It's Still a Man's Life in the Navy
Waiting thirty-six years to do a sequel is fairly ridiculous – if the gap before Downton Abbey 3 is that long, it will be coming out in 2058 – but then again fairly ridiculous things do seem to be the wheelhouse of Tom Cruise these days. To be fair to the makers of Top Gun: Maverick, the inordinate delay is not entirely their fault – the film was originally supposed to come out nearly a decade ago, and was delayed by the death of the first film's director, Tony Scott. (He has been replaced by Joseph Kosinski, who previously worked with Cruise on the rather good if very derivative sci-fi movie Oblivion.) Then it was scheduled to come out in Summer 2019, only to be pushed back a year for technical reasons, and we all know what happened to the slate of releases for Summer 2020.
Hence the fact that the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick feels like it's been a fixture at my local cinema forever; I'm actually slightly surprised it's being released at all. Just let the trailer run indefinitely as a tribute to... oh, I don't know what. It's not a terrible trailer, after all. Anyone subscribing to the Muppet Theory (i.e. 'everybody knows the sequel's never quite as good') could be forgiven for the odd qualm as the new film taxis into view – as I have previously observed, Top Gun is a bit like Dirty Dancing in that it is undeniably iconic, the subject of immense nostalgia, and not actually much good when you actually sit down and look at it properly.
The new film opens with virtually a carbon-copy reprise of the beginning of the 1986 film – same caption, same footage of planes trundling around on a carrier deck, same austere bonging on the soundtrack. This is a bit of a cheat as the aircraft carrier doesn't properly feature in the film until well into the second hour. It soon becomes clear that, rather than flying a jet fighter off a warship, these days Tom Cruise has been assigned to Area 51: not because that's where all the weird alien life forms get sent for examination, but because he's now a test pilot for the Very Fast Planes Indeed Project. Here he promptly ticks off Admiral Ed Harris for flying one whole Mach faster than he is supposed to.
Harris is duly landed with the thankless task of reprising the scene where he supposedly wants to kick Cruise out of the Navy but ends up sending him on a special prestige assignment instead. This turns out to be teaching at the Top Gun school where most of the original film was set. No-one is pleased to see him there except for the landlady at the local pub, and this is not because Cruise is on the booze but because they have a romantic history together. She is played by Jennifer Connelly, who doesn't get a lot to do to keep her interested, and the script attempts to finesse the awkward issue of parachuting in a new character with whom Cruise has an established relationship by making her someone who was mentioned but never seen in Top Gun.
Anyway, Cruise is there to train pilots for a suicidal mission to bomb a new uranium enrichment centre in enemy territory, which involves zig-zagging down a valley, flying over a mountain, hitting a thermal exhaust port with a bouncing bomb, etc etc. Being Cruise he accepts this assignment without batting an eyelid, but is finally given pause when he learns that one of his trainees is the now-grown son of his former buddy Goose, whose death provided what little emotional ballast the 1986 film possessed (the gosling is played by Miles Teller, who has been issued with what's possibly the very same wispy moustache worn by Anthony Edwards wayback in the formerwhen). Can the pilots pull together and reduce the casualty risk from suicidal to merely insanely dangerous? Can Cruise bond with with his buddy's kid and strike a blow for human pilots in an age of drone warfare? And can the film really get away with never mentioning exactly which country Cruise and the others are bombing?
I mean, really. The first film played a kind of nudge-wink game when it came to who exactly it was that Cruise was shooting down in the climax, but the new film keeps an entirely straight face on the topic, which feels particularly bizarre given a war is now in progress in Europe in which the US is very pointedly not directly participating. Admittedly, the bad guys are flying Su-57s, which are a primarily Russian jet, but they also have F-14s sitting around the place. Based on the landscape it looks like the Americans are bombing Norway, or possibly New Zealand. It's undeniably problematic – it clearly wants to be a war film but it doesn't seem to want to deal with the specifics of the actual war.
It isn't quite enough to properly spoil a slick and enjoyable action movie, which is – and this will surprise Muppet Theory adherents, even though the bar on this occasion is very low – appreciably better than the first one. It's not just a vacuously good-looking film about how fantastic Tom Cruise and the US Navy are; it feels like there are proper stakes, the characters feel actually developed, and there is a genuine moral premise of sorts – the idea that human character and spirit have not yet been eclipsed by technology.
Admittedly, the film doesn't handle this theme with a great deal of subtlety or nuance – the first two thirds of the film, and the beginning of the final act, are admirably restrained and gritty and everything is quite credible. But then the plot resolves through a sequence of such jaw-dropping silliness it's hard to believe it hasn't been edited onto the end of the film by some disgruntled junior producer as a prank. On the other hand it does feature some superb action and one of the best air combat set pieces I've ever seen. But it does feel like a film that was heading in a particular, quite sombre but nevertheless satisfying direction has been hijacked and sent somewhere a bit more cheery for the popcorn audience.
So in the end this is just a superior action movie rather than something which actually functions as a credible drama, for all that it is generally well-played and contains unexpected moments of humour and genuine emotion (that said, I found there to be something inescapably awkward about Val Kilmer's cameo). Nevertheless, as an action movie it is often properly thrilling, which is what you want from this sort of thing, and I imagine it will satisfy fans of the original film and also those of Cruise in general. How the war-film element is handled is a bit problematic, but in other respects this is a fairly impressive piece of machine-tooled entertainment.