“Top Gun”‘s permanence in the cultural zeitgeist since its 1986 release can be attributed to a plethora of factors — among them, enthralling action scenes with fighter planes as the focus, a powerful soundtrack and leading man Tom Cruise’s ever-present star power (partially fueled by his controversial role in the Church of Scientology). Its sequel arrives 36 years later managing to highlighting these very same elements, while completely reinventing them for the better.
“Maverick” doesn’t exactly pick up from where its predecessor left off. The end of “Top Gun” seemingly foresees a future in which the protagonist fully establishes a relationship with instructor Charlie Blackwood, played by Kelly McGillis, and dedicates his efforts to teach at the academy that recently saw him graduate. When watching “Maverick,” it won’t take you too long to realize that Maverick is single as can be, and that his teaching endeavors were a failure.
While this could be seen as a quick way to introduce new plot points and struggles for the character, it’s actually correcting course on the storyline missteps of the first film. As much growth as the pilot could have had during the events of the movie, it’s still hard to believe someone who had rule-breaking configured in his brain could follow that path in the new chapter of his life — which is why this revelation doesn’t come off as a surprise nor a disappointment to the audience. Hollywood always finds a way, and the audience gets a new view at how all-grown-up Maverick deals with teaching and romance.
McGillis has gone on record to say that she wasn’t contacted to appear in “Maverick,” stating it most likely had to do with her looking “age-appropriate” at 61. This film, however, doesn’t miss the chance to bring in a love interest, cleverly giving life to Penny Benjamin, who had been mentioned in ‘Top Gun” as one of the pilot’s former flings. Played by Jennifer Connelly, not only does this character have a more visible chemistry with the leading man, but she’s actually shown to have a personality and a life of her own that doesn’t begin nor end with Maverick. All of this makes the romantic sub-plot worth following, and it contributes to give a better understanding of where the main character’s head is, and how he is facing challenges in a different way.
The elevation of the romantic aspect is only one example of how this film is much more in touch with humanity than the 1986 blockbuster — that is substantially owed to the fact that, somehow, the writers seem to have a better grasp on the characters’ identities this time around. This is reflected in how “Maverick” tones down on its action scenes, and finds more success in landing their impact and moving the plot along, largely strengthening the overall pace of the film. The story is focused on its themes of grief, forgiveness, and second chances, facilitating a connection with the public that exceeds superficiality. In no way does it hinder the experience of action-loving fans, though — it might even accomplish bringing them to tears.
A perfect example of the Kosinski sequel maintaining the spirit of the Tony Scott film, while choosing to readjust it, is the transformation of the classic beach volleyball scene. The ‘Top Gun” iconic clip has managed to make a lasting impression on the general public due to its display of sweaty male bodies… and that’s it. There was no other intention in the filmmakers’ eyes but to create sexual awakenings and set a standard of admiration, and to be fair, it was very successful. But this time, while we get to witness a recreation, there is a thread connecting it to the actual storyline: Maverick explains that he’s set up the game in order for his apprentices to bond and learn about team work. The cheesiness is still there, fortunately, but the simple addition of an explanation makes it look less ridiculous, and it actually moves the plot forward — which is, in shorter words, what “Maverick”‘s success is all about.
What this sequel does visibly take a step back from, is the blatant military propaganda and jingoism that the Reagan-era original film was controversial for. Back in 1990, Tom Cruise said he found the idea of a sequel to ‘Top Gun” to be “irresponsible” because it showed kids a false picture of what war actually entails — even calling the film “a Nintendo game and a paean to blind patriotism.” Although patriotism remains an active and noticeable characteristic of the narrative and undisputedly so, the ideal of sacrifice for one’s country is less glamorized, as the main character shows himself unwilling to let Top Gun’s recruits die in lieu of accomplishing their mission of bombing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant. Again, it’s still far away from being critical or even neutral on the matter, though it allows for a much-needed more realistic perspective, and it helps build the multidimensionality of the characters.
“Maverick” is an all-around fantastic cinematographic experience. It mostly sticks to predictability and it rarely escapes generic tropes, but it is such a well-executed mix of fun and excitement with actual story and character development that it manages to avoid being forgettable, which is not an easy feat when it comes to action sequels.
Director Joseph Kosinski has proved to be a fantastic addition to the minds and hands behind this universe, and it’s commendable how the writing team has been able to pick up and improve storylines they didn’t have a hand in creating. Would a third installment of “Top Gun” be necessary after the events of “Maverick”? Probably not. But we would’ve told you that about the sequel 36 years ago — and, oh boy, would we have been wrong.