(12A, 131mins) ***
IT WAS, let us not forget, a breathtakingly stupid film. Flashy as a parlour poodle, mired in power pop, Tony Scott’s Top Gun was the highest-grossing movie of 1986, a year not known for its good taste or restraint.
More of a pop artefact than an actual movie, it blended hugely impressive flight sequences with a remedial screenplay and wild overacting.
While Kelly McGillis’s bleached-blonde ‘astrophysicist’ Charlie Blackwood was the ostensible love interest, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker spied homosexual undercurrents.
Her quill, as ever, dipped in acid, she wrote: “when McGillis is offscreen, the movie is a shiny homoerotic commercial: the pilots strut around the locker room, towels hanging precariously from their waists. It’s as if masculinity has been redefined as how a young man looks with his clothes half off, and as if narcissism is what being a warrior is all about.”
A bad film then, but these days everything gets a remake, and if 36 years is a long time in showbiz, it’s even longer in the high-performance world of combat aviation. Back in the day, Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell ( Tom Cruise) was an arrogant daredevil, star pupil at the elite US Navy fighter pilot school Top Gun, and a magnet for ladies and disaster.
Now he’s a sage but not-so-chastened veteran, living alone but still in the service, and still flying very fast airplanes for a living. He’s been testing a new prototype Mach 10 stealth fighter, and just as the programme is about to be shut down, Pete breaks all existing speed records in the thing, before crashing it. He survives, and is just about to be drummed out of the Navy when an old friend comes to the rescue.
His erstwhile rival Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer) is now a two-star Admiral, and on his orders Maverick is resigned to North Island, San Diego, home of his old flight school, Top Gun.
“I can’t teach!” Pete bleats in protest, and his new commanding officer Vice Admiral Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (Jon Hamm) is much of the same opinion. He reckons Maverick’s a loose cannon and wants rid of him, but there’s a job to be done.
An unspecified enemy (I’m guessing Iranians) has begun enriching weapons-grade uranium at an underground site surrounded by high and heavily fortified mountains. The only way to take it out is to fly in at low level, Dambusters-style, thereby avoiding banked missiles, and enemy fighter planes.
It seems a job tailor-made for Maverick, and one he expects to fly himself. Instead, he must stay on the ground, and instruct a group of cocky star Top Gun graduates in the fine details of what smells suspiciously like a suicide mission. And there’s one more problem: among those young pilots is one Lieutenant Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s best friend and wingman ‘Goose’ Bradshaw, who was killed during a training exercise.
Maverick has always blamed himself for Goose’s death, and so it seems does his son. As the group prepares for its seemingly impossible mission, tensions flare.
Having entered the cinema with low expectations, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by Top Gun: Maverick. It’s not as dim as the original film, not half so gung-ho and jingoistic.
Everybody still has the stupid identifying nicknames of course, but when pilots such as Lieutentant ‘Hangman’ Seresin (Glen Powell) say things like “I’m good – I’m really good,” their boasts sound oddly hollow, as if they’re aware of their own essential ridiculousness.
The flight scenes are spectacular, as you’d expect, and the story direct and simple: this is a good thing, allowing the audience to engage fully with this nonsense without tiring themselves out too much.
Maverick, of course, has to have a girlfriend. No sign of the now 64-year-old Kelly McGillis, and no mention of her character either. Instead, Maverick flirts respectfully with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), a winsome and conveniently single bar owner.
In fact, only Val Kilmer survives from the original cast, sharing a brief scene with Cruise that manages to be genuinely touching, a poignant reflection on the passage of time.
Without Tom Cruise’s say-so, this film wouldn’t have got made. That’s as it should be, because from start to finish he dominates this amiably silly, winningly nostalgic action romp, filling a huge canvas with his formidable star power. And whatever you think of him, Tom is a movie star, perhaps the only person you can honestly say that about any more.
Top Gun Maverick is released in cinemas on May 25.