Top Gun: Maverick is the quintessence of redundant cinema. It tells a story that doesn’t need to be told, existing only to trade on the memory of a film that it essentially remakes. It’s a self-conscious and meticulously calibrated appropriation of a manner and style of filmmaking that is irrefutably passé. Yet, it charismatically manipulates. No creative risks are taken. The decision to stage aerial combat for real is perfectly in keeping with the movie’s old school aesthetic. Hollywood will study the box office and learn two things. 1) That Tom Cruise has perfected the legacy sequel formula and 2) that audiences crave the old hits remade by people who understand the appeal of the old hits. Neither lesson is particularly useful when considering cinema’s future.
Top Gun: Maverick swoops and soars, avoiding the mistakes of other legacy sequels. It’s funny citing The Force Awakens as an example of a botched disguised remake, given its tremendous box office, but that movie relegated classic characters to supporting roles. Here, Cruise is front and centre, just as he always was. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a generational sequel that promised to recapture the spirit of the pre-digital age, then manifestly reneged on the deal. Top Gun 2’s digital tweaks are inconspicuous. Where it matters, in the air, it looks real. It could have been made 30 years ago. Both legacy sequels introduced a child of a legacy character. In Maverick it’s Rooster, son of Goose. At no point does Rooster try to eclipse or replace the title character. He exists to help Cruise’s ace tie off past trauma while being amiable and interesting in his own right. The computer that writes these movies has perfected the algorithm.
What Top Gun: Maverick lacks is a soul – a compelling story that takes risks with the first film’s formula and pushes the envelope. But why do anything to sully the nostalgia? The movie represents the realisation that a film greenlit to monetise memories need not have any complications or pretentions of its own. Top Gun 2 could have been a critique of American power or a study in US decline or a full mediation on the need for real pilots in the age of drones (it’s broached as inevitable here only for Cruise to make the compelling case for a personality at the helm). But where’s the fun in that? Top Gun’s appeal is built on US exceptionalism, on competitive machismo, on bread and butter heroics. The sequel offers it polished and unreconstructed. This is your father’s Top Gun and it’s fucking great.
Of course the movie could have been all these things and been a little bolder – a little more political, like the best ‘80s actioners. Would a named enemy with a real personality, perhaps Cruise’s opposite number in the (implicitly) Iranian navy, given the mission a little more tension? The film’s final act is so dedicated to the cause of nostalgia that it puts Cruise in a vintage F14 – the enemy’s fleet of planes consisting, weirdly, of both the most up-to-date fighters and museum pieces. But if we’re going back to the ‘80s, would a downed Cruise forced to steal the enemy’s superior plane, a la Firefox and hot tail it out of there with his rival in pursuit made for a more urgent and human climax? Legacy sequels don’t just have to refer to the original film, after all, they can steal from many vintage sources. Perhaps the perfect formula involves picking the right ones. In that sense it’s making a new dish with classic ingredients.
Still, Top Gun: Maverick tastes very good indeed. Hollywood has no future while it continues to rely on films like it to bring in big crowds, but one can say that’s not the movie’s fault. Just one thought, though. When all the actors associated with marquee characters are either too old or too dead to reprise their roles, what then? Paramount will celebrate the box office but the biggest problem with the Top Gun of today is that it’s the Top Gun of yesterday.