Top Gun 2 Tops the Original - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Top Gun 2 Tops the Original

My first movie review for The American Spectator appeared in the August 1986 issue and was about a little flick called Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott from a script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. Set at the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (nicknamed “Top Gun”) in the Miramar section of San Diego, it starred Tom Cruise as Lt. Pete Mitchell, who’s the Navy’s best pilot (he operates on instinct, you see) and who’s known as Maverick — his “call sign” — because, as I wrote, he’s “an arrogant showoff” who’s “been busted from the rank of squadron leader three times for his ‘showboating.’ ” Maverick’s rival — and exact opposite — is Iceman (Val Kilmer), whose “every aeronautical move is a ‘perfect example of a textbook maneuver.’ ” Maverick’s love interest is the new civilian flight instructor, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), who, try though she might, can’t resist his charms for long, thereby providing the movie with its obligatory 1980s sex scenes (with the obligatory hit song, “Take My Breath Away,” banging away in the background). And Maverick’s best pal is Goose (Anthony Edwards), whose accidental death gives Maverick the obligatory opportunity to switch from cocky to somber, questioning — for a brief interlude, anyway — his drive to be “the best of the best.” Add in the aerial sequences — including a climactic dogfight over the Indian Ocean — and you have all the ingredients for a perfect teen date movie, with tender moments for the gals and rousing action for the fellas.

But I hated it. I found it leaden, vacuous, formulaic. I wrote that it “lionizes ignorance, venerates immaturity, [and] reveres raw, primitive instinct.… for all the fierce fondling and the fancy flying, it is one of the most remarkably dull movies in recent memory.” Needless to say, the picture was a huge success. Filmed on a $15 million budget, it grossed $356 million, making it the year’s No. 1 hit. It also made Cruise a superstar. A couple weeks ago, knowing that the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, was about to be sprung on the world, I wondered what to make of my review of the original. After all, I’d come to regret sneering at Pretty Woman. Perhaps I’d be sorry that long ago, in another life, I’d panned Top Gun, too? So I gave the movie another look. And I agreed with every word of my 36-year-old review: it was vapid, clichéd, cheesy. Even the flying scenes, when viewed on a small screen, were boring.

Top Gun: Maverick goes down a lot more easily than its predecessor.

Then, for the first time in years, I went to an actual movie theater — remember those? — and watched the sequel. Directed by Joseph Kosinski from a script by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie, with story credit going to Peter Craig and Justin Mark, Top Gun: Maverick starts out exactly like the original: to a background of pounding music (I’m told that in both cases it’s Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone”), we’re treated to richly atmospheric, beautifully lit closeups of fighter jets preparing to take off from an aircraft carrier. And then we plunge into the story: Maverick, who after over 30 years is still a Navy flyboy, now living in an old hangar in the Mojave Desert, learns that his superior, Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), is shutting down the pilot program Maverick runs because, in Cain’s view, drones are the future (“Your kind,” he barks, “is headed for extinction”). Since Cain’s official explanation for the shutdown, however, is that the pilots under Maverick’s command have yet to reach Mach 10, Maverick — being Maverick — grabs a plane and takes it to Mach 10. Ten point two, to be specific. (In the control center, one officer whispers in wonder, “He’s the fastest man alive.”) Returning to base, Maverick is told that he’s being transferred to Top Gun, the scene of his youthful adventures. He protests, but has no choice other than to obey orders: precisely because he’s such a, well, maverick, he’s still only a captain, even though, as Cain admits, “You should at least be a two-star admiral by now, if not a senator.” (Cain apparently missed Cruise’s 2007 turn as a senator in Lions for Lambs.)

Arriving at Top Gun, Maverick is ordered to prepare a group of the school’s top graduates for — how to put it? — an impossible mission: flying at low altitude and top speed (to avoid radar and a battery of missiles) through a narrow, winding canyon in enemy territory (the enemy in question is never identified), then climbing steeply up a mountainside and just as steeply down the other side before taking out a uranium plant that can only be destroyed by ultra-precise targeting. To accomplish this daunting task, warns Maverick’s Miramar superior, Vice Admiral Simpson (John Hann), will require nothing less than two miracles in a row — first, negotiating that canyon, then destroying the plant. So Maverick’s job, which he has just a couple of weeks to carry out, is a big one: he’ll train his pilots for this specific (and potentially deadly) assignment, all the while sizing them up, and will then be asked to pick the six best to try to destroy the uranium plant. (Given Tinseltown’s current diversity-quota mentality, it’s easy to figure out whom he’ll end up picking.)

