Can you believe it’s been 34 years since we first saw Tom Cruise catapult off a carrier deck and up into the danger zone as Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun? We previewed the first Top Gun movie in our August 1986 issue (and correctly predicted that the Tomcat–and Tom Cruise–would become American heroes). That jet-propelled ode to air-to-air combat in the jet age is without question one of the most iconic films of the 1980s—so much so that in 2015 the Library of Congress deemed it to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” enough to be archived in the National Film Registry!
It was also the highest-grossing film of 1986, which probably has more to do with why Paramount Pictures and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have been trying for a decade to get a sequel off the deck—and now they have.
FILMING IN THE DANGER ZONE
The producers know audience reactions (and box office receipts) for Top Gun: Maverick will depend in large part on the in-flight action. Back in 1986, CGI didn’t exist, so the air-to-air footage was a mix of real aircraft and scale models. This time around, CGI technology is a staple of the industry, but the filmmakers had the legacy of the original Top Gun and its live-action flight sequences to live up to, so they resolved to minimize the use of CGI—reserving it for scenes that were too dangerous, too destructive, or too expensive to film live. You might also assume that the in-cockpit footage of pilots, played by actors who are not exactly flight-rated in the F/A-18, would be CGI too. But filmmakers realized it would be impossible to realistically simulate the facial distortions caused by pulling 7Gs in a combat maneuver, so instead they developed an innovative camera system that bundles six IMAX-quality cameras into a pod that sits atop the instrument panel in the rear seat of an F/A-18F. (The F is the two-seat Super Hornet, while the E is a single-seat Super.) The actors are strapped in and filmed as they are subjected to the actual maneuver, flown by a Navy pilot in the front seat. So on June 24, when you’re strapped into your theater seat watching Top Gun: Maverick, you’ll know you are seeing actual footage of the actors experiencing the real-life danger zone!
Top Gun: Maverick rejoins everyone’s favorite cocky jet jock, now a captain, as he nears the end of his career. Serving as a test pilot, Maverick is called back into duty as a Top Gun Fighter School instructor (the job he got at the end of the first film) to train a young cadre of Naval aviators that includes Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, the son of his late buddy, Goose. A couple other callbacks to the first film sneak into the script as well. Val Kilmer makes a cameo, reprising his role as “Iceman” Tom Kazansky (now an admiral). Speaking of admirals, in the original Top Gun, Maverick is dressed down for making a “high-speed pass” over an admiral’s daughter—one Penny Benjamin—who shows up here as Maverick’s love interest, played by Jennifer Connelly. There’s even a brief snippet of an F-14 Tomcat in flight! (Is it Maverick aboard, or could it be one of the Tomcats in the Iranian Air Force being depicted as an adversary?) But as fun as these nostalgic nods are, we’re all really here for the air-to-air action, and the footage released so far—including the extended six-minute version of the clip released during the Super Bowl—does not disappoint.
In this sequel, Maverick swaps his ’80s-era ride—the F-14 Tomcat—for an F/A-18 Super Hornet which, depending on your tastes, might not precisely be viewed as an upgrade! The first film showed us that the old Tomcat was a big, fast, powerful brute of a plane—the equivalent of a vintage muscle car with wings. For this new adventure, the older, perhaps wiser, but not necessarily more responsible, Maverick trades in his muscle plane for a more practical ride, an F/A-18E.
While the Super Hornet may lack the flair and machismo of the Tomcat, it is 30 years ahead in technology, incorporating sophisticated flight control and weapons systems upon which the newly reinstated Maverick must train the next generation of pilots for their dangerous mission. All this, as he contemplates the inevitability of his own retirement and a future where technology replaces old-school human pilots, like him, altogether. It’s a theme that runs prominently through the trailers, and, we can only assume, the film itself. In one clip, Maverick’s commanding officer (played by screen legend Ed Harris) ominously intones, “The end is inevitable Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.” Maverick’s reply: “Maybe so, Sir, but not today,” spoken with just the barest hint of his signature insolence. You can almost hear the opening night audience cheering already.
The action features Cruise (who has weathered the 34 years since his last carrier
launch remarkably well!) backed up by a cadre of young aviators.
By Matt Boyd
PHOTOS COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES, SKYDANCE MEDIA, & JERRY BRUCKHEIMER FILMS