TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's been 36 years since Tom Cruise played a hotshot Navy fighter pilot named Maverick in the 1986 blockbuster "Top Gun." Now Cruise steps back into the role in the sequel "Top Gun: Maverick," which hits theaters this week after being delayed almost two years by the COVID pandemic. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In one of the more memorable lines in the original "Top Gun," Maverick gets chewed out by a superior who tells him, son, your ego's writing checks your body can't cash. Sometimes I wonder if Tom Cruise took that put-down as a personal challenge. No movie star seems to work harder or push himself further than Cruise these days. He just keeps going and going, whether he's scaling skyscrapers in a new "Mission: Impossible" adventure or showing a bunch of fresh-faced pilots how it's done in the ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining "Top Gun: Maverick."
Cruise was in his early 20s when he first played Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, the cocky, young Navy pilot with the aviator sunglasses, the Kawasaki motorcycle and the need for speed. In the sequel, he's as arrogant and insubordinate as ever. Now a Navy test pilot in his late 50s, Maverick still knows how to tick off his superiors, as we see in an exciting opening sequence where he pushes a new plane beyond its limits. Partly as punishment, he's ordered to return to Top Gun, the elite pilot training school, and train its best and brightest for an impossibly dangerous new mission. One of his trainees is a hotheaded young pilot called Rooster, played by Miles Teller. Rooster is the son of Maverick's beloved wingman, Goose, who tragically died while flying with Maverick in the first Top Gun. Maverick's lingering guilt over Goose's death affects his relationship with Rooster, so does his desire to protect Rooster from harm, which generates some suspense over whether he'll end up choosing the young man for the assignment.
And so the three screenwriters of "Top Gun: Maverick," including Cruise's regular "Mission Impossible" writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, have taken the threads of the original and spun them into an intergenerational male weepie, a dad movie of truly epic proportions. They're tapping into nostalgia for the original while aiming for new levels of emotional grander. To that end, the soundtrack features a Lady Gaga song, "Hold My Hand," that's nowhere near as iconic a chart-topper as the original movie's "Take My Breath Away," but tugs at your heartstrings nonetheless.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD MY HAND")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) So cry tonight, but don't you let go of my hand. You can cry every last tear. I won't leave 'til I understand. Promise me, just hold my hand. Raise your head...
CHANG: Much of the plot is unabashedly derivative of the first "Top Gun." Once again, Maverick runs afoul of growling authority figures, here played by Ed Harris and Jon Hamm. Cruise's former co-star Kelly McGillis is nowhere to be seen. But Maverick does get another perfunctory love interest, a bartender named Penny, nicely played by Jennifer Connelly despite the thanklessness of the role. What's interesting about "Top Gun: Maverick" is how it isn't like its predecessor, mostly in terms of style. The first "Top Gun," directed on a relatively low budget by the late Tony Scott, combined the aesthetics of a military recruitment video with some of the ripest homoerotic imagery ever seen in a major Hollywood movie.
For better or worse, the sequel, directed by Joseph Kosinski of "Tron: Legacy" and Oblivion, is a much tamer, slicker, classier affair. Maverick no longer struts around in towels and tighty-whities, though he can still fly a plane like nobody's business. The action sequences are much more thrilling and immersive than in the original. You feel like you're really in the cockpit with these pilots, and that's because you are. The actors underwent intense flight training and flew actual planes during shooting. In that respect, "Top Gun: Maverick" feels like a throwback to a lost era of practical moviemaking, before computer-generated visual effects took over Hollywood.
You start to understand why Cruise, the creative force behind the movie, was so driven to make it. In telling a story where older and younger pilots butt heads, and state of the art F-18s duke it out with rusty old F-14s, he's trying to show us that there's room for the old and the new to coexist. He's also advancing a case for the enduring appeal of the movies and their power to transport us with viscerally gripping action and big, sweeping emotions - which brings us to the movie's most powerful scene, in which Val Kilmer briefly reprises his role as Iceman, Maverick's former nemesis-turned-friend. Kilmer is, in some respects, Cruise's opposite, a one-time star whose career never quite found its groove and has been beset by health issues in recent years, including the loss of his voice due to throat cancer. His soulful presence here gives this high-flying melodrama the grounding it needs. Cruise may be this movie's immortal star, but it's Kilmer's aching performance that takes your breath away.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be comic, writer and actor Sarah Silverman. She's known for breaking taboos in her comedy. She wrote about the most humiliating aspect of her childhood in her memoir "The Bedwetter." Wetting the bed was especially awful during sleepovers and her summers at sleepaway camp. Now "The Bedwetter" has been adapted into an off-Broadway musical. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FELDMAN, RAUL DE SOUZA AND TONINHO HORTA'S "SOCCER BALL")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FELDMAN, RAUL DE SOUZA AND TONINHO HORTA'S "SOCCER BALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.