From this point on, Top Gun: Maverick feels rather less like the original Top Gun than like one of the Mission: Impossible films — which, from this reviewer’s point of view, is a definite plus. (There are also hints of Independence Day and The Right Stuff and, I gather from other commentators, Star Wars — which, having hated the bits of it that I’ve seen, I’ve never viewed in its entirety.) Of course, the movie isn’t all about mission prep. Maverick reconnects with an old San Diego flame, Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a barmaid who provides him with a love interest and the audience with loads of exposition (for example, it turns out that the only reason Maverick has survived all his mavericky antics is that his old nemesis, Iceman, now Commander of the Pacific Fleet, is constantly picking up the phone to bail him out). Maverick also meets his students, most of whom, like him and his buddies in the first Top Gun outing, are cocky punks — the most annoying of them, and in fact one of the most annoying characters in film history, being the chronically smirking Hangman (Glen Powell), and another one being his late buddy Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller), whose years of difficult backstory with Maverick (also helpfully supplied by Penny) makes their reunion uneasy. And where’s Charlie in all this? Well, she goes unmentioned — and quite properly so, given that the poor thing, if still alive, has gotten 36 years older, whereas Cruise — I mean Maverick — simply doesn’t age.

So anyway, the film drills into our heads that it’s urgent for Maverick to squeeze as much pilot training as possible into a very short period of time. Then what? Maverick and his students head for the beach, strip off their shirts, and play a rowdy game of touch football — an homage, I guess, to the notoriously homoerotic beach volleyball sequence in the original. Asked by Simpson why he’s wasting time like this, Maverick self-confidently explains: he’s team-building. Soon enough, to be sure, his confidence wavers, yielding the obligatory moment of self-doubt in which he confesses to Simpson that flying “isn’t what I am. It’s who I am. How do I teach that?” What, moreover, he asks Penny, should he do about Rooster, who’s proving to be his most gifted student? “If I send him” on the mission, Maverick frets, “he might never come back. If I don’t, he’ll never forgive me.” But he soldiers on, pumping up his pilots with a phrase right out of the original Top Gun: “Each of you represents the best of the best.”

Of course, all of these earthbound goings-on are merely ancillary. At the heart of this picture are the aerial sequences, which are — unsurprisingly — far more advanced than in the original film and, at their best, are thrilling to take in on the big screen. Reportedly, Cruise and his co-stars filmed many of their own stunts in real fighter planes. Yet how can you tell? Part of the training in this picture involves flight simulators, which are so realistic these days that at one point I got confused: were these supposed to be real planes or fakes? On other occasions the whole thing looks like a cutting-edge video game. What’s more, after all the practice runs, the performance of the actual mission feels, during its initial phase, almost anticlimactic. On top of everything else, I was acutely aware that if I were watching these exciting aerial exploits on a TV set, my attention definitely would’ve wandered.

Still, Top Gun: Maverick goes down a lot more easily than its predecessor. Like the films in the Mission: Impossible franchise, it’s a very smoothly put together contraption, building expertly, and with welcome touches of humor, to the execution of the mission. It also feels, all in all, a great deal more grown-up than the original Top Gun — an exercise in nostalgia rather than a date movie. Which brings us to Cruise, who, in the decades since the original, has not just grown older but become a much better and more appealing actor. The young Maverick (who was not appreciably different from Cruise’s protagonists in other formulaic ’80s vehicles like Risky Business and Cocktail) was a shallow, obnoxious narcissist, fixated on being the top dog in the pack; today’s Maverick is sober and sympathetic — no jejune pack animal but a mature, reflective loner, at times almost a Clint Eastwood type, who still enjoys the ladies and laughs readily in the company of other dudes, but who, when he’s not zipping around (as ever) on his trusty motorcycle or racing through the sky at 10 times the speed of sound, moves rather slowly and deliberately, with a look in his eye that conveys a lifetime of grief and regret.

One last thing. Some people who’ve written about Top Gun: Maverick found it emotionally moving. The Guardian’s Mark Kermode was “shamefully brought to tears by moments of hate-yourself-for-going-with-it manipulation”; at the Roger Ebert website, Tomris Laffly suggests that its ending “might require a tissue or two.” For me, the most touching thing about the movie is this: in the original, Maverick wore a bomber jacket, handed down from his father, with U.S., UN, Japanese, and Taiwanese flag patches on the back. In 2019, when the sequel was originally scheduled for release, a trailer showed him wearing the same jacket from 1986, but with the flags of those two Pacific allies missing — an apparent sop to Beijing. Well, the Japanese and Taiwanese flag patches have been restored in the film’s final cut, with two interesting consequences: first, the picture — so far, at least — has no release date in China; second, according to Vice, “at the movie premiere in Taiwan, the audiences cheered and clapped at the unexpected sight of their national flag.” What happened? The restoration of the two flags — an extremely minor detail in the scheme of things — is entirely out of character for the Hollywood studios, whose top priority these days is kowtowing to China. Might it be that Cruise himself pushed the issue? If that’s the case, he’s a hero not just on celluloid but in real life.

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