Back last summer, Sandro Monetti wrote a showbiz piece about how Top Gun: Maverick was the film that could finally lead California film production “out of the danger zone.” While I was fully behind the shameless Kenny Loggins pun, as an individual filmgoer, I felt little to no interest in patronizing the film myself.
You see, like many, I am a bitter, snarky, skeptical a–hole when it comes to anything starring Tom Cruise. I narrow my eyes, stick up my nose, and huff: “I’ll watch it when it’s free on streaming.” Did I love the original Top Gun? Who didn’t! Did I watch Risky Business when I was way too young and did not fully understand what was going on on that subway, but nevertheless find the whole thing thrilling? You bet. But the years, manic appearances on Oprah, and knowing just a bit too much about Scientology have soured me on the guy. Having watched my share of salacious Scientology documentaries and been preyed upon in my tender 20s by their recruitment plants outside of Central Casting when I was desperate enough to seek work as an extra, I’m wildly suspicious and immediately averse to anything associated with the Big Blue Building off Fountain. (Though I suppose he’d probably frequent the Celebrity Centre on Franklin instead. See? I lived in LA—I still know where all the Scientology buildings are by heart!)
So when yet another reboot appeared that was yet another traditional Hollywood blockbuster with “refuses to age” Tom Cruise, I thought: they might fool the masses by thinking the dude still has star power but not this woman.
And the summer passed. And the fall passed. And winter came, and then Top Gun: Maverick popped up on one of the multiple streaming services we subscribe to. My husband had somehow never even seen the original (how!?), but we decided to watch it anyway: it’ll be a fun popcorn movie, we thought.
Popcorn movies wish. Against all my instincts, everything I want to believe about myself and my taste, and all my irritation over Tom Cruise still being rich and famous, I could find absolutely no fault in the film. It was basically the perfect action movie. I absolutely loved it. And I was so, so, annoyed that I did.
Forgive my language, but this movie fucks. It knows exactly what it is, and it executes what it’s trying to do flawlessly. Modern movies—especially sequels—usually feel obligated to reference the original movie in attempts to recapture its magic, often buckling under the pressure. It’s extremely difficult to pull off a sequel that feels authentic in and of itself rather than a cheap knockoff made as a cash grab sure to fill seats. But every now and then, a sequel comes along that is legitimately good on its own, standing in full cinematic excellence almost in spite of coming second.
Am I saying that Top Gun: Maverick is basically The Godfather Part II of action films? Yes. Yes, I am. And here’s why. (Note: there will be spoilers, but seriously, this movie has been out for a while now. So… get with the program already and watch it.)
The story is structurally flawless
The pacing of Top Gun: Maverick is like a perfectly-conducted symphony. We start with a little nostalgically necessary Kenny Loggins—I can hear the crowds cheering in the theaters in my mind—as a fighter jet lands on an aircraft carrier. We get an efficient, quick refresher on what happened with Goose (RIP), who’s doing what with their life, and how Maverick is still mavericking-up the joint in his mavericky way, only older. It’s just enough exposition so that if you didn’t see the original (like my husband) you were still good to go, but not overwhelmed.
Then we’re off and running: we meet the new kids, learn about the stakes, what the situation is, why on Earth this old dude who should absolutely have retired from flying fighter jets is necessary, and we’re off and running. There are dramatic quiet moments, a fun moment on the beach (updated to football from volleyball with just a touch less homoeroticism—boo—and also—a woman!—Yay!) and some sexy moments, too. Just when you think it might be a lull, BAM, time for some sweet fighter jet action: which is what we came here for. You know that as a PG-13 movie, it’s probably not going to end too badly or horrifically, but they really keep you on the edge of your seat. (Literally, I was leaning forward on the couch. I. WAS. INTO. IT. That much.)
The movie followed the classic three-act structure to a tee, just like any mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster ought to do, and even though anyone who’s seen a movie, read a book, or just existed in the world could predict where this hero’s journey was going, it still felt exciting, unexpected, and engaging the whole way through. Which is really hard to pull off in this age of media-oversaturated jaded asshole audiences, including yours truly.
The perfect balance of old characters/storyline with fresh blood
A lot of sequels fall into the trap of trying too hard to cater to fans, rehashing old bits and just coming across as thirsty and pathetic. Here, the old story was used in service of the new one: Maverick’s guilt over Goose bled into his treatment of his son, who has all kinds of Daddy issues (which no good movie is complete without, whether that be The Lion King or Star Wars.) Iceman is sort of in the mix for a moment, though tragically dying, because who doesn’t want some extra pathos? The previous Top Gun is an echo that resonates through the new movie without overwhelming its individuality.
Holy shit, can I tell you how much this matters?! Seeing two outrageously hot but nevertheless assuredly not in their 20s movie stars—namely Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly—in this movie that recognizes it’s a sequel of a movie made decades ago and therefore, unlike the rest of Hollywood, shouldn’t pretend to be young anymore… Well, that was refreshing as hell. Granted, Jennifer is 53, and Tom is 60 (wait… what) but that’s still pretty good for Hollywood, where women over 40 seem to mysteriously disappear until they’ve become thoroughly invisible old ladies.
Unlike other movies, where Tom Cruise refuses to age—again, what/how is he sixty? Is he a vampire?—here, he is actually performing at least something age adjacent, where he takes on a mentorship role to the young upstarts. No, he’s not complaining about back pain, yes, he’s still utterly shredded in that beach football scene, but it feels age appropriate. And that made me not hate it. And actually like it.
Fighter jets are metal as hell
I’ve never thought of myself as a fan of fighter jets in particular. Sure, I read The Right Stuff in high school and thought it was really well-written, and I visited The Intrepid as a child once, but I’ve never thought, “Man, an action film about fighter pilots is what I’m about.” I now know that this is part of my identity I had just never discovered. The flight scenes were shot so well, so thrillingly, I really couldn’t get enough. And it’s absolutely perfect in terms of immediate stakes: you’re in this metal can going faster than the speed of sound and if you move left or right a touch, you’re immediately dead. Holy shit, am I right!? It made me deeply regret that I didn’t actually get to see the movie in a theater. In fact, it inspired me to go out to a movie theater for the first time since Covid, which is a pretty big deal. (Unfortunately, I saw the sequel to Avatar and that was markedly less successful in keeping me entertained.) I guess the lesson learned here is: if there are jets in the movie, sign me up for the IMAX.
Tom Cruise is perfect
In addition to being won over by him actually playing an age-appropriate leading man role, I was regrettably charmed through and through by Tom Cruise’s performance. He is honestly just really good. While in other roles I’d get annoyed by him “feeling himself” too transparently—mainly Mission Impossible, okay dude, we get it—here he was just appealingly charming.
So there you have it. I fully, wholeheartedly admit: I was wrong, and honestly, I’m kind of glad about it. It was nice to be entertained without any caveats and know that Hollywood can still make good movies with mass appeal… they just aren’t Avatar 2. But that’s a kvetch for another day.