This movie, over three decades in the making, serves as both a love letter to classical Hollywood practical effects and a master class on how to make an action movie in the year 2022. It was worth the wait, and is just what we all needed to put the distaste of the past few years to bed. If you want to know if this is a good movie, then wait no more, it's fan-fucking-tastic movie. If that's all you want, then get outta here, and go watch it. If you want to know more, then read on.
The film picks up with Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell 30 years after we left him. He's working the wrench on a P51 mustang in a personal hangar before he puts it all down, hops on the familiar Kawasaki motorcycle, and races past a security station into a government owned hangar with a top secret delta wing single man jet. It is here that we get the first inciting event of the story and lay the groundwork for everything that is to come. Maverick is working as a test pilot, and the Brass in charge ( an admiral of the navy played by Ed Harris,) wants the money for his program to go to unmanned drones, but Mav isn't having it and risks his career to prove the plane and the 'man in the box' is better and more importantly, faster, than the unmanned drones.
This is one of, if not the central conflict in the movie. Man vs Technology, or Man vs Machine; ultimately proving again and again not with philosophy or bloviation, but by showing and doing, that the quality of the man or woman matters. It is my posit that this goes beyond the point of being an aviator, and in fact lends itself to cinema as well. That Cruise is showing, not talking out in the public sphere or bloviating on social media, but showing; that you can use practical effects, good story writing, and great acting to pull off a magnificent experience.
The rest of the movie deals with Maverick being called in to teach at the Top Gun school because the Navy has a mission he is tailor-suited for. Within the structure of being called back, he has to deal with old relationships, come to understand himself, teach the Navy a thing or three about being a pilot, and ultimately grow as both a leader and a person.
Maverick has never wanted to lead anyone, and the film is smart enough to know that, so it gives him a reason to want to lead in the form of Bradley 'Rooster' Bradshaw. Bradley is the son of 'Goose,' who was Mav's Wingman who died during a mission with Mav in the first movie. Bradley is chosen as one of the candidates for the deadly mission they want Mav to train them for, and the Navy knows Mav will train them because he will do whatever it takes for Bradley to come home safe.
The Character Development
The character beats in the movie are beautiful and the concepts are simple yet profound. Maverick leads the way as the titular 'Peter Pan' who never grew up because he never had to. He's always been good enough to keep playing, and being himself, and doing what he loves. Flying. Helping, and you could argue enabling, Maverick in this, is Val Kilmer's character Tom 'Iceman' Kazansky. Every time Maverick goes too far, Iceman, who is now a high ranking Admiral, makes a call and saves Mav's career so that he can keep flying. But, time is running out. Iceman's cancer has returned, and he doesn't have long to live. He can't save Maverick anymore. He'll have to save himself.
So what does he need saving from?
Mostly from himself and his own decisions. His life has yielded distinction and award, but no true earning or entitlement. He is only a Captain, when he should have been with all of his credentials a higher ranking within the Navy, something more like a two star Admiral given his years of service. He's also alone. No family, no friends outside the Navy. Bradley, who Maverick thinks of as a son, is estranged and angry with him at the beginning of the film.
And how does this all change?
Well, it changes gradually. As it should with any well developed through line of character development. First, he learns that he can't keep hurting people and that he doesn't want to be alone anymore. He starts to trust, and realizes that he's always needed other people, so he begins to ask questions of those around him. Asking them for advice on what he should do, and more often than not what they tell him is that he needs to lean into his own instincts. That he's trying too hard to be Pete Mitchell, instead of Maverick, and that what both Bradley and the Navy need is Maverick.
So when the second inciting event hits and Mitchell is left with no other choice, he aligns himself with his shadow and shows the Navy what it needs to make this mission happen, and what it needs is him. At this point he's scared, because he has something to lose. He's built connections to everyone and repaired the broken bridges that he laid waste to in his past. All that's left is make it home alive.
We care about these characters, because we've seen them hurt, cry, toil, black out, and build comradery for one another. So now, when they are at risk of dying, or being injured, we as the audience are worried and the tension is palpable. This is how you make a story, this is how you set the crescendo and climax.
My own bits and bobs, plus the Conclusion
Part of the charm of this story is that it's ultimately a tale of Maverick learning to be a father. Rooster, is very much a child of both Goose and Maverick, even copying mannerisms from both of them during the film. There is something magical in how they did this, because again, it's not what they say, it's what they do.
Another thing I really liked is how they respected Val Kilmer and his illness. Making him a huge part of the story, and giving him the respect that he deserves. I felt, perhaps in reaching, but I want to think that Cruise respects Kilmer as another classic practitioner of the craft and wanted to do right by him in this regard. The shared scene they have is small, but you can see in their eyes and expressions the depth of ability that lies within Kilmer's frail body.
In a sea of CGI infested action movies where the actors were doing their best to be scared of a green screen, having real practical effects and seeing the physicality of the actors on screen brought a breath of fresh air to my cinematic experience. It felt real and I was immersed in their world because it did. Because I was immersed, I cared, I never got bored, and I never once looked at my phone.
Go see this movie. Go see it again if you've already seen it. Show Hollywood that this movie; a marriage and meeting of practical effects, great acting, brilliant screenwriting, and emotional beats is the kind of movie we want more of.