Just because Hollywood’s propensity for producing legacy sequels seems to be flying at an all-time high, that doesn’t mean the subgenre is limited to this century.
Take 1986’s The Color of Money. Martin Scorsese’s followup to 1961’s The Hustler saw veteran Paul Newman handing the reins to hotshot Tom Cruise across the billiards table. Now, 36 years after Top Gun, another Cruise vehicle released 1986, it’s now the hotshot’s turn to pass the torch to another generation.
While Top Gun: Maverick follows maneuvers popularized by lucrative “legacyquels” like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed, it carves out its own air space with jaw-dropping stunt work and a world-wise story that enriches the characters set up by its predecessor.
Cruise returns as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, to whom we’re reintroduced as he suits up to push a hypersonic jet further than anyone ever has before. It turns out the test run wasn’t exactly “authorized” by Maverick’s commanding officer, and as a result, he’s transferred to the Naval TOPGUN program once again, now as an instructor instead of a student. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to train a dozen recruits with precision flying skills that will allow them to covertly take out a developing uranium plant before it becomes operational. Among the new class is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s deceased flying partner “Goose,” and Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), a cocksure flyboy whose prickly demeanor is as cold as ice.
Five minutes into Top Gun: Maverick, I was worried we were in danger. The Harold Faltermeyer music score, the intertitle setting up the backstory of the Fighter Weapons School, and the shot choices in the opening credits are identical to those from the original. But Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski assure us soon after that this is merely a taking-off point for a follow-up that actually has its own story to tell and its own unique moments to etch into action movie history.
The Darkstar scene, which finds Maverick going Mach 10 in a Lockheed Martin SR-72, is a thrilling sequence that reintroduces the character brilliantly, while visually recalling the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” segment from Cruise favorite 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But Top Gun: Maverick has dramatic moments that may pin you to the back of your seat just as much as the full-throttle set pieces. Ed Harris appears early as the superior responsible for chewing Maverick out after he carries out impressive but insubordinate acts, citing drones as writing on the wall for old-timers like them.
“The end is inevitable,” he laments to Maverick, who retorts, “Maybe so, but not today.”
The screenplay, co-written by Cruise’s Mission Impossible wingman Christopher McQuarrie, finds opportunities to flesh out these characters and their motivations amid the technical aircraft jargon and mission detailing. Cruise is also better equipped at volleying his cheeky one-liners and stern exchanges this time around, too. Re-watching Top Gun recently, it needs to be noted how far he’s come as an actor since his earlier roles; he always had the star power, but now he has the dramatic chops to back it up.
With due respect to the original, the aerial photography and commitment to realism is also on an entirely different level in this sequel. Not only are the actors actually flying those planes, but they’re also helping to run the cameras while in the cockpits, giving close-up access that takes the intensity to the next stratosphere. Obviously, special effects are helping with the illusion that these pilots are truly completing these runs in the air, but the execution and editing makes the movie magic pop like never before.
If the predecessor does retain a clear advantage, it’s in the soundtrack; the new Lady Gaga song featured throughout the film simply can’t reach the heights of classics like “Danger Zone” or “Take My Breath Away.”
Other than that, Top Gun: Maverick is a high-flying success and a crash course on how to do a legacy sequel right.
New movies coming this weekend
Playing only in theaters is Watcher, a thriller starring Maika Monroe and Karl Glusman which follows a young couple as they move from America to Bucharest and are seemingly stalked by a sinister neighbor near their new apartment.
Streaming on Hulu is Fire Island, a romantic comedy starring Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang centering around two best friends as they embark on a weeklong vacation to the titular hot spot off the southern shore of Long Island.
Premiering on Disney+ is Hollywood Stargirl, a follow-up to 2020’s Stargirl starring Grace VanderWaal and Elijah Richardson about a teenage girl and her mother, the latter of whom is hired as the costume designer on a movie, as they relocate to Los Angeles and meet new friends.