Dogfight: Top Gun vs. Top Gun: Maverick

2022 has been a strange year. Kate Bush at #1 in the charts, and a Top Gun movie dominating the box-office: the eighties called, they want their pop culture back… But there’s no denying that Top Gun: Maverick has proven an unexpected global phenomenon, a mere thirty-six years after the original. Back in 1986, Top Gun was the #1 film in North America, grossing more than 50% over the next-best movie, Crocodile Dundee. Remarkably, the sequel has done even better, taking in almost 75% more than this year’s #2, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Despite it’s strongly American undertones, it proved no less unstoppable at the international box-office. It has earned more than $140 million overseas than anything else. The runner-up is Chinese film Water Gate Bridge, which earned all but about half a million of its $625 million international take, in its home country. Like Maverick, it’s a sequel, being a follow-up to similar smash, The Battle at Lake Changjin, which was second at the overseas box-office last year. I kinda feel like I should watch them, out of curiousity; that’s for another day though.

Back with Top Gun, I think it’s safe to say this is the longest gap between sequels for a franchise to top the charts both in the original year of release, and also for its follow-up. I had to add the extra qualifier to that sentence after realizing that Mary Poppins was the #1 film of 1964, and didn’t get a sequel for 54 years. This delay was mostly because author P.L. Travers hated the movie, and would not allow any further adaptations. No such issues here: I imagine it’s mostly that Tom Cruise has been kinda busy. So, let’s look at both movies, and see whether the hype is justified.

Top Gun (1986)

Rating: C

Dir: Tony Scott
Star: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer

This was the biggest film of the eighties I’d never seen (a title now held by another Cruise-movie, Rain Man). Having watched it… yeah, I can see why it took me 36 years. Snazzy aerial footage only goes so far in papering over the wafer-thin plot, and Tommy at a point where he was still figuring out what that whole “acting” thing involved. Then again, it is a Tony Scott movie, so style over substance is very much par for the course, even if this was only his second feature, after The Hunger. [He was hired for this, largely because of a commercial he’d done for Swedish fighter/car company, Saab] Nice soundtrack though: I did not realize Giorgio Moroder co-wrote Berlin’s Oscar winning mega-hit, Take My Breath Away.

The story is almost painfully simple. Cocky fighter pilot, Maverick (Cruise) is sent to attend the titular Naval Fighter Weapons School with his pal Goose (Edwards), and test his skills against others, such as Iceman (Kilmer), with whom an antagonistic relationship is immediately developed (top). He also woos civilian contractor Charlie Blackwood (McGillis). A tragic accident, however, causes Maverick to question his entire self-worth. Can he recover in time to complete his training and engage in a heroic battle with Russian fighter planes, while also keeping the girl? I’m sure you already know the answer, though actually caring about it is another matter. I was far more amused by Goose, the self-effacing, happily married sidekick, with the world’s most sarcastic laugh.

But what the hell does Goose do sitting behind Maverick? He isn’t flying the plane, and doesn’t operate the guns. Wikipedia tells me he is a “radar intercept officer.” I’m sure that’s very important, and am not one whit better off in my ignorance. That the film never bothers to explain his purpose is indicative of its problems: who cares about such things, when you can have a sequence of Maverick buzzing a control-tower and whooping loudly? Frankly, I can’t disagree with Iceman, when he said “You’re everyone’s problem. That’s because every time you go up in the air, you’re unsafe. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.” Except, I also don’t like Maverick because he’s an arrogant, entitled prick – perhaps the biggest such in the pantheon of 80’s cinema.

Then there’s the gratuitous shirtless volleyball match. This is the gayest thing I’ve seen outside of a David DeCouteau movie, and Mav heading off on his bike to bang Charlie afterward, doesn’t make it any straighter. I hope she got tested, that’s all I could think: it was the eighties, after all… So, in many ways, it’s a disaster movie in both senses of the word, not least because you’re here for the action set-pieces. Which in this case are largely unadulterated plane porn: its closest cousin is probably something like The Fast and the Furious. That said, if parts of your body don’t get hard during them, you’re probably some kind of Commie. I repeat: it was the eighties…

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Rating: B

Dir: Joseph Kosinski
Star: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm

Having been a bit underwhelmed by its predecessor, I was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed this. Waiting so long for the sequel likely worked in its favour, with Cruise now an actor, rather than being Annoying SmirkBoy. It helps that there is an actual plot, with a ticking clock that can build towards a genuine climax, rather than some artificial construct. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Cruise) remains a captain, thirty years on: an amazing pilot, just one with no regard for authority. Still, he’s the ideal guy for this job, training fliers for a near-impossible mission to take out a heavily defended uranium enrichment plant in enemy territory (the exact enemy is specifically non-specific). And when it indeed proves impossible for his pupils, who better to step in than the teacher?

Naturally, this has stuff around the edges. One of the mission candidates is Rooster (Teller), the son of Maverick’s late colleague Goose from the first film. There’s guilt over Goose’s death, and Mav tried to derail Rooster’s career as a pilot at the request of his mom. [That was Meg Ryan, but like Kelly McGillis, she is playing Mrs. Not-Appearing-in-this-Movie.] The love interest this time is bar owner Penny Benjamin (Connelly), a single mother with a teenage daughter. She may safely be ignored as irrelevant, and so can the return of Val Kilmer’s Iceman, which feels more like a charitable gift for Kilmer than a role of any significance. It’s all a bit embarrassing,  to be honest.

The air footage though: holy shit. I was applying body English almost constantly, every time they took to the air. The previous film was decent there, yet this takes to a whole new level, the sense of speed, danger and G-forces involved in the profession. And that’s simply during the practice runs, without enemy fighter jets, anti-aircraft batteries or treacherous terrain to be navigated at almost the speed of sound. The actual bombing run and its aftermath, takes things to a whole new level, with all those additional factors now in play. These elements help overcome the weaknesses in a script that, like its predecessor, is not much more than a series of clichés, held together by Tom Cruise’s charisma.

However, in most ways, this is an improvement, with the probable exception of the music. Top Gun has a series of original bangers: this can only offer Lady Gaga in full shriek mode, and a few classic selections from your uncle’s iPod. In fact, the scream of an engine going full throttle is the only accompaniment this needs as a soundtrack, and is at its best when going that route. The callbacks to what went before are generally light enough to be ignored, and the main thing you’ll take away is the palpable improvement in cameras since 1986. It’s the kind of film where, afterward, you want to run around the house, arms outstretched, making angry jet noises. I will neither confirm nor deny having done so.