In my opinion, there are two kinds of ‘80s nostalgia, especially as it relates to film. There’s the stuff we love ironically—because of how bad it is. And there’s the stuff we love genuinely, no matter how bad it is.
The former category, for me, would be made up of titles like “Ninja III: The Domination,” “Breakin’ 2,” anything from Troma and anything with Chuck Norris in it. The latter category is harder to sell, since it’s so personal and resistant to consensus. I suppose that’s true of both lists, in the end, but my long roster of ‘80s guilty pleasure movies would have to include “The Outsiders,” “Beetlejuice” and—you know where I’m going with this—“Top Gun.”
The original “Top Gun” was released in 1986, and it capitalized on our hunger for clean-cut heroes and steamy, mildly-forbidden love affairs. America’s murky involvement in foreign conflicts and tragic events like the Challenger explosion had shaken our faith quite a bit, and we were eager to invest in the far simpler good-and-evil binary of Maverick and his cohort.
Just like with the Ghostbusters franchise, it’s hard to explain why it took so long to revisit the world of “Top Gun.” Perhaps the intervening decades, with their increasing social, political and digital complexity, made one-note testosterone trips feel a little silly. Regardless of why we needed to wait, Tom Cruise is finally back in theaters as Pete Mitchell, the naval jet jockey with the million-dollar smile in “Top Gun: Maverick.” 36 years have passed for Maverick too, so instead of being the pilot school’s best graduate, Maverick is now its instructor. And the U.S. government has never needed him more.
The film spends a lot of time reminding everyone on and off the screen of Maverick’s legendary status, which makes a certain amount of sense since not everyone at the showing I saw was as old as me. There are quite a few new fans to bring up to speed, I suppose. But the constant mythologizing does start to wear thin after a while, especially since Cruise does a pretty good job of updating Maverick by emphasizing his personal sacrifices and hard-won wisdom.
The crew of hotshots that make up his Top Gun class are suitably arrogant and initially dismissive of his mentorship. For most of them, it’s pure generational ego that makes them question the old master, but for Miles Teller (who plays Rooster, the son of Anthony Edwards’ character Goose from 1986), it’s very personal. Their tension, and the doubt it sows in both of them, creates the hostile framework in which the various pecking orders on the team must be sorted. Some of that sorting must be done on the beach, of course—no shirts allowed.
The mission they are training for is somehow both incredibly generic and excruciatingly specific. It’s basically a Death Star trench run with a tight grand prix course at the beginning. But none of that is really the point. You know what will happen on that mission a full 90 minutes before you get there and, though there is a little surprise interlude before the end, that’s true of most of the film. It’s corny. It’s predictable. And it’s a blast. The flight footage is absolutely stunning and more than makes up for the blunt certainty of the plot.
I was in high school when the first Top Gun hit theaters and I loved it. “Top Gun: Maverick” scratches the same itch with unbelievable visuals and a lot of nostalgic comfort food. And Tom Cruise’s insistence that the cast actually ride in the planes this time around was a stroke of genius. Like them, I was exhausted at the end.