Day 53: The Unexpected Gem that is “Top Gun: Maverick”

Note: I originally wrote this movie review back in May, a month before I re-started this blog. I didn’t know it was going to be huge hit, I just knew I loved it. I saw “Top Gun: Maverick” again last weekend with a friend and knew the time is right to post this.

Second Note: There are plot spoiler alerts in this review!!

When I was kid there was one man who was the coolest man on Earth, and that man was Tom Cruise. Specifically, that was Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” as Maverick, the rule-breaking rogue in shades and a million-dollar smile charming his way through a movie about love, friendship, fast jets, teamwork and goodness, gracious great balls of fire (!). Like Ferris of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Maverick broke all the rules and made you love him while he did it. Yet if Ferris was the Prince of Cool, Maverick was the undisputed grown up King.

Which is why it gives me joy to say I loved “Top Gun: Maverick.” My wife and I saw it today, Memorial Day 2022. It is only our third movie in theaters this year,* and, well, our third movie in the last two years because of the Pandemic. We wanted to do something fun, yet I admit, going to “Top Gun” was my wife’s idea. Honestly, for me, sequels and reboots, especially of film classics I loved, have been a mixed bag. Case in point: I was recently relieved that I enjoyed the new Matrix movie, but I was disappointed by the lackluster Bill and Ted’s reboot. Going to see “Top Gun,” I didn’t know what to expect, but my expectations weren’t high.

I was very happily surprised to see a well-made movie, sequel or no. Some legacy movie franchises–Star Wars and Star Trek come to mind–accomplished amazing things by paying homage to the original story and line up of characters. “Top Gun: Maverick” delivers a top notch homage to its predecessor while standing effectively on its own. It may be one of the better sequels (and probably the best reboot) ever made, not merely for entertainment value but for emotional depth, which is no small feat considering it has been nearly forty years since the first movie. Also, we are, after all, talking about an action movie about fighter pilots.

Yet emotional depth it had. Somehow, the movie writers managed to expand on the original story in a way that was disarmingly poignant while still being plausible. For instance, Maverick has continued flying jets, but because of his tendency to break rules, he has never been promoted beyond Captain. His “Top Gun” rival Iceman (played by Val Kilmer), on the other hand, is a commander.

Though he is clearly an “old timer” now (especially compared to the young graduates of Top Gun he ends up instructing), Maverick is vibrant and healthy, continuing his brash, and reckless (yet heroic) ways. This contrasts sharply with Iceman, who, while far more successful, is also facing a life-threatening illness.

After getting fired from his job as a test pilot (for flying in the face of yet another superior’s orders), Maverick receives surprise orders to return to Top Gun, the fighter pilot school that is the location for the first movie. Turns out this is thanks to Iceman’s recommendation. So this character who used to be Maverick’s rival is now his benefactor.

The exchanges between Iceman and Maverick are among the most moving in the film. I was surprised when Maverick receives a text message from Ice. By this point in the film, I was still surprised to realize they are close friends. When Maverick visits Iceman in person, we see that Ice can’t even speak. He types on a computer. This is due to real-life health problems that actor Val Kilmer has with speaking. This is deeply moving exchange, in which Ice counsels Maverick on moving on from the past. It’s an exchange between two close allies who have lived through life together (and whom audiences have of course grown up with). The long-ago braggadocio of two young men trying to one-up each other in the original has matured gracefully into two good friends who look out for each other. The writers of the movie got this totally right.

Soon after this scene, Iceman dies. Suddenly Maverick’s only protector is gone, and he nearly loses the Top Gun position. The complexity of the Maverick-Iceman friendship is a through-line that deepens the movie, making it even more relatable, authentic, and human.

The next scene that moved me was when Maverick earns his wings back, so to speak, after being fired and ordered to leave Top Gun. He shows that the very difficult mission he is trying to teach his students can actually be done… by stealing a fighter plane and doing it himself! When his superior promotes him for it to the leader in the movie’s central mission, the scene with Cruise in his Navy Uniform taking in his win moved me in ways that are difficult to put into words.

In addition to Iceman, another character who lends emotional depth to the movie is Rooster, the son of Goose, Maverick’s wingman who passed tragically in the first movie. Maverick harbors incredible sorrow to this day about Goose’s passing. At the same time, he tries awkwardly to act as a sort of proxy father to Rooster, who hates him because he pulled Rooster’s papers when he was trying to come up in the Navy, slowing down his career by four years. The evolving relationship between Maverick and Rooster is a key plot component of the film. By putting Goose’s progeny front and center , the movie writers once again do a remarkable job of drawing from the first movie in a way that is completely satisfying. In fact, I cannot think of a more perfect way for the characters from the first movie to evolve.

Overall, “Top Gun: Maverick” manages to tie together an emotionally powerful story while avoiding sentimentality or cinematic nostalgia for its own sake. It avoids the awkwardness that sometimes results from forcing movie themes and characters of long ago films into a new script. I thrilled at revisiting the original characters Maverick, Ice, and Goose. And Tom Cruise carries the whole thing, showing his abilities as an actor as well as his staying power.

When a movie gives me chills and moves me to the point of tears, I know it is doing something right. I can’t say I expect this kind of emotional power from a sequel. Yet “Top Gun: Maverick” delivers. It reminds me of why I love going to movies, and it shows me that maybe reboots of movie classics aren’t necessarily a bad idea. Every so often you get a gem.

We got one here.

*As of August 24, 2022, we have seen six movies in the theaters this year: Death on the Nile, Dr. Strange and the Multi-verse of Madness, Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World, Thor: Love & Thunder, and Elvis. Compare that to seeing 0 movies in the theaters in 2021 (and 0 in 2020 after February).

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