Well, it took a film I had no intention of seeing, but I finally know what Nicole Kidman is talking about in that infamous AMC advertisement. It seems that heartbreak actually does feel good in a place like this: the place being a movie theater in Toledo, Ohio, for a Friday night showing of Top Gun: Maverick.
Last week, I could safely name at least six reasons I didn’t feel compelled to see the Top Gun sequel. The obvious? I’m deeply suspicious of any movie that could easily pass as propaganda for the military-industrial complex, or that conservatives glom onto for “traditional” and “anti-woke” stances they don’t actually take outright. A cinema snob I am certainly not, but I don’t need to see buildings—or in this case, fighter jets—explode or watch shredded actors who’ve been starved for six months performing traditional masculinity to have fun at the theater. And frankly, in a time where it often seems like Hollywood is interested solely in bloated Marvel movies featuring unforgivably unfunny Joss Whedon-esque dialogue and scores of sequels and prequels, I think it’s necessary that we hold fast to the cult classics of yesteryear. Given there’s enough evidence that the film industry’s favorite genre is shameless money-grab, I was skeptical that the new Top Gun, in all of its homoerotic splendor, would fall to the predation of a greedy studio and become another franchise no one actually likes.
However, upon being dragged into the Danger Zone™ over the weekend: I liked it. No—I loved it.
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD:
It’s safe to say that I was sold roughly twenty minutes in, when Tom Cruise, aka Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, gazes at a bespectacled Bradley Bradshaw “Rooster” (Miles Teller)—the grown son of his deceased friend “Goose”—through the window of a bar while he plays the piano like a ragtimer and belts “Great Balls of Fire.” The scene pays homage to its predecessor, accompanied by everyone’s favorite ancestral agent of sap: the montage. Lest audiences had somehow forgotten, not so long ago, that a baby-faced Maverick was singing the same song in the same bar alongside his fallen comrade. Now, it’s the next generation’s turn to tickle the keys. Perhaps it was the homemade gin-and-tonic I snuck into the theater, but for a fleeting moment, I couldn’t help but wonder: Could this be the sequel to save American cinema?
For those who have yet to see any iteration of Top Gun, audiences first meet Cruise’s ultra-cocky Maverick at the Top Gun Naval Fighter Weapons School in 1986. It’s an elite institution—or so we’re told—and competition among the students to be the best fighter pilot is fierce. One of those students is, most notably, a very chiseled Val Kilmer as “Iceman.” It wouldn’t be a blockbuster if there wasn’t a romantic subplot, and you simply cannot get more 80s than Maverick making out with his instructor (played by Kelly McGillis) to the tune of “Take My Breath Away.” Then there’s the montage of Maverick (markedly, in jeans), Goose, and their peers engaging in a cut-throat volleyball match on the beach, set to Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys,” that’s practically queer canon. Of course, a finale that includes a tragic death doesn’t hurt either.
Maverick picks right up where the first leaves off. We learn our protagonist has become more virile with age (I don’t know what Cruise sacrificed to the Church of Scientology, but he has never looked better) and has been working as a test pilot for the U.S. Navy. But it doesn’t take long before he’s summoned back to his old stomping grounds to teach a class of top aviators ahead of a life-and-death mission.
Naturally, one of those pilots is Bradshaw, along with a handful of others who also happen to be objectively hot and very adept at playing with their joysticks. Unlike the vast majority of sequels, this one deftly borrows the best bits from the first film and makes them anew, like say a certain battle royale on a beach, because after all, as Kenny Loggins once wrote: “One of life’s simple joys / is playing with the boys.” If the piano scene impelled me to sit up a little straighter, the latter made me cross my legs. As if Teller wasn’t already a criminally underrated actor (see Whiplash, The Spectacular Now), his barely perceptible but aggressively sexual wiggle whilst wearing jorts should earn him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, as it will inevitably be responsible for the sexual liberation of innumerable individuals for years to come. Yes, much of Twitter came to the consensus that this sequel could’ve been gayer. Of course, I agree. Every terse exchange between Cruise and Teller probably should’ve culminated in a kiss or two, but I get it: These aircrafts aren’t yet programmed for Valhalla.
As often as I felt motivated to relocate to the nearest naval base in an attempt to meet someone who even slightly resembles any one of these fictional pilots, I was also genuinely moved. As the film nears its conclusion, Kilmer and Cruise share a scene that—to my horror—actually drew tears. The former is dying and delivers a long overdue, deeply heartfelt message to his former rival: It’s time to let go—of the past, of regret, and of fear, too. By the time the mission the film has been mounting toward comes to pass, audiences will brace for the worst, like I did. And yet, it never comes. Everyone apart from Kilmer lives to see another day, while Maverick receives the redemption he so deserves. Everyone gets a well-earned happy ending—but especially Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). Not only is she Cruise’s love interest, but she also owns a bar, sails, whips a vintage Porsche coup, and somehow makes even a cable knit sweater look very come-hither.
Sure, the aerial action sequences are cool, but it’s the story, a star-studded cast, and that soundtrack (the Lady Gaga power ballad, alone) that makes Maverick the stuff movies should be. Even as America decays from the inside a little more each day, this piece of patriotism porn did make me feel kind of proud—if only that we live in a country that just proved it can still produce a good sequel every now and again, despite the fact that it can’t pass legislation to materially improve the lives of anyone.