Top Gun was such a quintessential product of the ’80s, I wondered how the folks behind Top Gun: Maverick could possibly update it for the 2020s. The short answer: They didn’t.
An early clue is when middle-aged Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is seen riding motorcycle without a helmet. Kind of acceptable in the 1980s. An absolute no-no in 2022. And yet, he’s Maverick, man. He’s got a need for speed. No stinking helmet is going to drag his force. (Or whatever.)
Indeed, many elements of the original are intact. The cheesy power ballads (“Highwaaaaaaaay to the danger zone!”). The synth- and drum-heavy musical cues. The fetishization of military artifacts. The shirtless, vaguely homoerotic male bonding (although, alas, the tightie-whities of the ’80s are gone). The nose-thumbing of authority. And of course, Tom Cruise’s megawatt grin.
At 59 years old (he was more like 56 when the COVID-delayed film was made), Cruise still looks great. When he takes his shirt off, he looks fit, but not uncannily pumped with steroids like other actors of his generation. He still has a full head of natural (?) tossled brown hair. His face is lined, but still boyish. He, thank God, hasn’t become jowly. But mostly what he has is that grin.
There are many things we associate with Cruise: Randomly saving people. Doing many of his own stunts. Scientology. His obsessive need to always be the best. But, in the end, it all comes down to that grin. Dude could be 85 years old and that shit-eating grin would still say: “I’m the man.”
The action picks up roughly 35 years after the original. Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still a navy pilot—bomber jacket and aviators intact. At this point, he should be an admiral or a general, someone points out. But that’s not his vibe. He just wants to fly jets as fast as possible.
A cursory knowledge of the original film helps understand this one, although it’s not exactly Melville. Maverick’s best friend and wingman Goose died under his watch and he’s never forgiven himself, even though the military cleared him of any wrongdoing. He had a rival named Iceman (Val Kilmer)—a fighter pilot who was everything he wasn’t: disciplined, straight-laced, cool as a cucumber—although their relationship ultimately evolved into one of respect and brotherhood.
The film makes it clear that Maverick would be long out of the military for insubordination were it not for Iceman, now an admiral himself, having his back. And it’s Iceman who gets Maverick a job back at the Top Gun academy to train a group of young elite pilots for a near suicidal mission in Iran. Maverick, naturally, doesn’t want to be a teacher, he wants to be a pilot—but this job is all he’s got.
The cast of student pilots track pretty well with those in the original—although now there are some women and POC in the mix. (Hey, it’s the 21st century, after all!). We’ve got Hangman (Glen Powell), the overly cocky one. We’ve got “Bob” (Lewis Pullman), the nerdy one. (It’s an early joke that he’s the only pilot without a colorful handle.) We’ve got Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), who has to deal with sexist barbs from the likes of Hangman, but whose skills as a fighter pilot are second to none. And then we have Rooster (Miles Teller). His blunt dirty blonde hair and brush mustache may look familiar—yep, he’s Goose’s son, and he’s never forgiven Maverick for not only his father’s death but for not recommending him to the naval academy.
Maverick wouldn’t be Maverick without a humorless authority figure to rail against—and in this case that thankless role goes to Jon Hamm, as Admiral Simpson. A huge part of ’80s films—and I can’t emphasize this enough—is a renegade hero earning the respect of various authority figures. Often, there are scenes where the hero triumphs and crowds cheer and the authority figure is forced to shake his head in grudging admiration. Sometimes a nod is exchanged between the two men. That tracks with this update.
The ’80s was also the peak decade of buddy films and we have multiple buddy films going on at once here—a Russian nesting doll of buddy films, you might say—between Maverick and his best friend Hondo (Bashir Salahuddin). Between Maverick and Rooster. Between Rooster and Hangman. Between Maverick and Simpson’s colleague Warlock (Charles Parnell), who secretly admires the brash iconoclast. And, yes, between Maverick and Iceman.
It is well known that Val Kilmer has been in poor health these last few years, but the film handles his appearance with generosity and grace. When Maverick goes to visit his old friend, he’s dying and can barely use his voice (also true of Kilmer). But they manage to have an exchange that is warm and playful, capturing the spirit of their old friendly rivalry. It’s clear that Cruise adores and admires Kilmer and the history between the two men—both the characters and actors—adds a layer of real poignancy to the scene.
Of course, a huge part of the original was Maverick’s romance with the civilian flight instructor Charlie (Kelly McGillis). I’d love to report that the 64-year-old McGillis reprises her role here, but alas. It was apparently sexy when Cruise was 24 and she was in her 30s. But a 64 year old female love interest is a bridge too far. (Sigh.)
So, hilariously, they give us Jennifer Connelly’s bar owner Penny—and the way they introduce Penny might have some viewers scratching their heads, wondering if they missed an earlier Top Gun sequel. She and Maverick have a back story—they dated off and on, they were in love, he repeatedly broke her heart—that they treat as though we should already know about it. It’s cinematic gaslighting! Ah, the lengths they will go not to cast a 64-year-old woman.
So now I’ll get to the part that y’all might care about the most, but I care about the least (sorry, it’s the just the way I’m wired): the jet fighter sequences. I’m here to report, they’re good! The jets themselves are sleeker and cooler. And the fight sequences are genuinely thrilling, especially as they whiz between mountains and dip into valleys. There are also too many of them. Again, just one woman’s opinion.
All in all, I have to hand it to Cruise, director Joseph Kosinksi, and all the folks behind Top Gun: Maverick. They channeled ’80s nostalgia into a clever, exciting, and fun package that reminds us why we loved those cheesy movies to begin with. Please freeze frame on a picture of me grinning in aviators and giving a big thumbs up.