Long-awaited ‘Top Gun’ sequel soars

Images courtesy Paramount Pictures.

8/10 Top Gun: Maverick is an audacious, historic photography project unlike anything that’s ever been done before or is likely to be done after. This is the type of sensory experience for which theaters were built.

NAS North Island- After 30 years, Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise, who also produces) has been called back to the Top Gun academy for elite Navy pilots. This time around, he trains a dozen recent Top Gun graduates for a suicide mission that calls for several of Maverick’s unique skills and ways of thinking. The trainees include Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s former radio intercept officer who died during a training exercise in the original Top Gun.

Still feeling responsible for the elder Bradshaw’s death, Maverick devises a plan that is theoretically impossible, beyond the limits of both the F/A 18F Super Hornet and the human body, but might get everyone through the mission alive if they can make it work.  

In a continuing era of long-awaited sequel/remake-things, Top Gun: Maverick stands out as an incredibly exciting and appropriate project. For one thing, it’s actually been a long wait – it’s 10 years after development began and almost three years after its initial July 12, 2019 release date. They pushed to June 26, 2020 to accommodate more shooting, and then it bounced back four times from there as the COVID-19 crisis turned that one-year delay into three. The marketing push started in December 2019, so big, loud trailers for this ultra-cinematic movie have been running for two and a half years now.

Tom Cruise, the last movie star, has spent the past decade dictating his projects in a way no other actor can and pushing the limits of practical effects and cinematography in a way that no studio is willing to pay to do unless Cruise personally demands it. Top Gun is the still-beloved movie that made him a star, but the 110 minute string of Navy MTV videos is painfully of-its-time and due for an update, so it’s a storybook ending that its almost 60-year-old star is still spry, still working and also a psychopath of a photographer willing to take Top Gun: Maverick to the extremes it deserves to go.

In addition to the prior film’s yellows, Maverick uses a number of imposing blacks for starkly romantic images. It’s a unique look, even on the ground.

Paramount declined offers from Netflix and Apple+ to take the movie off their hands, committed to a theatrical release, and this is also a reflection of Cruise. He was on the leading edge of mid-pandemic production and has been one of the filmmakers most committed to practical stunts and the theatrical experience in the preceding years.

All of this has come together for Top Gun: Maverick, the reason to come back to movie theaters if there ever was one. The goalposts for this project were “the greatest aerial footage ever taken,” and they nailed it. This is that. The Bourne Identity commitment to putting the camera in the action caused a revolution in the genre, and now, they’ve taken the camera right into the danger zone. Top Gun: Maverick’s extensive footage of attack runs and dogfights aren’t taken from the ground, they’re taken from the air, either cruising alongside the Hornets or from inside the cockpit.

The gorgeous aerial footage from all over the Pacific coast is accompanied by an overpowering, nerve-wracking soundscape. It doesn’t just look like you’re in the air, it sounds and feels like it. When Maverick blasts past other fighters, you can feel the rumble. Even more than the spectacular visuals, the screaming sound of air being carved through at more than 1,000 mph is the urgent argument to see Top Gun: Maverick in a theater.

Maverick is in many ways a scene-for-scene remake with updated flight sequences, and the moments when it tries to be a 1986 high school movie with planes are a time capsule that’s cringey in both directions. The needle-drops, much less frequent as the movie goes on, are like a sand trap, but it also has a lustiness about it, a celebration of and eagerness to display sexy young bodies that has become painfully absent from mainstream media over the past 30 years.

It also carries over the original’s strong score unchanged into an era where scores are weirdly absent from the zeitgeist. We’re in a time where this timeless element of filmmaking, often the component of a movie that turns it into a pop-cultural force that can be evoked in just a few notes, is so often missing that Top Gun: Maverick seems dated just by including it. The replayed notes fade out with the pop music over the runtime.

The only systemic change is replacing the original film’s sterile, slow-looking aerial stunts shot from miles away with this camera placement right next to the dogfights, and it’s tough to overstate how much of an improvement this really is. Immediately after watching Top Gun for the first time, I pulled up Star Wars in another tab to chase it down with that movie’s climax, one of the finest fighter sequences in cinematic history burned into my brain from childhood, because, for all its joys, the original Top Gun is desperately missing something like that. Maverick centers around a trench run leading to an impossibly narrow target remarkably similar to the assault on the Death Star that is so physically demanding that even training for it is dangerous, adding real stakes to every scene – the pilots’ lives are constantly in danger, and they’re facing that danger over California out of respect for the clear and present danger from, uhh, no one in particular.

Top Gun: Maverick shot more than 800 hours of footage, more than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Top Gun: Maverick pits its pilots against the same faceless enemies as the original, meant to evoke stormtroopers and other faces-covered henchmen who are nationless but all somehow found their way into Russian-manufactured aircraft, and that’s one of many thorny real-world issues at the back of this movie’s mind. On the other side of the Cold War, when Americans knew exactly who the enemy was but couldn’t say it out loud, and the War on Terror, when no one was sure who the enemy was took the excuse to accuse every modern Persian nation as convenience dictated, and with Vladimir Putin doing his best to plunge the world back into the early 20th century, is it a good idea to put this sort of not-really anonymous national adversary back into theaters?

Hollywood has been in bed with the Department of Defense for decades, and the original Top Gun is a flagship example of that partnership. The movie was so popular the Navy set up recruitment stations outside theaters in 1986, and Cruise only got his star-making role after Matthew Modine turned it down because he didn’t want to support the military with his acting. Now, 30 years later, Paramount Pictures rented fighter jets from the Navy for as much as $11,000 per hour, and part of the reason they had even that level of access is because they were working with admirals who joined the Navy because of that original film.

It also feels strange to heap as much praise on an individual filmmaker as I’m heaping on Cruise in a post-Weinstein world. I reserve anger for serial rapists, and Cruise is only accused of being a serial weirdo. There are probably worse men than him working on any given $170 million film, but his singular screen-presence, vision and influence raises still-fresh questions about how much power a single media figure should have and what behaviors are acceptable from a person with that degree of power.

Cruise has used it in recent years to produce the type of movies no one else even considers, and Maverick might be the most important of those from a photography perspective. See it on the biggest screen in town.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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