Top Gun Too
The bland cynicism of reboots
When Hollywood reboots legacy projects, they understand that nostalgia is incredibly powerful and financially lucrative. The original Top Gun was military propaganda. It made joining the military, and especially the Navy, seem like the height of coolness. You could spend your time flying fast jets, drinking in dive bars, riding motorcycles and making love to beautiful, intelligent women. What more could a guy want?
I never had any expectations for Top Gun: Maverick because I understood what the movie would be—a way for Tom Cruise to revisit his old cinematic haunts while demonstrating how freely he drinks from the fountain of plastic youth. The movie is bland and at times ridiculous and once more, it is propagandistic. Only this time, as many reboots are doing, there is some corrective to historical missteps. Among the new generation of pilots, there is a woman who is vaguely ethnic and a Black man and, as ever, brash and brawny white men are well-represented. And still, it’s all quite silly.
The most remarkable thing about Top Gun: Maverick, is how unremarkable it is. But it is also a project that is very pleased with itself which creates a stark… contradiction. Before the movie even begins, there is a short video featuring Tom Cruise, of course, where he talks about why it took more than thirty years to make a sequel (waiting for technology to catch up to his grand vision), and how he hopes we enjoy the movie. It is wholly self-aggrandizing and unnecessary and my eyes rolled mightily.
It was at this point that several people in the theatre began applauding. One man in particular, tall, muscular, bald, brayed loudly throughout the first half hour of the movie. When Tom Cruise rides across the screen in his leather jacket, hunched over his motorcycle as he cruises the desert, this guy shouted, “Fuck yeah!” This man was very, very drunk and very, very obnoxious and deeply invested in the movie. You could tell he had been waiting so so long for this moment. Sadly, he passed out about half an hour in and proceeded to snore loudly until the tepid applause signaling the end of the movie. Then, he woke up and was positively bereft at having missed the movie for which he had waited thirty-six years. A cautionary tale.
One thing I know about Tom Cruise is that he loves to run in movies. In almost every film he makes, there is at least one scene where he is dressed for something other than running, but off he goes, pumping his little arms and legs, a determined look on his face as he tries to catch… something or someone. It’s fascinating. So, he runs in this movie though it’s absolutely superfluous.
As the movie opens, Tom leaves an airplane hangar in the desert where he lives. He rides his motorcycle to work where he flies planes very fast to test them. When he pulls up, his crew tells him that a higher up is pulling the plug. It is never really explained why. All we need to know is that bureaucracy is trying to stifle Maverick’s need for speed. Because Maverick is such a maverick, he decides to take one last flight to break Mach 9 or 10, I can’t remember. Ten or so minutes are given over to watching a speedometer crank up as people in a control tower breathlessly watch, hoping Maverick breaks this speed barrier. He succeeds but then he gets in trouble, of course.
His punishment? He gets to return to Top Gun as an instructor to prepare the best pilots in the Navy for a secret mission. His new commanding officer? John Hamm aka Cyclone. The pilots lil nicknames are especially hilarious this time around, very masculine and ejaculatory, because pilots. For whatever reason, Cyclone hates Maverick and mostly berates Maverick as Maverick stands at attention, not a facial muscle moving because they’ve all been Botoxed to Xenu and back. This particular tension is ridiculously manufactured because it’s clear everyone is resigned to making this movie because it must be made and the paychecks will clear.
Any semblance of narrative is simply a pretense for revisiting the original and regurgitating those memories for a 2022 audience. As an act of fan service, this movie works quite well. It reminds us of the greatest moments in the original. There are some flashbacks. There are some inside jokes. There is a beach athletic competition scene where sweaty, shirtless men display their exceptional musculature. Val Kilmer aka Iceman is an admiral who is dying but he’s also Maverick’s bestie and has finessed Maverick’s career for the past two decades. Some things have changed.
