Is it even worth reviewing a grotesque pop culture phenomenon like Top Gun: Maverick?
Seems like everyone’s on board with this thing. Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival concluded with a five-minute standing ovation. It’s breaking box office records. It’s been greeted with raves from almost every major film critic. And it’s no doubt on track to generate an even bigger military “recruitment bonanza” than the first Top Gun in 1986, which is only fair — the Pentagon worked closely with the filmmakers and poured a lot of resources into these two Top Guns.
And now entertainment journalists are floating the possibility of Academy Awards for Top Gun: Maverick. Not just nominations for the editing, sound, sound effects, and original song — all of which the ’86 Top Gun received. They’re talking Best Picture, and Best Actor for perpetual star Tom Cruise, or at least a career-capstone honorary Oscar, presumably for saving Hollywood.
Is it any use pointing out that the first Top Gun was a ludicrous piece of shit? That it was a functioning part of the Ronald Reagan administration’s insane military buildup and aggressive pro-war policies of the 1980s? Or that in a 1990 interview, playing dumb about the obvious way the Navy made use of the film, Tom Cruise refuted the idea of ever making a sequel?
Cruise: OK, some people felt that Top Gun was a right-wing film to promote the Navy. And a lot of kids loved it. But I want the kids to know that that’s not the way war is — that Top Gun was just an amusement park ride, a fun film with a PG-13 rating that was not supposed to be reality.
That’s why I didn’t go on and make Top Gun II and III and IV and V. That would have been irresponsible.
But that was then, this is now, and Tom Cruise is about to turn 60 and wants to be a star forever. So a sequel to Top Gun looked good, not only to him but to the desperate film industry mavens trying to figure out some way to get audiences back into theatres en masse. The result is Top Gun: Maverick, every bit as vile and idiotic as the first film, but slicker, better edited, featuring more gripping action scenes, and now awash in tears of nostalgia for the 1980s when Hollywood was booming and “It’s Morning in America” was a slogan people actually believed in.
Of course, it wasn’t morning. It was a grim twilight with a hard polluted rain pouring down. And now it’s midnight, and we’re at it again with another Top Gun. Plus the new movie is somehow even more ludicrous than Top Gun I, which I didn’t think was possible.
It’s all about Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a US Navy test pilot who just won’t play by the rules, so he never gets promoted any further no matter how highly decorated and superhuman he is. We first see him in what seems to be his own personal airplane hangar, caressing his plane. Then he walks over to the living room installed right next to the plane — chairs and table and Turkish carpet and the whole domestic scene — which makes it look like he married his airplane, or at least they’re living together in a loving and committed relationship.
Then there’s the usual trouble with the Navy brass who can’t handle how Maverick won’t go by the book. First it’s Rear Admiral Ed Harris — hey, Ed, aren’t you a committed political lefty or something? — and then it’s Vice Admiral Jon Hamm trying to ground Maverick. But they can’t permanently sideline Maverick as long as his pal Admiral Val Kilmer, aka “Iceman,” protects him.
It seems Tom Cruise insisted that Val Kilmer be given the chance to return in the sequel, which makes for one big tearjerker reunion scene in the middle of the movie with the “Iceman” character, who once said adoringly to Maverick at a climactic moment of Top Gun, “You can be my wingman anytime.” If you’ve seen the autobiographical documentary Val, you know that Val Kilmer is in rough shape due to throat cancer and that he’s continued to earn money for many years after his career peaked by going to movie-nostalgia conferences and events and endlessly signing old Top Gun posters with the quoted line of dialogue every male fan asks him to write, “You can be my wingman anytime.”
Which is poignant in a whole different way, because Kilmer was a talented actor, and it’s a shame that he’s caught in the ’80s nostalgia trap too, primarily remembered for his small role as a preening flyboy in such a dumb film. Well — at least he’ll get a big paycheck out of Top Gun: Maverick.
As I felt my eye-twitch return while watching Top Gun: Maverick, I wondered if anyone else was dreading the idea that, as the entertainment industry remakes everything, there’ll be an ever-increasing focus on 1980s films, beyond even Firestarter, Dune, Blade Runner, Ghostbusters, and Road Warrior sequels or the death march of Batmans and Star Wars. If there has to be a wave of nostalgia, must it be for the 1980s, when there was also a wave of nostalgia for the 1950s, two of America’s most sickening decades when so much of our doom was sealed?
But like I said, there’s so much cheering and applause for Top Gun: Maverick, it drowns out any objections.
Anyway, more plot: Maverick gets in enough trouble that he’s sent to Top Gun training school as a teacher, an assignment he doesn’t want and isn’t qualified for but succeeds at brilliantly. He’s got to train a best-of-the-best-of-the-best squad to fly a mission so impossible, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The mission involves attacking a nameless country, blowing up their uranium supplies before they can weaponise them, and flying away before they can counterattack. But every aspect of the mission requires the kind of absurd, supernaturally skilled heroics that form the basis of Tom Cruise’s star image — only in this film, he has a team of little Cruise-lings who all have to do as he does in order to perform miracles too.
It goes without saying that nobody is concerned in any way with the geopolitics of this, the question of the validity of the intelligence, the risk of instigating a war, and so on. The big concern is over which of the strutting young flying aces such as “Hangman” or “Warlock” or “Payback” will make the cut to do the mission, especially whether it will be “Rooster” (Miles Teller), son of “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) who died saving Maverick back in the first Top Gun.
As might be expected, Top Gun: Maverick sets out to make the salivating fans happy by recreating a lot of eye-poppingly awful scenes and moments from the first movie. There’s the opening scene of sunlit aircraft reverently tended by stalwart military men to the blaring notes of “Danger Zone.” Instead of homoerotic bonding over a beach volleyball game, in the sequel there’s homoerotic bonding over a beach football game, with two female flyers thrown into the mix and making no difference whatsoever. Thirty-six years later, Maverick still wears his aviator shades and his leather jacket and rides his Kawasaki Ninja GPZ900R motorcycle to his would-be girlfriend’s house, only it’s not Kelly McGillis playing her anymore. As McGillis notes, “I’m old and I’m fat, and I look age-appropriate,” so there’s no chance she’d get invited to return.
Instead, glamorously stick-thin Jennifer Connelly is on hand to provide the love interest. She’s a good match for Cruise, in that both have tight, gym-ripped, freeze-dried looks topped with salon-tousled masses of hair. They can both pass for a hot version of forty, in artful make-up and good light, which are the conditions in much of the movie. In the final scene, he walks out to embrace her where she’s lounging by a gratuitously fancy vintage silver Porsche that has never appeared in the film before but has to be there to remind fans of the vintage black Porsche that was the girlfriend-car in the first film. Connelly and Cruise look precision-made to perform in car ads together.
But never mind the car ad, which director Joseph Kosinski is highly qualified to do after his Halo 3 and Gears of War commercials. He’s really proven himself by making a very long, kinetic military recruiting ad. Whether it can beat the first Top Gun–instigated 500% increase in naval aviation recruitment remains to be seen:
“The movie came out on Friday and [we] haven’t seen a giant uptick yet just because it’s the weekend,” said Navy recruiter Lieutenant Caitlin Bryant. “But we’re looking forward to it.”
Bryant says there was a noticeable bump even after the trailer first came out.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck
This article was first published on Jacobin.