It goes without saying that Top Gun: Maverick is a risky film to make. The odds are perhaps in favor of turning a profit, but after 30 years you never really know and there’s a lot of money in this one. As if to be sure to ease the fears of those who might potentially walk out, Maverick opens with Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell breaking rules in a compact, introductory short film that doesn’t make a lot of sense but has a plane going really fast and flashing warning lights.
Perhaps the most expensive pet/vanity project ever, Maverick gets a lot of things right, seemingly as a result of Tom Cruise’s love of the possibilities. The film harkens back to the original in ways that are occasionally too shmaltzy, but are more often surprisingly competent inroads for emotional connections and nostalgic fun. The training runs that put Maverick in the “Joker” seat show off the adrenaline, give our pilots a chance to “relay their personalities,” and keep the popcorn flowing. The introduction of Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), Goose’s son, gives us a concrete focus to Maverick’s haunting past and tumultuous psyche. Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), a cute nod to the original film, offers Maverick an opportunity to “unstick” himself and provides some much-needed humanity to the endless spins, machismo, and G-Force blackouts.
It’s a film that checks all the boxes for summer fun and it’s hitting at a time when tackling angst at high speed with glorious visuals couldn’t be more welcome. From a certain perspective the thing couldn’t be more “audience pleasing” if they paid you to watch it, and most of that comes by way of various aspects of legitimate filmcraft.
Scenes of comic relief actually manage their payoff because they were cleverly built toward, like when two downed pilots have a chat behind enemy lines. The tension, though sometimes simplistically developed, fuels the drama of risk and ego, and vice versa. And, no one grunts and strains while maneuvering a joystick like Tom Cruise. It’s an unqualified rush with heart and it moves characters along enough to forgive the cheesiness that comes with the time constraints inherent in needing to get back in a jet before a certain timer goes off. Most importantly, to Tom Cruise one assumes, Maverick gets an arc that makes some sense out of the life trajectory necessary for the film to exist.
Unfortunately, it has more in common with a rollercoaster ride with a theme than a story that makes a lick of sense. Maverick counters this to a fair degree, in the best way popcorn flicks can, because scenes mostly make sense on their own. Moments move believably. Pete and Penny’s dialog feels like conversations these people would have. Flying jets through a canyon to avoid SAMs is vaguely plausible. Rooster and hotshot pilot Hangman are catalysts in ways that fit and flow. Maverick’s inability to teach something he doesn’t think he ever learned, and the weight of being responsible to do it anyway or these kids will die comes through to a degree you’d hardly believe in a film that hangs a lot on repeating, “Don’t think, just do,” as often as possible. Besides, naturally, the film just runs as fast as it can.
When you pull back the whole thing is nonsense though, and while in this case you can easily allow yourself to dodge and weave away from the fact, it’s still there. Whether it’s the fact that Tomahawk missiles can destroy one thing and not another, or the broader sense in which the U.S. is undeniably declaring war on the unnamed country we’re attacking (which means the whole thing is moot and we can just bomb the target with anything), the construction is based on a desire to fly jets in a crazy scenario, reality be damned. Moreover, if we look at simple “curiosities of construction” like the fact that the Navy hasn’t turned out any decent pilots in thirty years except the ones it just produced so they can look hot on the beach, or the idea that Tom Cruise apparently wanted to destroy the Death Star, the facts in question within the film are laughable.
It is perhaps the perfection of a film with a stupid plot, because even the most jaded can’t deny the dizzying spectacle surrounding the passable interplay of characters, and the problems have a hard time getting traction over the fun. The film moves on quickly and you’re on board, because it never goes so far that there’s any insult to the nonsense, and let’s face it, it’s exactly what you signed up for.