OK, let’s put our cards on the table: The ’80s were really stupid, and nowhere was this more clearly reflected than in the cinema. Except maybe the politics. And the music. Oh my God, and the fashion. The fashion should probably be at the top of the list. Did I mention the politics? I did? OK, let me mention them again because: dumb.
Hollywood had discovered, thanks to Spielberg and Lucas and Corman, that it was still possible to make money at the movies. The trick was to make movies that people wanted to see. The Shark and the Space Wizards and what-not made execs realize that their tastes weren’t perfectly in line with the moviegoing public—i.e., the people whose money they wanted. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the action movie, which could be downright jingoistic even with a vein of ’60s counter-culture anti-Americanism running through them.
This was true of 1986’s Top Gun at first, too. “Mixed” reviews and a modest opening gave way to one of the biggest box office hits of all time, and the first video to sell a million copies, which is a big contributor to its staying power. Someone got the bright idea to cross-promote it with McDonald’s and sell it for $20 rather than $40-$60 (the going price for a recent movie on VHS) and a classic was born.
Director Tony Scott was a master of style and…yeah. Style. And Top Gun oozes style. For characterization, it rests heavily on the talent of its young crew (Cruise, Kilmer, Edwards) who are so macho, nobody at the time so much as hinted at any homoerotic overtones in the volleyball scene. For plot, there’s hardly any, and it veers into the goofy. It’s hammy and ham-handed, and it all kind of works in that ’80s way.
I wasn’t, therefore, really clamoring to see Top Gun: Maverick. Consistently, however, I heard nothing but good about it. And on and on. Damn movie is still playing! It’s in its third freaking month and is #3 at the box office this weekend! That’s nuts! (Update: And it is now the only film to be #1 on both Memorial Day and Labor Day!)
Setting aside that the movie is just a goofy, from a technical standpoint, as the original, it’s so much better than the original, it’s—well, it’s almost dangerous (to quote the original) because it shows that a reboot/remake/sequel/whatever can be really good and successful. Even if, in 2022, we (or at least I) completely lack the ability to believe “there’re some bad foreigners we need to blow up” but just like in the original, the foreign threat is just a MacGuffin for our characters to test their mettle.
The premise is that Maverick, now testing ever faster jets even while the Air Force is more interested in drones, has to be called back to Top Gun to train the new recruits for a special mission. There he meets back up with old issues, especially Goose Jr. (ably played by Miles Teller), Penny (with Jennifer Connelly being an excellent choice to replace Kelly McGillis) and of course Iceman (Val Kilmer).
Not only that, did you ever notice that the Top Gun cadets are jerks?
Heh. The sort of behavior they engage in is what we call toxic masculinity today, with the only real twist here being that it’s not even remotely exclusive to men. There’s a nice bit of subtlety here: At first, you’re looking at Cruise and Connelly, and the other older actors like Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell who, even in small parts, seem to be acting circles around the younger actors, who are kind of glib and callow and—say, that’s exactly how the cast of the first movie was!
Even though they don’t necessarily get a lot of screen time, they get some motion as far as their characters go, and by the end, they’ve all developed into characters to some degree richer than anything in the original.
Cruise famously still looks young, but in my opinion, not terribly so and so much the better for him. He’s still got the smile and swagger but it’s tempered by so much life experience. Although he can and does look vital when he needs to, he can look like the weight of the world suddenly dropped on him. His character is still reckless but not inconsiderate (which is a neat trick). He’s an anachronism, and he knows it, and that brings a genuinely fascinating dimension to his character. The movie spends some of its nostalgia points wisely by taking its callbacks and adding that thirty year spin—such as Maverick escaping out the window from Penny’s bedroom, only to be caught by Penny’s daughter.
Val Kilmer doesn’t get a lot of screen time and, due to his vocal issues, does most of his acting via text. But I thought—and The Boy agreed so I don’t think it’s a nostalgia thing—that he was just a powerhouse in his big scene. The way that is handled is remarkably effective, and Kilmer is still up to the task.
It’s a series of well-made choices, which is just rare in this kind of big-budget filmmaking. And it builds up so much good will that by the time you get to the final act—a true homage to the dumb, goofy action tropes of the ’80s—well, it pretty much had won me over and sucked me in, even as I’m chuckling at how outlandish it is.
Does it make sense to call a movie humble, especially when the movie is about very un-humble people? It felt genuinely humble and humbly genuine, down to the opening where Cruise thanks the audience for showing up to the theater. A common trope today is “Why go to the movies when the people who make them so clearly hate me?” And this movie doesn’t hate anyone. It’s genuinely feel-good.
Domestic box office-wise, adjusted for inflation, it will be in the all-time top 30. Worldwide, where adjusting for inflation is too complicated, I guess, it’ll finish in the top 5, maybe higher—without a Chinese release. Some people think Hollywood will learn something from that; I think Hollywood’s thinking “Hey, we could’ve earned another $250M, if we didn’t piss off the Chinese Communists!” I’m not actually sure what the hell there is for the CCP to object to, but catering to them doesn’t seem to produce better movies. Hell, sometimes they just laugh at you when you cater to them.
While it’s way better than the original, I do think it’s somewhat over-hyped. (Not that I blame anyone involved for hyping it. It’s a huge victory over lockdowns and ennui.) But you know, I haven’t seen the original since it came out and still don’t particularly care to. But I’ll almost certainly watch this again.