If you thought there was enough horsepower on the F1 track, what about an F-18 Super Hornet fighter jet almost going supersonic, manually controlled at almost ten times the force of gravity? When “Top Gun (1986)” was first made with the adorable Goose beside Maverick, the film was a stand-alone classic with no expectations of a sequel. Fast forward to today, and we are able to meet Maverick 36 years from the day that he chose to be an instructor at Top Gun in Fightertown, California. We are witnesses to a whole new challenge for speed and pure power teamed with high levels of adrenaline. It portrays the meanest Top Gun fighter pilots on a mission that is impossible till Maverick paves the way.
We would expect that since 1986, technology has modernized to throw us a new lesson in fighter planes along with America’s level of aptitude to use them to their maximum ability. When Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) loved performing the rebellious move of turning the MiG 21 upside down to show his middle finger to fellow comrades, including Iceman, by modern standards, we would expect a level of heroism that exceeds expectations, and Tom Cruise brings it home.
When ego clashes take place, every character stands in challenge mode. Nothing but the elite can fly at Top Gun. The competition is fierce, and chest-thumping levels are constantly fluctuating. While Penny Benjamin (portrayed by Jennifer Connelly) diffuses all that tension in Maverick’s life, she is also his grounding force and supports his megalithic character presence. While complimenting and almost committing to each other, Penny challenges Maverick with respect and trust, and he must earn it.
Screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher Mcquarrie bring to the screen a power-punched story about the coming of Maverick as an instructor to Top Gun without him knowing it himself. It catches him off guard when he is attempting to government-certify a program called Mach 10 where he flies a hypersonic “Darkstar” scramjet, programmed to fly at 10 G’s (ten times the force of gravity). Only this time, his wings are clipped by the dissent of Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) and he is sent immediately off base as his wingman, Iceman (portrayed by Val Kilmer), the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, orders his return to train his fighter pilots at Top Gun. On arriving at the base without any delay, he is told of a mission to accomplish and he must train these pilots to complete it. After briefing him of the parameters, considering how the enemy location is heavily guarded, Maverick suggests sending two pairs of F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fighter planes (2 pairs of pilots in two planes) on a mission spelling death.
Nostalgia builds as Maverick is pulled away from his Mojave Desert Hangar to enter Top Gun again, with unwelcome greetings from Cyclone (John Hamm) and Warlock (Charles Parnell). When Maverick meets with Penny, an old flame with an impressive Porsche car and a boat at her whim and fancy, the bar she owns welcomes him as the person buying everyone a round of drinks. He gets to survey his potential Top Gun pilots for the first time and soaks it all in. As he gets to know Goose’s son, Rooster, is present, he grows uneasy because he only wanted to grant Rooster’s mother’s wish. The bond they build starts very rocky till Rooster learns to have a change of heart to follow his father’s best friend and brother in combat, someone who is undoubtedly the best fighter pilot there ever was.
We see a warm rendezvous with Iceman, now seriously ailing (in real life as well) and only getting worse as he types on a screen what he has to say. He shares an affectionate concern about what the school is doing and whether Maverick could be the best option they have. We suggest waiting till the end of that conversation where Iceman asks Maverick something so utterly Iceman that Maverick, in warm humor, avoids the question. The fighters bring back the game of dogfighting and are quick to understand that as Maverick applies his skills, he is unmatched in rigor, tenacity, sharpness, and instinct. His instincts are so quick with the fighter plane, he almost is the plane. We always hear throughout the film that it’s not the plane, but the pilot.
The pilots are tasked with one mission to accomplish two miracle targets. Miracle Target number 1 is to bomb the hatchet covering a uranium plant deeply planted in a canyon underground in enemy territory. Miracle number 2 is to bomb the plant that is below the hatchet in under 2 minutes and 30 seconds, the fastest any pilot could ever go. But the challenge is not only to hit the target but to sneak in unseen. Once they bomb the plant, they have to attempt a dangerously steep climb alongside a peak to come out of a death-trap like trench. On exiting, they must defend themselves again, trying to fight the inevitable blast of enemy missiles and engage in aerial dogfight combat to escape in time and get back to base. Cyclone’s cutting-edge character arc begins with a sour welcome toward Maverick, only to make him more anxious to prove him wrong, winning Cyclone in his favor with a rhetorical question about whether he deserves the post he should have been given a long time ago.
While the actors were never allowed to actually control the gears of the plane, the skill to deliver the thrill of flying and the constant grit and determination was coherently seen with the direction of Joe Kosinski, who would keep bringing us back to Maverick looking for Goose’s advice. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda captured shots that would pay tribute to a pilot’s dream, with Maverick looking out to the horizon every time, hoping Goose would tell him what’s next. Maverick’s weakness was Goose, seeking closure and looking forward to the horizon, hoping he would talk back. When Rooster learns to trust Maverick, he receives that closure, and we see his character come to life.
Director Kosinski’s editor, Eddie Hamilton, perfectly shuffles between field day exercises and the characters’ learning curves, telling the layman exactly how dog fighting dynamics work and how instinct is important in maneuvers that require split-second decisions. Maverick is always saying, ‘Up there, you don’t think. If you do, you’re dead. You just do. ‘
When Maverick tries to tell Rooster not to think, Hangman (Glen Powell) is the one to reign in and have Rooster understand the importance of not thinking towards the end when it really counts, even though Rooster did the same only to put himself in the same soup as Maverick. Though the Rooster-Hangman dynamic is similar to the Iceman-Maverick dynamic, it’s the ego clash that makes the film a sporty watch and keeps an on-screen challenge worth watching. A female Pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbado) makes her presence felt, diffusing any need for ego levels to go soaring too high.
Skydance Productions and Jerry Bruckheimer bring to us a power-packed film, juggling different characters’ inner battles. When the pilot becomes the plane, we feel their need, their desperate need for speed and survival and to come back home in one piece to their loved ones because, beyond those 2 minutes and 30 seconds, there’s a whole life to embrace still. While flying dangerously low below (known as “nap-of-the-earth flying”), they help us live dangerously high. Just like how Kenny Loggins likes to sing about the danger zone.