Like many boys who existed in the late ‘80s and ‘90s and whose family was equipped with a prized VHS collection, I grew up on Top Gun. And like many boys who existed in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, I watched Top Gun years later as an adult and had the “Oh, yikes, this movie isn’t very good, is it” moment of clarity.
It happens. This is not a knock on Tom Cruise - whose ability to carry that movie with bratty star power alone is even more impressive when you realize what kind of limp cinematic carcass he’s carrying. In any case, I still had muted expectations for Top Gun: Maverick. Not just because of my lack of reverence for the original, and not just because of director Joseph Kosinski’s maddeningly almost-there track record, but mostly because the Nostalgia Bucket from which film and TV studios now pull 99 percent of their ideas is so fundamentally poisonous. What was I supposed to expect from this legacy-quel but more of the same cheap, bankrupt nostalgia bait we’ve been getting fed for the last decade-plus?
The miracle is that Top Gun: Maverick does all the pandering nostalgia tricks I would typically roll my eyes at - the near-identical opening, rhyming musical cues, constant hat-tips to its predecessor, entire scenes practically recreated from the original DNA, just scene after scene of pure “Remember that?” - and folds them into a richer, more entertaining movie. No, not movie - picture. I’m going old-school. Because in a time when the pictures have gotten small, Tom Cruise is doggedly committed to making them - keeping them - big, and special, and spectacular. He and Kosinski (with a hat tip to co-writer Christopher McQuarrie, Cruise’s most reliable collaborator for the last decade) took what was ostensibly a nostalgia cash-grab and made it into a classical, old-fashioned crowd-pleaser - and a truly fantastic one. And the irony is that, in doing so, they grabbed much, much more cash than most of the other nostalgia-bait hack jobs that only understand their existence in shallow sentimental terms. See? Actually caring about the product and not just the IP brand name actually can pay off.
Maverick is not just superior to the original Top Gun but wildly superior. In terms of camera placement alone, its aerial sequences put the original’s to shame; Kosinski’s compositions have a greater sense of geography and a far greater beauty. There is more violence to every thrust, a more visceral sense of speed, and far more dynamic aerial choreography. It has Cruise at his movie-star best, a dozen memorable supporting characters, a committed physical authenticity that we rarely get in the CGI era, and of course the truly moving Maverick/Iceman sequence, a collision of unfortunate personal circumstance and genuinely thoughtful filmmaking whose emotional weight feels 100% earned and almost uncomfortably real. This movie is so much better than I ever thought it would be.
Also, Jennifer Connelly, I mean good god.