Let’s get this out of the way: Top Gun was one of the most toxic blockbusters of the 1980s.
A project midwifed into existence when producer Jerry Bruckheimer spied a magazine photo spread of fighter jets and pitched a high-concept idea — “Star Wars on Earth” — to his even-higher producing partner Don Simpson, the No. 1 hit movie of 1986 was a lot of things. It’s a classic story of a hero’s journey, from arrogant young punk who doesn’t play by the the rules to older, slightly wiser but still-pissing-on-the-rulebook adult. It’s a great example of the MTV aesthetic that was the hotshot producers’ stock-in-trade, and would become something close to a multiplex house style throughout the decade. (Tom Cruise initially turned down the role because he was afraid the movie would end up being “Flashdance in the sky,” a reference to Bruckheimer and Simpson’s then-recent runaway smash.) It’s home to some of the most iconic lines and the corniest dialogue ever typed on a word processor; the list of groaners is long and distinguished, though we’re susceptible to “His fitness report says it all: Flies by the seat of his pants, totally unpredictable!” and “Every time we go up there, it’s like you’re flying with a ghost!”
Given that director Tony Scott was supposedly hired not because he’d made The Hunger, a stylish, sexy-violent vampire flick, but because the duo had seen his Saab advertisement where the car went toe-to-toe with a jet, it makes sense that Top Gun would also be one long commercial for a variety of things: aviator sunglasses, leather jackets, its vintage-boomer-singles-meet-skinny-tie-synth-pop soundtrack, the pleasures of shirtless volleyball, gung-ho hypermasculinity and, the biggest product of all, American exceptionalism. Most of all, though, it’s a nearly two-hour promo for the Navy’s pilot-training course, partially paid for by the Pentagon and responsible for a record-breaking uptick in recruitment; the oft-quoted number was a “500 percent” boost in youngsters wanting to sign up to shoot down MiGs. Legend has it that recruitment booths were set up right outside theaters, so that moviegoers high on 100-watt smiles and the need for speed could be easily convinced to keep the movie going in real life. Cruise had been adamant that Top Gun not be a tale of warfare — he always saw it as a story about competition and “excellence.” It ended up being both.
That last part is what makes Top Gun so toxic, and not just in retrospect. As a 15-year-old who saw the movie at my local suburban 18-screen theater when it first came out, I don’t recall spotting recruitment stands and impeccably uniformed military tag teams outside the venue. (In my high school parking lot, at shopping malls and fast-food joints, around the local arcade, by public pools and sporting events — definitely. But not outside the movie theater.) I do remember, however, seeing and hearing a lot of other young dudes get really pumped about flying planes and taking on Russkies (the enemy is never named, they’re just faceless avatars representing a Cold War nemesis, so… you do the math) and being the best of the best as my friends and I walked back to our car. You didn’t have to be a kid weaned on punk rock and Reagan-inspired mistrust to feel icky about jingoistic chest-thumping. I don’t know how many of my slightly older peers got seduced by the movie’s vision of high-fiving flyboys and joined up, or what happened to them after that. I thank them for their service regardless. I also hope they didn’t get taken in by a pop fantasy, only to be greeted by an exceptionally harsh reality.
Top Gun was a success any which way you measured it: box office, studio resuscitation (it saved Paramount from a serious slump), cultural impact, capturing the popular imagination, increasing the amount of cannon fodder. Every way but critical, really. But this was a blockbuster that was happy to invert itself above the press corps and flip them the bird before cackling and soaring away. The movie’s biggest victory, however — and its most lasting — was that it turned a former breakout star of a teen movie, a spunky performer who maybe wasn’t fulfilling his potential in football dramas and fantasy films, into a global movie star characterized by on-set control-freakitude and out-committing everyone else around him. He’d told Simpson and Bruckheimer that he’d do the project only if they let him take a crack at the script. Once he did say yes, Tom Cruise spent months driving down to the pilot school at Miramar before production started, soaking up the atmosphere and taking classes. He earned his pilot’s certification and flew F-14s fast enough to break the sound barrier. Per Rolling Stone contributor Amy Nicholson’s invaluable monograph on Cruise’s career, Bruckheimer claimed he’d get daily 4 a.m. calls during production from his lead, going over ideas for better dialogue for both Maverick and the movie’s other characters.
This A-list-star-as-alpha-moviemaker methodology would become the blueprint — the Tom-plate — for almost everything that followed over the next 25 years of his screen career. Do everything 10,000 percent, whether it’s racing cars or flying planes or pitching religions or performing your own stunts. That’s his brand now: real-life risky business. Even his detours into high-functioning auteurism sometimes feel like self-inflicted challenges and competitions; what was shooting for 15 months with Stanley Kubrick, a director not exactly known for being superchill when it came to making motion pictures, but some form of endurance test? You imagine he would have brought that same rigor to a Top Gun 2 when the idea was originally proposed back in the late 1980s, when Paramount wanted to replicate a winning formula ASAP. Cruise demurred and set his sights on other mountains to conquer, from pool-hustling with Paul Newman to helping Dustin Hoffman win another Oscar. The closest thing we got to a sequel was 1990’s Days of Thunder, a what-if-Top-Gun-but-NASCAR aimed at scratching any itches regarding needs for speed.
