Dipping back into the well of nostalgia is always a tricky exercise, fraught with the unwelcome peril of finding out those backward-looking rose-coloured glasses you wear obscured one too many unsettling facts, and that perhaps there is truth in the adage that you can never really go back.
Faced with the flaws and occasional blight of the present, we want to believe the past is a sweeter, more accommodating country but the truth is, going back is never quite what we think it will be.
The same, of course, applies to producing a sequel to one of the great ’80s blockbusters, Top Gun, a movie which, combining jet fighter pilot machoism, a love story (flawed though it might be) and the grim realities of death, pain and loss, defined an era while emphatically stating what a blockbuster could be.
Thankfully, Top Gun: Maverick, starring Tom Cruise once again as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, though a little older and wiser this time atop his frighteningly fast motorbike, understands the nostalgia trap all too well, taking care to tip its hat and nod in an affectionate way as it long ago predecessor – 36 years and counting, and yes, you are officially allowed to feel Zimmer Frame old – without becoming endlessly enmeshed in its alluringly suspect embrace.
Part of a recent wave of much-delayed sequels to movies everyone thought safely marooned along, and often much-loved way back in them thar olden cinematic days, Top Gun: Maverick manages to evoke the spirit of the golden age of blockbusters while still feeling very much a child of the third decade of the 21st century.
It helps in this respect that Mitchell is allowed to have aged and somewhat matured.
There may have been some temptation to simply keep him as reckless and fun-loving as his ’80s incarnation but the reality is that even Mitchell, still sitting at the rank of captain despite a storied and illustrious characters punctuated by many a “distinguished” accolade, would have to face a reckoning of some sort.
No one, not even a suave, devilishly handsome fighter pilot who still wears white Ts, jeans and aviator sunnies can put off the dead hand of time’s advance for too long, and so it is that though we find Pete still chafing to do his gung-ho thing, official censure be damned – the film opens with him pushing a new hypersonic scramjet to Mach 10 and beyond in defiance of Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) who’s arrived to close the Darkstar program down – he is still haunted by events of the first film – SPOILER AHEAD! TURN AWAY NOW – in which his backseater and best bud Goose (Anthony Edwards) died in a flying mishap.
While Mitchell was cleared of wrongdoing and went on to aviatory glory, he lives in the constant show of the loss of his best friend, weighed down by the ever-persistent idea that while he has been officially exonerated, the court of the long night of the soul continues to find him wanting.
That calamitous sense of existential guilt grows even further in weight and effect when, against the wishes of higher-ups who want him gone such as Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), commander of of Naval Air Forces, he is put in charge of teaching 12 Top Gun graduates, six of whom will be selected to go on a super secret mission to preemptively take out an enemy nuclear processing plant about to go online (the enemy is never specified but they do have delightfully snowy pine forest and jaw-droppingly beautiful mountainous terrain within relatively easy reach of California … hmm?).
One of those graduates as fate and narrative contrivance would have it – Top Gun: Maverick may be a thrillingly exultant ride but subtle it is most certainly not – is Goose’s son Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), a young man with a substantial moustachioed chip on his well-crafted shoulders.
It is all but decreed of course that Maverick and Rooster will have ISSUES – capitalised to signify their considerable presence in the film and again the complete lack of subtlety of their use in the telling of Mitchell’s wider story – and that Rooster’s presence will force on Maverick some kind of reckoning.
Also not in doubt is the fact that Micthell, though pissed on from a great height by the higher-ups, who can’t conceive why someone wouldn’t accrue the baubles of rank like a greedy child holding all the presents to themselves on Christmas Day, will once again prove to be the hero that the navy and hell, just about everyone else needs.
There are times when all that obvious hero worshipping does start to feel a little ridiculous, laden with cheesy lines uttered as if the deliverer such as Iceman (Val Kilmer), now an admiral who is all that stands between Maverick and career oblivion, save for Mitchell’s gift for heroic flying an derring-do, is incanting some precious line from a hallowed piece of religious text.
But hey, this is Top Gun: Maverick, a blockbuster made in the old mold where the hero of the day, and it’s always Mitchell, and as such, due deference must be paid at a host of melodramatically charged moments.
Still, for all its cheesy and adherence to the OTT conventions of blockbusters to way back when, engendered not simply by Cruise and the film to which it’s a sequel but the presence of Jerry Bruckheimer in one of the producer’s chairs, Top Gun: Maverick is still an impressively affecting piece of moviemaking.
There are moments, especially in the tension saturated final act when the mission is afoot and destinies are realised – again it’s all gloriously stretching the bounds of credibility but so swept up in the giddy rush of it all, that you just don’t care, an escapist release rare in films these days – and in the aftermath when Mitchell falls into the forever arms of on-again, off-again lover Penny (played by Jennifer Connelly she is the embodiment of the unseen admiral’s daughter from Top Gun and a perfect foil for Pete) in such a way that suggests he’s never going anywhere again, that you are will definitely feel something.
Lots of somethings, in fact, proof that done right, and Top Gun: Maverick is up there with the best, blockbusters can home deep and hard in a way that few other films can manage.
It doesn’t matter that it might, and likely does, evaporate within minutes of leaving the cinema; the fact is that Top Gun: Maverick, which features some lovely throwbacks to the beach volleyball scene, the “Great Balls of Fire” scene and countless jet fighter sorties of Top Gun in ways that are nostalgically referential without once being captive to the past, has real emotional weight and gravitas that more than balance out its cheesier, glossier moments and which together with an appealing sense of escapist bravado where good is good and bad is bad and fate can be kind to the just and the true, makes this one of those sequels worth writing home with hypersonic speed about.