Cruise presides over some surprising differences from his first outing as the navy pilot hotshot in a film that’s missing the homoerotic tensions of the 80s original.
In the first Top Gun in 1986 – that anti-Strangelove cold war classic – the US Navy’s fighter pilot Lt Pete “Maverick” Mitchell gets accused of letting his ego write cheques his body can’t cash. But with the sequel, it’s quite clear the body of Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, has been cashing cheques with abandon for decades. His pecs have been setting up standing orders. His biceps have been signing off on direct debits. His abs have been authorising BACS transfers and his rock-hard buttocks each have their own PayPal account. In short, as we return to the extraordinary story of Pete Mitchell, it’s plain that he’s still physically solvent, in the opening scene recklessly test-flying a colossal stealth fighter at Mach 10 against orders from the glowering officer on the ground (played by Ed Harris), who is forced to concede that he’s “got balls”. (They’re both configured for contactless payment.)
Almost 40 years on from the first film, which was directed by Tony Scott, Maverick is still speedy, less needy – more centred and calmer, in fact, but still in humungous shape and in love with flying. Directing duties are taken over by Joseph Kosinski, known for his digital effects and sci-fi, and the script is by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and longtime Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie. In 2022, Maverick is still only a captain, when he could have been an admiral by now. Despite his badass attitude, he’s respected by the real flyers and loathed by the pointy-headed brass, and is protected by his enduring bromance with former classmate and rival Iceman, who is now an admiral. Val Kilmer gamely contributes a cameo.
The inevitable crisis is a double-header. The Navy must get an elite team of pilots to carry out a Dam Busters-style raid on an anonymously-located nuclear enrichment plant. Commanding officer Cyclone (Jon Hamm) has the ticklish diplomatic task of telling Maverick to train this new generation of adorable hotheads without joining them in the skies himself. What’s even trickier is that the new intake includes Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Goose, played by Anthony Edwards in the first movie: Maverick’s wingman and buddy, for whose fate many (including Rooster) still blame Maverick. But you can’t stay mad at Maverick, or keep him on the ground, for long.
There’s plenty of rock’n’roll fighter-pilot action in this movie, but weirdly none of the homoerotic tension that back in the day had guys queueing up at the Navy recruitment booths set up in cinema foyers. Weirder still, it is actually less progressive on gender issues than the original film, which did after all put a woman in charge: astrophysicist Charlotte Blackwood, played by Kelly McGillis, was the trainer (inspired by real-life Pentagon official Christine Fox). Now it’s Maverick in charge and there is just the one female pilot under his instruction: Phoenix, a thin role for Monica Barbaro. McGillis has evidently not been invited back and her character is never mentioned. The unmarried Maverick’s love interest this time around is a nice woman who runs the local bar, an entirely thankless part for Jennifer Connelly.
But where, oh where, is the towel-round-the-waist, semi-nude locker-room intensity between the guys? The guys who compete with each other but need each other? Well, nowhere. The confrontations happen in more wholesome, open conditions: in Connelly’s bar, mostly, and a healthy good-natured game of beach football for team-building. Teller has to be a tough guy, so his late father Goose is remembered by this film as more of an alpha than he actually was: in fact, Goose was a nerdier and more retiring type, closer to this film’s bespectacled comedy turn Bob (Lewis Pullman). Glen Powell plays an arrogant young pilot, call-sign Hangman, who has the burden of incarnating the big-headedness of both the younger Iceman and the younger Maverick.