So imagine the surprise when, all these decades later, we see Pete Mitchell one more time, now a captain but still bucking the system, still the best of the best, still pushing his limits, danger zones be damned. Another Top Gun did not seem inevitable, or even probable, after the first Bush left office, even if Mitchell — call sign: Maverick — remained Cruise’s second-best-known character after Mission: Impossible‘s Ethan Hunt. There was little reason to think he’d even want to return to the role, except maybe to prove he could show these whippersnappers how it’s done. Top Gun: Maverick is, at its core, a flyboy-in-winter tale. His obsessions with planes and motorcycles, and his self-defeating, if not self-destructive, behaviors are still present and accounted for. Like Cruise, he’s older but no less inhumanly fit. Unlike Cruise, his competitive edge has collapsed in on itself and, judging from the pictures of Goose adorning his personal hangar’s wall, he’s still flying with a ghost. We’re told numerous times within this belated follow-up’s first act that he hasn’t leveled up in rank since the dusk of the 20th century. As with so many Cruise heroes, he’s a man who can seemingly outrun any living creature but not his past.
And yet, as you know if you’ve seen director Joseph Kosinki’s superior-in-every-way sequel or even just the trailers that have run for almost two years now — thanks a lot, Covid! — Maverick will get called back into active duty. There’s a dangerous mission involving uranium and a rogue state. Despite the fact that we’re now living in the age of drone warfare, only flesh-and-blood pilots can pull off the bombing mission in this treacherous, mountainous region. A who’s who of promising Top Gun MVPs get summoned back to Miramar, where Maverick will instruct them on how to fly disciplined enough yet reckless enough to pull off what those damned machines can’t. Naturally, the brass has issues with his brash ways and our man will get called to carpet a lot. (The fact that they cast Jon Hamm to be a hard-ass superior, and Maverick’s pleas to not risk these younger pilot’s lives is not met with a Draperesque “That’s what the military’s for!” is maybe TG:M‘s biggest missed opportunity.)
It’s likely not a spoiler to say that among these recruits is a kid named Rooster, played by Miler Teller, who’s Goose’s son and thus causes a lot of angst for Maverick. Nor is it a spoiler to say that an old flame (Jennifer Connelly) comes back into Maverick’s life, or that a next-gen Iceman named Hangman (we love you, Glenn Powell) is a cocky prick, or that shirtless sports sequences never go out of style, or that the onscreen reunion between Cruise and Val Kilmer will almost assuredly lubricate your tear ducts. *It may be a spoiler* to say when it comes to dangerous missions with extremely little chance of coming back alive, it’s sometimes better to do the job yourself no matter what the cost, or that a creaky F-14 will come into play and remind folks that just because something is old doesn’t necessarily mean it’s obsolete. If you smell a metaphor here, kudos to your nose.
Whether Top Gun: Maverick replicates the original’s power as a potential recruitment tool remains to be seen, but there’s such a mournful edge to all of its flirtations with 21st-century warmongering — and such a bitter aftertaste to the way it portrays the military as willing to send a diverse All-American crew to die — that it seems unlikely to move the needle with the velocity its predecessor did. Yes, it still makes mission training and aerial dogfighting look like a video game, and the recruits off-hours’ bonding still make them look like the coolest jocks on the block. The fact that U.S. is not currently embroiled in a war does make Maverick feel less like a propaganda tool, though the memory of several long-term conflicts our country was embroiled in, and the casualties they left behind, does make you squirm a bit. (As do current conflicts we’re not active in — there was a story going around on Twitter about how fighter jets roaring overhead during TG:M‘s gala Cannes premiere caused the widow of a recently killed Ukrainian filmmaker to reflexively drop to the ground.)
But Top Gun: Maverick is not an ode to mindless combat, even if it brings back the “if you think up there, you die” motto of the original. It’s not about brand extension in our age of endless I.P. corpse-humping. It isn’t trying to pitch a new generation of A-list contenders, despite Powell flashing his blinding, show-me-the-money grin at every opportunity (even he knows not to take on the guy at the top of the call list in a screen-smile competition; there’s no prize for second place). What this movie is, above all else, is a referendum on Tom Cruise as the last movie star standing, the bridge between an age where Hollywood was a Mt. Olympus that minted gods and goddesses and one where it simply made endless extended-universe franchises around ones found in comic books. The war happening onscreen isn’t between the U.S. and yet another unnamed Evil Empire but between superheroes and a legacy of superhumans, the ones who’s names above the title could be counted on to sell tickets.
Time has not been kind to Top Gun. Time has been extremely kind to its star, however, and if the movie is nostalgic for anything, it’s for an era when he wasn’t the only guy who could pull off something like this — when “movie stars” didn’t fall somewhere between black rhinos and Tasmanian tigers on the endangered species list. Cruise didn’t need to make this; he already has another Mission: Impossible movie coming down the pike. The fact that the movie works as well as it does is because Tom Cruise singlehandedly makes it work as well it does, “simply” by doubling down on everything that’s made him a star (charisma, commitment, an unholy dedication to can-go-ness, screen-acting chops, those choppers), is almost enough to make you a believer again. It’s such an abundant showcase for one final stab at movie stardom in its natural habitat that for a second, you can forget about years of bad press, evil churches, failed marriages, couch-jumping, Mummy-hunting. You just see a supernova reminding you why he’s larger than life, before the whole galaxy built around such constellations burns out entirely.