Again and again throughout “Top Gun: Maverick,” the naysayers in naval uniforms tell our eponymous hero that his day is past.
It’s not the same world, Mav … The future is coming, and you’re not in it … Things have changed.
At some point, the gauntlet is thrown down so hard in front of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and the 1986 movie that made us love him, you half expect him to start delivering Aragorn’s battle speech from “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”
There may come a day when the swagger of adrenaline-addicted fighter pilots fails to entertain American audiences, but it is not this day. A day when the crooked, cocksure grin of the last true Hollywood star fails to charm women, but it is not this day. A day when the sight of a manly, back-pounding hug between comrades fails to bring a tear to old men’s eyes, but it is not this day. This day, we will happily turn over our hard-earned dollars to be reassured that even if there are 33 genders now, if you get a bunch of flyboys around a barroom pool table, they will still insult one another’s manhood.
Because whether they will admit it or not, the thing that has mainstream critics raving about the “Top Gun” sequel isn’t the ways it has been updated but how it has unashamedly remained the same.
From the moment we catch up with Maverick acting as a test pilot in the Mojave Desert, we’re delighted to find he has the same need for speed and aversion to authority he always did. When a superior officer says, “Don’t give me that look, Mav” about some impending bit of rule-breaking, Maverick strikes just the right note of mischievous inside-jokester as he answers, “It’s the only one I have.”
Don’t we know it.
That isn’t to say Maverick hasn’t experienced any growth in the last 36 years. His sharp arrogance has mellowed into a self-assuredness that’s more interested in excelling for excellence’s sake rather than proving anything to anyone. Which is a good thing, because the movie is refreshingly realistic about how regulation flouting tends to impact military career prospects — Mav’s still carrying the title “captain” while his good friend Iceman (Val Kilmer) has achieved the rank of admiral. Still, spending his final years of service in the cockpit rather than behind a desk is reward enough for Maverick.
His legendary prowess is put to the test, however, when he’s ordered to return to Top Gun training school to ready a team of 12 pilots for the near-impossible mission of taking out a uranium-enrichment plant in heavily guarded enemy territory. Complicating matters is the fact that an old girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) is running the local watering hole and one of the pilots is the son of his deceased best friend, Goose.
There’s no question that half the fun of “Maverick” is that it serves as a believable Boomer fantasy wherein the old dog whips young tail in both football and flying. But the amount of genuine emotion the somewhat generic one-liners and predictable script manage to inspire suggest a yearning for something more than seeing Cruise prove he’s still got it (which he undeniably does).
The return of Harrison Ford in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was simply sentimental. It feels like something deeper is going on here. It’s not just the truly phenomenal action sequences we’re cheering; it’s the culture that gave rise to them.
In this disheartening new world in which military generals parrot the virtues of diversity and inclusion instead of merit and readiness, and every sequel comes with a PR campaign about the rainbow-flag-representing characters that have been added, the old-school style of the new Top Gun class is an invigorating shock.
Beyond the missing Taiwanese patch on Maverick’s iconic jacket, the one concession the film makes to modern realities is a single female pilot who never makes an issue of her gender and asks no one to change their behavior to suit her preferences. Through their banter and brash games of one-upsmanship, the young men around her bring to mind a time when the U.S. still won wars and displayed both courage and convictions on the international stage.
If critics are having an outsized positive reaction to this enjoyable, but hardly groundbreaking film, it’s because, without drawing overt attention to it, it offers virtues our entertainment has been sorely lacking.
Like James Bond who has gone on long after the sun finally set on the British Empire, “Top Gun: Maverick” is nostalgia for Reagan’s America writ large across our collective imagination. The movie itself may not realize how much it speaks to a longing for more confident days, but the fact that it is being so warmly embraced suggests they may still be possible.