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Old man flies high again

'Top Gun: Maverick' is a popcorn blockbuster built by spectacle and nostalgia

By Karl R. De Mesa Published May 24, 2022 5:33 pm

Yes, this sequel is better than the 1986 Top Gun.

I got a very visceral feeling watching the stunning flight sequences of balletic aerial combat filmed by cinematographer Claudio Miranda. In my seat I went: wow, those look very real, as if I am literally in the cockpit of the fighter jets with the actors. 

Of course, it is the very nature of Tom Cruise films like these to later discover that, yes, the actors were all really in the planes. I mean, really. There’s a whole studio-released featurette on the interwebz yawping about how they shot these scenes, this time with the action captured through a special camera system on the hood of the jet cockpit.

You have to hand it to Tom Cruise. The man is 59 years old and still one of the standards of movie leading man.

Which is, in itself, makes this one a very Tom Cruise kind of movie. And because of this mix of gritty old school movie realism, minimal CGI, and the least need for thespian pretension of “Well I’m just gonna try my best to imagine I am really on an F/A-18 Hornet!” that I must declare—yeah, I do—this sequel is better than the 1986 Top Gun.  

You have to hand it to Cruise, though. The man is 59 years old and still one of the standards of movie leading man. He’s standing strong as The Last Pure Action Movie Star sans a TV series or a superhero role. 

I mean, it’s virtually fate that he gets to reprise his role as Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, the roguish young pilot from 30 plus years ago. In the real world, since he starred in Tony Scott’s original, Cruise himself has become an experienced pilot. Tales abound of how on Maverick’s set, he cajoled and pushed his cast and crew. From designing a flight training course for the young actors that lasted five months to insisting on inventing a new camera system rigged to the jet dashboards to capture all their G-force faces as real pilots put them through flight maneuvers.

All through the movie, there is an aura of beatitude around Maverick, now definitely grown older but not yet hoary nor wiser. When the movie opens we are shown Maverick still working at the reckless edge of naval pilot professionalism: he’s pushing an experimental jet past Mach 10, trying not to black out. 

Jennifer Connelly plays Penny Benjamin and Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in ‘Top Gun: Maverick.”

Even as a po-faced, serious brass in the form of Jon Hamm's Vice Admiral Beau "Cyclone" Simpson dresses him down later for almost breaking the Navy’s multi-million dollar experimental toy, fate intervenes and Maverick is sent to teach the new blood at the Fighter Weapons School. It’s back to his old stomping grounds at Top Gun, this time as an instructor, even as Admiral Bates breathlessly introduces him with the half-accolade, half-derisive "his exploits are legendary."

As director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) returns us to the booming 80s sans the bad hair and shoulder pads, he acknowledges that all the things that made the first movie a product of its time were also what imbalanced it. He’s determined to not commit the mistakes while tipping his hat to all the nostalgia that will pull the Gen Xers (and maybe even some of their brood?) to newly re-opened theaters as we slouch towards a post-COVID world. To do that, he’s confronted just exactly why many artifacts of 80s pop culture moviedom—including Scott’s Top Gun—were flawed, recalled with fondness, and well..not very good. 

One of the coolest tricks of Maverick is threading together an emotive plot through an ensemble cast, some very surprising twists, and the depiction of what might be some of the best action scenes involving fighter jets.

What does that mean? It means that everyone who wants nods to the first movie will be able to scratch off their list that here I will catalog as MINOR SPOILERS. Cool, new fighter pilot monikers? Check. Ball sports on the beach to show off the actors’ lean bodies? Check. Speed runs on a Kawasaki motorcycle sans helmet to characterize the brash nature of our hero? Check. A love scene between Maverick and love interest Penny? A note on that: Jennifer Connelly stars as "Penny" Benjamin, a single mother who owns a bar. I mean I have a giant crush on and am a big fan of Connelly but man, WTF. In all frankness, we did not need any of her scenes, especially the lifeless love scene. 

Which is to say, however, that this is a pretty well-assembled movie. The elements hang together like Miles Teller’s handlebar moustache as Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” pumps up the audience. This movie may have the kind of narrative heart that tackles responsibility, haunting, and being able to pass on values to the next generation but play the opening riff of Loggins’ tune and the bearded Gen Xers will start to air guitar on cue like they were all still teens.  

One of the coolest tricks of Maverick is threading together an emotive plot through an ensemble cast, some very surprising twists, and the depiction of what might be some of the best action scenes involving fighter jets.   

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Miles Teller plays Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, Monica Barbaro plays “Phoenix” and Glen Powell plays “Hangman” in “Top Gun: Maverick”

Maverick may be a character afflicted with Peter Pan syndrome, literally held back in the Navy ranks, but his call to grow up is plausibly legit. It’s in the form of Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw, played by Miles Teller. Rooster is the son of Maverick's late best friend and co-pilot, Nick "Goose" Bradshaw, played by Anthony Edwards in the 1986 movie.

Goose died in Maverick’s arms 30 years ago. Despite being officially cleared from the reckless flight moves that resulted in Goose’s death, our hero is still quite haunted. Having Rooster Bradshaw as a new pilot under his tutelage now triggers grief and guilt, including how Maverick lost his own father. 

What would the other young pilots think of their once wild instructor being hamstrung by his emotions?

Maverick may pooh-pooh military protocol to display his alpha male mad skillz but his journey in this movie is to discover his own morality and emotive North Star. Will the weight of the death he caused all those years ago by his swaggering self-assurance lead him to a point where he would hold back Goose’s son? Will Roster resent him for it? And what would the other young pilots think of their once wild instructor being hamstrung by his emotions—especially headstrong and cocky Hangman (Glenn Powell) and intensely ambitious Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), the only woman on this batch of Top Gun recruits? So while Maverick’s journey with his one-percenters is ostensibly the near-impossible mission of training elite fighter pilots for a few weeks to blow up a uranium enrichment facility in some European backwater, his inner arc is confronting age and the very notion of sacrifice as he lets go of the reins that made him the tip of the fighter pilot spear, enabling the ones who’ll follow in his footsteps in a new capacity: as guide. 

It’s not very subtle storytelling. Even if surprises (and even genuine comedic situations!) abound. You may ask, but who has the back of Maverick even as he dispenses hard knocks lessons? That’s Val Kilmer, who reprises his role as Tom "Iceman" Kazansky in a brief cameo that I would argue was the lynchpin of heroic change, prepping Maverick for the rousing final act.  

And oh that final mission and the aerial duels informing it are extremely satisfying.

See, in the original they could only film so much technically that the actors, aided by movie sleight of hand quick cut-to-cuts, had the fighter pilots or the support team describe what’s happening or what they’re going to do so everyone was on the same page. No need for that here. It's always clear what's at stake. Through the visuals, we know how difficult certain performance aspects between jet and man is, while also illustrating the story twists.

The final aerial mission is like machine tango, deliciously choreographed that you only need the basics of what's at stake before the viewer is along for the ride. It’s also in this way that we are shown just how gifted Maverick still is, making us oooh and aaah with the beats. You may find yourself pumping your fist, like me. It’s pretty dope. 

If today’s fathers took their kids to the theater so they could themselves relive their heyday of singing “That Loving Feeling” or carousing with friends to “Great Balls of Fire,” Cruise and Kosinski might just turn the tables of inspiration on them. As both father and child sit in the dark of the theater watching planes go whoosh bang with sonic booms, one of them might just yearn for flight school. 

Top Gun: Maverick will be shown in Philippine cinemas on May 25.