Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

top gun maverick review

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) Directed by Joseph Kosinski

The unthinkable happens. A risky, testosterone-heavy ride that roars boldly from vertiginous altitudes where only the most undaunted Top Gun pilots can fly over and emerge unscathed. Yes ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about Top Gun, a title first popularized when it was seen in 1986 with Tony Scott’s flawed but generationally beloved film that introduced to the blockbuster movie world the most rebellious and coolest pilot ever seen in American cinema, the uncompromisingly fearless, Maverick. It’s no surprise that right now I’m writing about what probably is (was) the most anticipated sequel of the year, it was for many years now an imminent fact that the consummation of this project would see the light of day sooner or later. Being a skeptical person by nature when it comes to populist blockbusters I must admit that I was almost 90% sure that it would be a cinematic debacle, and you know what? I’m extremely glad I was never right, because this muscular, propulsive and thrillingly nostalgic sequel to Top Gun is everything I ever wanted from a contemporary blockbuster and boy does it do it surprisingly well.

Top Gun: Maverick, though lazily titled, the narrative of this energetic sequel pushes its own limits by presenting itself to us as a quintessential sequel. The kind of film creative enough to electrify us with the nostalgia of the past while exciting us with its authentic contemporaneity. The 1986 film directed by Tony Scott, was never a good film per se, it wasn’t in 1986 and it isn’t now, it was commercially and it was a momentary phenomenon that took hold of 80s culture, however as a film and nothing more than that, without external factors, it is a messy and arrhythmic film, very flawed even in its astonishing moments of glory. So, inevitably, Top Gun: Maverick surpasses its predecessor in a huge way, it is unfathomable to be able to measure how great and superior this new sequel is in comparison to the first installment.

A myriad of films, so often, use the nostalgia factor to sell themselves as a souvenir; they take advantage of success and memorabilia to exploit not their own merits but those of others, thus offering a product that is worth more for the memory than for the experience that continues it. The deft writing of this sequel has an enviable ability to manage to convey nostalgia in a fashion that is not abusive and repetitive. Some sequels use the clichés of evocations of the distant past as a manipulative tool and others employ these prototypical idioms to give narrative weight to the new story that echoes the old one. Top Gun: Maverick belongs to the second group. The action hero and inventive Tom Cruise in the lead performance reprising his role as Maverick and as producer, along with director Joseph Kosinski, are the two proficient heads of this film, which integrates a superb team of filmmakers articulating a stereotypical cinema that as you begin to relish its proceedings, the experience becomes atypical, a formidable and out-of-the-ordinary experience.

The paraphernalia of clichéd action cinema, and the hackneyed and ridiculous conventions of sequels, here in Top Gun: Maverick are not superfluously piled on to patch up mistakes or to fool the inquisitive eye of the audience; there is a conscientious application of rhetorical devices to offer a renewal of these worn-out clichés. The truth is, Top Gun: Maverick is the most innovative blockbuster of recent times, bringing with it so many constructive and functional ideas that experiencing its fast-paced, high-altitude thrill ride becomes a cinematic exercise in vibrant entertainment.

The load of nostalgia that poeticizes this film in each of its frames is hefty, yet feels light and necessary. I’m reasonably certain that this omnipresence of sensations reminiscent of the first film were meticulously thought out by the screenwriters, who tactically instrumentalize the popular enthusiasm of the 80’s generation to seduce them back into an improved version. At first glance I really thought that those cyclical flashbacks that overlap with the narrative of this film, which takes place 36 years after the events of the first film, would be intrusive and hinder the development of a fresh story, nevertheless, everything in this film refutes what I say and in each of its colossal minutes of pure action and dramatic emotionalism proves to be a work done with devoted care and with much respect for its audience. Nostalgia here plays a transcendent role, but unlike conventional sequels, Top Gun: Maverick manifests heartfelt nostalgia with another perspective, that retrospective aura seems to be just another character in this story; an element that if you discard it or simply remove it, nothing we saw could have happened. It is an essential piece for aerial catharsis.

Top Gun: Maverick’s compelling plot brings us to the present day of our unruly hero, U.S. Navy Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, played by a mature, but physically younger than ever, Tom Cruise. Maverick is now a test pilot, but as in his epic past, his insubordinate attitude and natural brashness earn him some disdain from some of his colleagues, who believe it’s time for him to retire from the Navy for good. Yet, a good friend and rival from the past, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, the great Val Kilmer, reprises his role, now commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and uses his influence and experience to keep Maverick in his position. On the latter’s recommendation and orders, Maverick is assigned to return to the old school he graduated from more than 30 years ago, Top Gun. There he is given the difficult task of training an elite group from that school, a team of extremely competitive pilots, to carry out a complex  mission, which is virtually impossible to accomplish without loss of life. As a mission it is laborious enough, but in addition to that, Maverick gets the melancholy surprise that the son of his deceased best friend, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, is one of the pilots he will have to train. The brave and smart Rooster, played with rousing spirit by Miles Teller, still can’t get over his father’s death, much less make peace with Maverick, whom he unjustly blames for the tragedy; the two have a love-hate relationship on the ground, but in the treacherous skies they must learn to understand each other.