Anyway. Among the hotshot pilots is Goose’s son, Rooster who hates Maverick for reasons that are unclear for a lot of the movie. I mean yes, Goose died while Maverick was flying but Rooster’s animosity seems to go deeper than that. Then we learn he’s big mad because Maverick kept him out of the Navy for several years at the request of Rooster’s mother Carole. To protect Carole, Maverick makes it seem like it was his idea. The next hour or so, a very very long hour, is Maverick teaching the youths lessons about flying because the old man’s still got it. They “train” over the course of a week for this impossible mission that makes absolutely no sense. In his free time, Maverick loiters at the local bar, owned by Jennifer Connelly aka Penny, a woman with whom Maverick has “a past.” They have their little rekindled relationship in fits and spurts but they have negative chemistry so the romantic scenes are not only forgettable, they are largely incoherent.
There are little intrigues involving Maverick breaking rules and teaching the youths even more lessons. He’s just the best pilot to have ever piloted and haters are gonna hate. Eventually, he’s forced out of the Navy for about ten minutes but then, like in the original, he’s baaaaaaaack. Busy week. Finally, it’s GO time. The gang’s on an aircraft carrier and everyone gets their assignments. The woman pilot, Phoenix, is one of the pilots who gets to shine because feminism and I guess it was great to see but it was a reminder that some people think representation is the mere acknowledgement that marginalized people exist. No nuance is required. Most representation in movies like this is scraps from a table where we are rarely given a seat. We all deserve more and better.
But back in the world of the movie, there is some fighting to do. Who is the enemy in this movie? We never ever find out. It is simply a nondescript antagonist in a snowbound country that could be almost any country. This is what happens when people make movies in a laboratory so the project can earn as much money as possible. Rather than offend politicians in countries like China or North Korea or Russia, the enemy is simply unnamed which makes the conflict inoffensive to everyone, quite the diplomatic feat.
During the combat, Maverick is imperiled. His plane crashes. Rooster decides to save the day, against orders and he too is shot down, conveniently only like a hundred feet away from Maverick. They reunite and Maverick yells at Rooster but then they kiss and make up and sneak into the enemy base and steal a ye olde plane (F-16 I think) and fly back to safety on the aircraft carrier. But first, they engage in a little more combat showing off Maverick’s incredible skills and mentorship. When the gang returns to base, Penny is off sailing to nurse her emotional wounds but then she comes back and she and Maverick ride into their happily ever after.
The most glaring omission in a movie that made a concerted effort to hit every possible nostalgic note was the absence of Meg Ryan and Kelly McGillis. Their absence was a reminder of how men are allowed to age but women over forty should, generally disappear. To be fair, Jennifer Connelly was a reasonably age-appropriate love interest for Tom Cruise. She’s fifty-one but she looks younger—she’s thin and has long hair and she’s beautiful so an exception can be made. I kept wondering where Ryan and McGillis’s characters were and little explanation was provided. It was one of many reminders that this movie was about the men, and everything else was window dressing. I was struck by something Kelly McGillis, who wasn’t even approached about the sequel, noted. "I'm old, and I'm fat, and I look age-appropriate for what my age is. And that is not what that whole scene is about,” she said. It’s such a shame that a woman who has aged normally could not possibly be part of a movie where her peers have chosen to age as unnaturally as possible, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Top Gun: Maverick is fine. It is exactly what you would expect from a sequel to a movie with the emotional depth of standing water. And it is exactly what you would expect from a cynical movie industry that seems to believe the only properties worth investing in are those that have already proven themselves. There is so little room for original ideas in Hollywood these days. Everything is about I.P. A Barbie movie! A movie about Battleship! Reboot everything! Find a new Batman! This system assumes that we are only comfortable with that which we know. I would like to believe such is not the case. The movies I love, that I remember, tend to be those that are startlingly original. It’s not that I don’t enjoy blockbusters. I do. But blockbusters (other than the Fast & Furious franchise) are rarely satisfying. The pleasures they offer are fleeting while their budgets are astronomical in desperate attempts to capitalize on the investment. There is little art to any of it. No attention is paid to beautiful sentences or beautiful ideas. Excellence is not the goal. Instead, such movies strive for good enough. The worst thing about Top Gun: Maverick is not that it was merely good enough. It's that I started forgetting about the movie the moment the lights in the theatre came up.