Top Gun Maverick opened a few days ago to big box office numbers, bringing in more than $150 million in its first weekend. $150 million dollars would buy Russia about 33 modern T-90 tanks, which is about the same number they lose in a weekend too.

By now you’ve probably read 30 reviews that all pretty much cover the same points,

“Better than the original”

“Not as good as the original”

“Kinda the same as the original”

I saw the movie a few days prior to its general release and fall into the camp of it being “Kinda the same as the original.”  The movie recreates several scenes that are iconic from the first movie;

The movie opens with the original Kenny Loggins song “Danger Zone” and fighters launch from a carrier, except this time Tom Cruise makes a carrier take-off.

Tom Cruise racing a fighter down the runway on a motorcycle, the volleyball scene redone as a beach football scene, and wise-cracking fighter pilots at their first briefing in a hanger at the Navy Fighter Weapons School(TOPGUN).

Not that a bit of nostalgia hurts the movie at all in terms of enjoyment.  When the original Top Gun was released in 1986, it also did huge box office numbers and people both loved and hated the movie at the same time.  To quote lines from it in a navy fighter squadron would get you razed without mercy, but after the movie, navy pilots started having their call signs put on their flight helmets which was done in the movie so the audience would recognize the characters in the flight scenes.

The navy gave pretty heavy cooperation to the original movie, allowing them to film on an aircraft carrier and making several F-14 Tomcats with their crews available for the live flying.  Still, quite a bit of the action scenes used models and mockups of Tomcat cockpits for the actors to deliver their lines from.

The navy also leaned into the new Top Gun: Maverick as well giving them filming access to a carrier and something else very new and unique, the flying scenes with the actors were done in FA-18 Hornets yanking and banking through the skies.  In the flying scenes, you can see their distorted faces seem to melt as they pull the Gs. In some scenes, they cut away as the actor is an instant from going into G-Lock and passing out.

I don’t think any movie has ever captured the grunting, sweating, and straining that pilots go through flying an aircraft like the FA-18 all out.  For a scene that shows a Hornet “flat-hatting” over the desert at less than 20 ft, Tom Cruise had to get special permission from the navy to be in the aircraft at all, it’s so dangerous.  I’m sure the insurance company had a heart attack as well writing the policies on Cruise and the other actors in the film.

But the results are nothing less than stunning, some of the most incredibly filmed flying scenes ever to appear in a movie without trying to make the actors look cool at the same time,  they are drenched in sweat, faces contorted in pain, and getting knocked around in the cockpit as they try to deliver their lines.

They did have to use CGI for scenes with the Russian SU-57s(The Russian military didn’t cooperate with the film apparently) and a surprise appearance by an F-14 Tomcat again.  The art of CGI is now so good it’s very hard to tell they are not real. I had to remind myself that the only Tomcats still flying are about half a dozen in Iran so they had to be computer-generated.  They did a seamless job working them into the film with live aircraft.

I won’t get into the plot much except to say that Maverick is still in the navy after nearly 40 years on active duty.  He is a test pilot who’s flying a stealthy hypersonic super fighter that has had its funding cut by a new admiral that believes the future of naval aviation is going to be pilotless drones,(there is some truth to this actually).  The admiral intends to ground Mav’ as a relic of a bygone era but his plans are stymied by Maverick getting orders out of the blue to report to North Island in San Diego and the Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program.  This is the program that replaced the Fighter Weapons School at Miramar in San Diego.  The Navy’s SFTI program is actually located in Fallon Nevada but Nevada doesn’t have any beaches with cool aviation bars to play football on, so they took some license here with geography.

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The “Darkstar” prototype was a CGI image overlayed on an flying FA-18 to create this shot. The set was built just for it and the jet wash on the single-pass ended up wrecking the set unintentionally. The Chinese also freaked out about the mockup appearing on their satellite images and thought it was a real aircraft. They probably still don’t believe that it was just a movie prop.

 

Val Kilmer does return as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky and is woven into the plotline very well.  His scenes with Maverick will strike some pretty deep emotional chords with the audience.  While Kilmer played a supporting role as Iceman in Top Gun, he was actually the better pilot in the movie. Iceman in Top Gun was smart, competent, reserved, and disciplined in contrast to Maverick who was emotional, instinctual, and more of a seat of his pants flier.

That being said, Top Gun Maverick should provoke a lot of worry and concern in Russia and China, because they really won’t understand the movie or its characters. They will think they can’t possibly be real when in many ways they really are accurate representations of American naval aviators, cocky, aggressive, competitive, brave, and dangerous.

These are traits the very highly prized in combat pilots in all service branches.  You could be the perfect pilot in terms of intellectual ability and flying skills, but if you lack the above, you’ll be weeded out.

Both China and Russia produce brave people to be sure, but their societies, culture, and system of government do not encourage aggressiveness, competition, and self-assurance, quite the opposite in fact.  These are the kinds of traits that would likely mark you as potentially subversive to the State. In the militaries of these two countries, obedience and loyalty to the Party/State are the first qualities they consider, everything else follows.

Both countries would also marvel that civilian actors would have access to an aircraft carrier and planes which both Moscow and Beijing would consider state secrets.  In China, they would probably arrest you for taking a picture of one of their ships leaving port.  If you had any sense at all you would just assume that you would be arrested and not take the picture.

The news in China and Russia fed to them about America is that we are a hopelessly racist, xenophobic, dystopian mess and a failed democracy on the verge of collapse and civil war. We get fed a lot of that to us by our own media too actually. So both China and the Kremlin will be rather surprised to see a pro-military, pro-America movie like Top Gun Maverick bringing in big audiences and making bank at the box office.  Like the last movie, the enemies they are going up against are never directly named(Psst, we all knew it was Russia in the first movie, right?). So China and Russia will have a hard time banning the movie for being overtly against them and they may rest assured that their people will want to see this movie and that will make them nervous as well.

Finally, there may be a lesson for Hollywood in the apparent success of Top Gun Maverick; That pro-American, patriotic movies about our servicemen and women are popular with viewing audiences. And they are money makers too.

It shouldn’t have taken Hollywood 36 years to make a Top Gun sequel when a new Marvel Avengers movie seems to come out every few weeks.  Speaking of pro-American patriotic films.