Act after act, the dramatic turning points and timeless iconography of the first film are emulated, or rather, updated. In the midst of this narrative, you have everything you found in the 1986 film and still remember, the only exception being that here it is done with an inexplicable amount of passion, consequently an immensely better film. Obviously Top Gun: Maverick is not a blatant pantomime, it changes many of the variants we encountered in Top Gun (1986). The sweaty, ostentatiously masculine volleyball sequence we all remember from the first film is replaced here by a Football sequence. The intense battle of egos between Maverick and Iceman is substituted here by Rooster and the newly redeemable narcissist Hangman, played by Glen Powell. If in the first installment you had a soporific, asynchronous romance between Cruise and McGillis, here you have a chemically compatible one between Cruise and Jennifer Connelly. The formula is duplicated, although the result is totally the opposite.

To have a result as effective and praiseworthy as this one, it takes a team of sagacious filmmakers to give this kind of sensational spectacle three-dimensionality. The lyrical direction of Joseph Kosinski is probably the most important pillar of this production team. His unfailing prowess in dealing with a space that must necessarily synthesize CGI and live-action images indiscernibly, makes his presence in the directorial field significant to the impact of the film’s rapid energy from start to finish. Tom Cruise reprising the character of Maverick elaborates an entire master plan to finally see a deeper, more sincere performance in contrast to his shallow, flat performance in Top Gun (1986). Cruise jumps, runs and flexes his biceps like a paradigmatic action hero would have done in the 80’s and at almost 60 years of age he moves nimbly like no one else, he is one of a kind, an actor tailor made for this type of film.

If I were to do a comparative exercise between Top Gun (1986) and this film, the first contrast that would quickly become apparent would be explicitly that of melodramatic acuity. Top Gun: Maverick gets right everything that Top Gun (1986) got wrong; despite reusing the same mechanisms to make an action movie amalgamated with romance and drama, this solid sequel forgoes superficiality and dramatic fluffiness by getting its priorities in order. If we position in a pyramid shape those preferences, we would have at the top and main point of its axis the characters as the crucial factor to elaborate the story, at the middle point below the preeminence of the characters we would have the throbbing action, and finally at the bottom as the third place in the priorities we would have the melodramatic absurdities. Director Joseph Kosinski’s proficiency in pulling off a project of this nature and obtaining prosperous results is found in his dynamic eye for sustaining a balance, an architectural system that is built with good, solid foundations just like the pyramid analogy I mentioned. The line that separates and distinguishes this film from the first installment is that it has uniformity in its dramatic arc, delves deep into the characters and doesn’t let go until they achieve an infectious empathy, which of course is gradually conveyed during the evolution of the plot.

Filming Top Gun: Maverick must have been quite an adventure, and not necessarily in the skies or its green screens where most of the action takes place, but in the tense and delicate operating room where the magic of cinema undergoes its last, and in my experience and opinion, most complex process, editing. It is in the editing room where filmic reality is given movement and expression; and one only needs to watch a couple of action scenes in this film to understand the level of challenge the filmmakers underwent in the process of cutting frame by frame, discarding the superfluous and leaving the essential. I in particular was extremely amazed with the finished design. I was especially struck by the singularity of its rhythm, the associative harmony between each frame and cut; when we see the zigzagging, swirling and sinuous movements of the fighter jets, these are combined with the facial intensity of the performances, which must gesticulate with a disturbing hyperrealism the sensation of being in an event of that caliber. These effects of emotion generated by each sequence of dizzyingly  pirouetting jets are pronounced with a series of seamless cuts: judicious insert shots, aggressive cross-cuts and incisions made with a methodical harmonic interpretation of everything that happens within the frames. Yes, the overall effectiveness of the plot is vigorous, but the editing gives it that vitality that rarely a blockbuster film has, here the filmmaking is ridiculously breathtaking, almost pristine.

Although, now looking at it with harsher, unromantic eyes, not everything works flawlessly in Top Gun: Maverick. The filming is spot on, but I can’t say the same for its sometimes weird, overlapping and reckless narrative structure. There are moments in the plot where it erects a diptych form of storytelling that never quite convinces me. Usually when an action sequence materializes it opts for a lax discontinuity that ends up giving the opposite effect to the one intended; to illustrate this error, it could be clearly described in most scenes leading up to the monumental finale. These scenes that are magnificent in essence lose considerable contact with their own dynamics when for some reason they evade the adrenaline continuity contained in the moments above with the speeding jets by cutting the taut linearity with asynchronous juxtapositions. One thing must be made clear though, these sensational sequences are still grandiloquent in action, but they look minuscule later when you are introduced to the awe inspiring, pitch-perfect, gigantic climactic act. The reason the final climax in the belligerent airs works so well is because it doesn’t commit the passable flaws I described above; it elaborates a continuous dimensional field and prolongs the suspense, a grand apotheosis.

Unquestionably, the cinematic populism of Top Gun: Maverick should automatically go down in contemporary film history as another of the great paradigms of good blockbuster cinema. It is a well-rounded celebration of commercial cinema, of cinema that aims to satisfy the average person’s cinematic needs with pure and ardent entertainment alone. Transparently, Top Gun: Maverick declares what it will offer and delivers immediately, with a lyrical paean to heroism and audacity, to cinema and its audience. Tom Cruise confesses in nothing less than this sequel to Top Gun that his mission as a producer is to preserve the tradition of American cinema alive, to return to a time when movies were a necessary escapism in our lives, to experience and interpret implausible situations as tangible realities. Top Gun: Maverick’s exalting vision of cinema is the right one, one that makes me remember why we watch movies in the first place.

 

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.