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“Top Gun: Maverick” turns and burns its way into theaters this week, landing 36 years after the 1986 original. That’s a lot of time to form a lot of questions about the new film and its relationship to its predecessor — and we’ve got answers.
Didn’t this already come out?
You would think! Thanks to its complex production, the Covid-19 pandemic and Paramount’s insistence on holding out for a proper theatrical rollout, “Top Gun: Maverick” has set and missed five previous release dates: July 2019, June 2020, Christmas 2020, the 2021 Fourth of July weekend, Thanksgiving of 2021, and then finally, its current Friday berth.
How similar are the stories?
Very. Both films begin with Maverick (Cruise) engaging in a display of hot-dogging that gets him called on the carpet — but not really, since he’s sent to Top Gun, essentially promoted, by its conclusion. (This time, he’ll instruct a class of hotshot young fliers for a dangerous mission.) The goings-on at the Navy flight school include dogfight exercises, philosophical conflicts and a love story. Plus, a devastating loss is followed by a crisis of conscience before the eventual triumph.
The original film’s primary conflict was between Maverick, the cocky risk-taker, and Iceman (Val Kilmer), a by-the-book pilot who finds Maverick’s rule-breaking dangerous. In the sequel, that dynamic is replicated between adrenaline junkie Hangman (Glen Powell) and the more conservative Rooster (Miles Teller), whose tendency to play it safe in the air is rooted in the premature death of his father: Maverick’s old flying buddy Goose (Anthony Edwards).
Only one actor, aside from Cruise, returns: Val Kilmer’s Iceman, now the commander of the Pacific fleet. Teller did not play little Rooster in the original film, but the character was present, bouncing on a bar piano as Maverick and his old man sing and play “Great Balls of Fire”; here, Rooster leads a piano singalong of the same tune, and the director Joseph Kosinski flashes back to that scene (just in case Rooster’s costume, mustache and aviators, identical to Goose’s, aren’t enough of a giveaway).
And, as the film critic Alison Wilmore noted, Maverick’s love interest, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), while not seen in the first film, was mentioned in an early scene.
Who’s noticeably absent?
That new love interest means that Kelly McGillis, who played the instructor Charlie Blackwood in the original, does not appear — she’s not even mentioned. Nor does Meg Ryan, whose brief but memorable turn as Goose’s widow was an early career highlight, or Rick Rossovich, who played Iceman’s fly buddy Slider to memorable effect.
Do we hear “Danger Zone”?
Do we ever. The opening minutes are a painstaking recreation of the same stretch in “Top Gun”: Harold Faltermeyer’s distinctive “bong” and synthesizer score accompany the exact same opening text explaining what Top Gun is and what it does (with one notable alteration: it now notes that the school trains a “handful of men and women”), before we see planes taking off from Navy carriers and roaring into the sky as the score gives way to Kenny Loggins’s pulse-pounding hit “Danger Zone.”
The detail of the replication is meticulous, approaching the level of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot “Psycho” remake. But it turns out to be a head-fake, framing “Maverick” as exactly the kind of empty nostalgia play that it turns out not to be.
What about “Take My Breath Away”?
Surprisingly, Berlin’s love ballad (the soundtrack’s other big hit) is nowhere to be found, though Cruise and Connolly’s love scene initially apes some of the compositions of the original scene when it was used. But their foreplay ends quickly for a tasteful cut to the afterglow, as Kosinski seems more interested in (gasp) what they have to say to each other than what they want to do to each other.
This is true to the picture’s general approach to romance, replacing the entirely physical attraction of the first film with a solid, complicated relationship between two adults, who’ve lived a life and shared a history. But yes, she rides on the back of his Kawasaki, and her hair looks great blowing in the breeze.
How homoerotic is it?
Barely, sadly. The guy-on-guy overtones of the original film were so pronounced that they became part of the picture’s lore, articulated by no less a pop culture expert than Quentin Tarantino (in a cameo appearance in the 1994 comedy “Sleep With Me”). But this one mostly plays it straight, so to speak.
OK, but is there at least a beach volleyball scene?
There is a beach football scene, but it’s comparatively chaste — skin is bared and muscles are flexed, but it feels like the sequence is actually about the game they’re playing, and not, y’know, other stuff.
How propagandistic is it?
The original “Top Gun” was such an effective piece of rah-rah flag-waving that Navy recruiting officials notoriously posted up outside screenings to field inquiries from would-be Mavericks. The new film isn’t quite as jingoistic (though it was again made with the full cooperation of the Department of Defense), emphasizing personal over political conflict. But the central mission, to bomb an unnamed enemy’s “unsanctioned uranium plant” that threatens “our allies in the region,” has some troubling historical analogues.
Will I like it if I loved the original?
Probably. The culture-war inclined may decry the film’s inclusivity (beyond the opening text alteration, the flying crew is more racially and sexually diverse), but “Maverick” checks all the expected boxes: thrilling action, shades and leather jackets aplenty, and Cruise at his coolest.
Will I like it if I hated the original?
Speaking as part of this demographic: yes. Cruise and the screenwriters make the deliberate (and frankly risky) choice of making Hangman, the character most reminiscent of Maverick in the first film, the most unlikable character in this one. It proves a genuinely thoughtful and effective method of grappling with what “Top Gun” was, what it said and what it represented at that moment in history — and in this one.
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.