Top Gun: Maverick – Film Review

Every year I make a point to play through the latest Call of Duty single-player campaign. While most people play those games for the competitive multiplayer, I’m always interested to see what over-the-top, jingoistic story they’ll cook up next. I think I play them for the same reason someone may have watched multiple seasons of the Fox TV show 24 in the early 2000s — call it morbid curiosity, or brainwashing, but it feels like there’s some strange fascination with American propaganda when it’s so deeply integrated into the media we consume.

I bring this up because, while watching Top Gun: Maverick—with its early and obvious Lockheed Martin product placement—I couldn’t help but think of all the times I’ve waded into some politically-ugly muck for the sake of entertainment.

Maverick is a very competent and well-made movie. The in-cockpit shots are impressive, the action is very readable (a huge problem solved from the original movie), and the mission is exciting and well-constructed. It’s also almost universally praised as a sincere, classic action film that ushered in the return to theaters.

Knowing this, I was a little surprised to come away from the movie pretty underwhelmed. I spent some time thinking about what didn’t work for me, and I kept coming back to two things: that Lockheed Martin logo and the faceless villains that are the thrust of the movie’s conflict.

What worked in 1986 doesn’t translate as well in 2023. This is simply a different political landscape, and the idea of US fighter pilots taking on faceless enemies and blowing up a uranium processing facility isn’t as easy to swallow. That this plot is partially in service of giving advertising space to a real world weapon manufacturer certainly doesn’t help with the taste of it all.

One of the things I weirdly respect about the modern Call of Duty campaigns is that they generally name their enemies. If it’s terrorists, they’re likely backed by some named foreign adversary. Sometimes, the bad guys are US veterans turning our own guns against us. The way your squad saves the world is often through outright war crimes, and while the stories don’t denounce these actions, they’re unafraid of getting ugly. That’s not enough for me to go around bragging about how great the latest COD is, but I think they tell stories in the modern military space a lot more honestly than Top Gun: Maverick.

This latest Tom Cruise vehicle is a completely sanitized story. It’s as simple as good guys, bad guys, and a mission. The movie can’t even do a romance subplot without feeling disconnected from reality. There is absolutely zero chemistry between Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly. Sure, they play to the camera well, but their interactions are distant and robotic. Maybe that’s just a Tom Cruise thing, but if the movie was interested in being passionate about anything it could have told a different romance plot with any of the other characters.

Then again, that’s not really the point, is it? This is Maverick’s story and Cruise’s movie. The story is so centered on him that the rest of the cast has little to do other than act charming and quip at each other. The first movie spends a lot of time building up a cast of characters around Maverick. He’s still the center of it, but Goose and Iceman feel way more integral to the original film than their counterparts, Rooster and Hangman here.

Even the biggest source of character development in the film—the rift between Maverick and his deceased-copilot’s son, Rooster—is almost entirely about how it makes Cruise’s character feel. If the scene isn’t showing off Cruise’s commitment or acting chops, it seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. And I usually love Cruise action movies! But that’s not the balance I come to them for. It’s a little too self-indulgent, and considering how the romance story goes, a little too close to Cruise’s weird real-life persona.

It doesn’t help that if you set all that aside, this story is still filled to the brim with bad advice and aggressively unclever line repetition. Maverick’s reckless attitude was already rewarded again and again in the first film, and he is deservedly treading water decades later. All of the flaws he knows about himself—that his talent and luck is unique to him, that he shouldn’t be teaching others—are inverted and rewarded here. His repeated chants of, “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot,” and “don’t think, do,” are only meaningful because the film is ultimately only pretending at having stakes or consequences.

So yeah, the action was neat, but at what cost? This largely comes off as a collaboration between Tom Cruise and the U.S. Navy, and it’s pretty focused on what it thinks you’ll like about both of them. I thought I’d come away from this film singing its praises like everyone else, but I ended up feeling the way I feel after most of the Call of Duty campaigns—a bit compromised, a little dirty, entertained enough to do it all over again next year, but not enough to put it on any top 10 lists.

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