The sequel to the 1986 classic delivers the goods and none too soon.
36 years after the release of the original, over a decade in the making, and it is finally here.
Was Top Gun: Maverick worth the wait? Before getting into that, a bit of personal commentary, if I may.
I saw the sequel to the 1986 classic by attending one of several early access premieres across the country. As someone whose earliest conscious memory was watching the original on VHS sometime in the late 1980s, the movie has been such a part of my life for as long as I have been alive and there was no way I was passing up the opportunity to witness the spectacle before most of the country and the world would have a chance.
The atmosphere inside the theater was incredible. You could sense the energy in the room, every seat packed with people likely even bigger fans of the movie than I. It reminded me of the scene described by former real-life TOPGUN instructor and F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Dave “Bio” Baranek in his memoir, Topgun Days, when he attended the Hollywood premier of the first movie way back when. The movie had not started, yet, you could still feel there was no way you were going to be disappointed.
What followed is one of the most incredible experiences I have seen on the big screen. And boy, do we need something like this now, more than ever before.
The eponymously named Maverick picks up the story of Pete Mitchell in the present day. Now a Navy Captain, the world’s most famous (fictional) fighter pilot is apparently on the last legs of a long and distinguished career. He is called back to the Navy Fighter Weapons School (better known as TOPGUN, as we all know by now), to perform the most important task of his career and, maybe, leave something of a legacy behind.
It is, in some ways, a more serious movie than the first, symbolizing that Maverick is no longer a young man and that the clock is running out on the only kind of life he knows. All the while, the ghost of his former F-14 RIO and best friend Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, who perished in the original, still looms over him, clouding his interactions with his old friend’s son, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, all grown up and a veteran pilot himself. There are burdens Maverick carries around and the story centers on our hero coming to terms with them, all while giving a new generation of aviators, the Navy, and his country, everything he has left to give.
I regret to inform you I will not be going into the story any more than that. The film simply will not have the same impact if you have any more knowledge beyond what I have already shared. I will just add that Maverick answers many questions viewers might have about what took place in the intervening years, including how Maverick managed to make it 30 years in the Navy without advancing past the rank of Captain. There are reunions (including a truly emotional one) and the sequel frequently pays homage to the original in just the right doses. While paying tribute to the one that started it all, Maverick makes clear: this one stands on its own.
If you want to know more… I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
But Top Gun was not known for its story – it was known for its flying! If the flying sequences in the first movie blew you away, the flying sequences in the new movie will drop your jaw. Maverick pushes the envelope even further and, realism aside, stylistically, it depicts the flying of high-performance combat jets as less of a thrill ride and more of a violent, physically punishing exercise. G-forces, which seemed next to non-existent in the first movie, play a prominent role in the sequel. It may not be a documentary, and, at times, Maverick does come off as science fiction-like. But the emphasis on the question of how much stress you can subject both man and machine before they break makes for fascinating debate, one aviation geeks can certainly contemplate on long after the movie’s credits have finished rolling. Put simply, in Maverick, it is not just about the “need for speed.”
Speaking of machines, the new star of the silver sky is the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Now in its third decade of service, Maverick is a long-overdue homage to what has become a very reliable workhorse for US Naval Aviation. The last time the Super Hornet starred front-and-center was the critically panned Behind Enemy Lines from 2001, which starred Owen Wilson as a Super Hornet Weapons System Officer (WSO). Maverick arguably affords the F/A-18E/F a lot more flair, depicting it as more than just a jack-of-all-trades, but as a wizard of the skies, so long as it’s in the right hands, of course.
What is more, the Super Hornet is not the only plane get gets screentime. It is a visual feast for all military aviation enthusiasts and viewers catch more than just a glimpse of today’s most impressive fighters (plus an all-time favorite!). Best of all, for the geeks, you see a bit more of each plane than in the original, which emphasized the outward beauty and high performance of the fighters. This means audiences get a better look inside the cockpit: more of the displays, the buttons and switches, making for a more technical experience than the first. It seems to be conveying a message from, ironically, the first film: It takes a lot more than just fancy flying.
At 132 minutes, Top Gun: Maverick runs over 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, but without a dull moment. The movie is neatly paced, grabbing your attention instantly and never letting go. It passes in a flash, but the incredible cinematography will literally burn the images into your mind. The legendary Tom Cruise, at age 60, shows no signs of atrophy and seems to have aged only a few years since he appeared in the first as a 24-year-old in 1986. He’s supported by a literal “best-of-the-best” cast of co-stars, including Miles Teller as Bradley Bradshaw, along with upstarts like Glen Powell and Monica Barbaro (who, in the writer’s humble opinion, portrays the best character in the movie not named “Maverick”), plus all-time industry favorites like Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm.
As stated before, the sequel is a different movie from the first in terms of style and tone. There are not any real memorable one-liners and the soundtrack, while solid, likely will not turn out quite as iconic. Beyond that, however, it’s as perfect as movies come, quintessential Hollywood at its best. It remains true to the spirit of the old, while embracing the fresh and new. Just as the original retained all that was good while breaking barriers, the sequel does the same, making it an experience for all generations to savor. If ever there was a movie that could unite audiences, the two Top Guns are it!
Earlier, I spoke of the need for something like this now, more than ever. Top Gun is not just about high-flying into the danger zone. It has become, over the decades, a piece of Americana, a representation of what makes us who we are. In a time when the country is arguably in a state of crisis, perhaps what it needs most is a reminder of that. Throughout Maverick, we catch glimpses of the real deal – the men and women, enlisted personnel and officers, of the US Navy, who proudly face danger on behalf of this country, through both good times and bad. Top Gun is a reminder to us all that, for all our divisions, we are still capable of accomplishing great things and overcoming obstacles, together.
In 1968, a group of men were tasked with restoring US Naval Aviation’s dogfighting prowess. It was a tall order, but they succeeded. Proceeding generations of flyers and TOPGUN instructors built and continue to reinforce a legacy of making the incredible happen and passing on their wisdom to those who follow. Maverick is a thrilling salute to that legacy and may it inspire all Americans to overcome our challenges in similar fashion.
Was it worth the wait? Don’t think, just do, and run, don’t walk, to your nearest big screen this Memorial Day weekend to see for yourself. Dare I say it: It will take your breath away.
Photo credit: Paramount