed” and a license to thrill.
And yet “Maverick” — the character and the film — seems more sober, more reflective. It’s somehow less like the jingoistic “MTV Fighter Jocks” Navy recruiting film that the even shallower (and not aging well) Reagan-era original was.
“Maverick” is a reminder that while his non-action career has petered out, Cruise was and remains one of the greatest action stars ever. And if he’s dyeing his hair and doing stuff most folks pushing 60 shouldn’t or wouldn’t, he’s earned that right because we still believe it — every stunt, every damned time.
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some strong language
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Jon Hamm, Jay Ellis, Glen Powell, Ed Harris and Val Kilmer
Credits: Directed by Joseph Kosinski, scripted by Ehren Krueger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, based on the film “Top Gun.” A Paramount release.
Running time: 2:11