‘Top Gun: Maverick’ charts generic, self-indulgent path to the past

Photo of Top Gun
Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

The first thing one notices about the title of “Top Gun: Maverick” is how unspecific it is. It’s simultaneously populist and pluralistic. It’s a nod to Tom Cruise’s role as captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell — the hero of the original “Top Gun” — and a hint at the sequel’s ambitions to feature people of color the first film omitted. But this is not a desire that can so easily be had both ways — the valorization of the man and the valorization of the masses are not missions that are easily wed.

Perhaps it’s because of this failure that the film, like its title, seems profusely generic. Its conflict is sparked by an “enemy” in a “region” that is never once specifically named. However, it carries a number of similarities to the Iran nuclear crisis: The “enemy” is on the verge of creating a facility capable of refining uranium. 

In comes Maverick, or Tom Cruise — it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. For one, Cruise’s biceps quite literally bookend the film, and his abs fill the gaps. The actor’s notorious arrogance confidently underwrites that of Maverick, yet one of the film’s twists is that Maverick is no longer the cocksure, ace pilot of yore. Or rather, maybe he’s still an ace pilot, but he’s one misstep away from being grounded by the Navy full of officials he’s alienated in one way or another. His reputation precedes him, he is told by Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), the officer now in charge of Top Gun. Reluctantly, Simpson has summoned Maverick back to flight school to train a squadron of United States top pilots who will bomb the facility in the region run by the enemy. 

It’s all quite run of the mill except for the mission itself, which of course is an obstacle course for the history books. One must navigate a low canyon without crashing into the ground or flying up into the radar of the facility’s air defenses, zoom up the side of the mountain before inverting the jet and dipping into a bowl created by the surrounding mountains, drop a precision missile and speed up the next mountain without fainting from the force of gravity. All in all, it’s a mission for a maverick. 

The mission of the film then becomes reviving Maverick’s status as a famed pilot. But it also has a second task that — given its storytelling chops — is impossible. The sequel aims to correct the course set by the original film, which featured a homogenous hodgepodge of white guys in jumpsuits. While the sequel casts actors of color, these individuals are forced into roles without any meaningful character development. Personalities and cultures are flattened under the demands of life in the military, but “Top Gun: Maverick” has no interest in showing us what actually has been minimized.

Throughout its run, the movie demonstrates no interest in understanding any of the world beyond Maverick (and Cruise) at all. Maverick’s new love interest, Penny (Jennifer Connelly), is hardly more than a penny for Maverick’s thoughts. Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of the original film’s character “Goose,” is a launchpad for the redemption of Maverick’s integrity. Ice (Val Kilmer) provides nothing but a flimsy narrative about leaving space for the next generation. 

Even the grit and grime of the original has been sanded into a mirror for the new film’s vanity. In interviews, cast members mentioned that to shoot a football game intended as a callback to the original’s volleyball match, they had been lathered in so much coconut oil that the camera could be seen reflected in the oil.

Maybe the maverick the film is searching for requires a wholesale recalibration of the idolatry of the military — and of Cruise. Jetting back to its decades-old heroes, the film is not an exercise in finding a trailblazer. Rather, it’s a study in the self-gratification of mythology and the enduring, waxy appeal of nostalgia.

Contact Dominic Marziali at [email protected].