‘Top Gun’ and Tom Cruise return to the danger zone

AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali
Tom Cruise poses for the media during the ‘Top Gun Maverick’ UK premiere at a central London cinema, on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

NEW YORK (AP) — In 1983, producer Jerry Bruckheimer was flipping through the May issue of California magazine when he was struck by a story. “Top Guns” read the headline, with a large photograph from inside the cockpit of an F-14 fighter jet. The story opened: “At Mach 2 and 40,000 feet over California, it’s always high noon.”

“I saw that cover and I said, ‘We gotta do this. This looks great,'” recalls Bruckheimer. “It’s ‘Star Wars’ on Earth.”

And at the box office, “Top Gun” did nearly reach “Star Wars” proportions. It was the No. 1 film of 1986, a rocket-boosted, testosterone-fueled sensation that established the then 24-year-old Tom Cruise as a major star. It made Bomber jackets, Aviator sunglasses and playing homoerotic games of beach volleyball in jeans hip just as it did military service. In the jingoist Reagan-era ’80s, “Top Gun” was about as American as it gets. The Navy set up recruitment tables in theaters. Enlistments soared.

If all of that — the go-go patriotism, a star-led blockbuster, magazines — sounds like a like time ago, it was. But almost four decades later, and after sitting on the shelf for two years due to the pandemic, “Top Gun: Maverick” is flying full throttle into a new world.

In the film, directed by Joseph Kosinski, there’s a new mission to win and dogfights to wage. But this time, the task of “Top Gun” feels even weightier. It’s here to, in a CGI, Marvel world, prove that a propulsive brand of moviemaking fueled by star power, practical effects and filmmaking prowess can, still, summon the need for speed.

“I wanted it to have that old-school experience,” says Kosinski, director of “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” Just as Maverick is going back to Top Gun, I wanted to take the audience back to that type of filmmaking.”

Paramount Pictures, which held off on pushing “Top Gun: Maverick” to streaming, has put a military-grade push behind the sequel. After kicking off aboard the USS Midway aircraft carrier in San Diego ( where Cruise arrived by helicopter ) a worldwide promotional tour has included stops at the Cannes Film Festival ( where Cruise received an honorary Palme d’Or ) and a royal premiere in London. The film, finally, opens in theaters Friday.

But where countless decades-later sequels have crashed and burned, “Top Gun: Maverick” may be a retro-blockbuster that succeeds — and maybe even rivals the original. The film has certain advantages, most notably the seemingly agelessness of its 59-year-old star.

But “Top Gun: Maverick,” in which a middle-aged Maverick returns to the elite aviation training program to train a new generation of flying aces (among them Goose’s hot-head son Rooster, played by Miles Teller), is an action adventure that recaptures a high-flying moviemaking style with modern-day technology. With visceral aerial scenes filmed inside the cockpit and a surprisingly emotional storyline soaked through with memory and loss, “Top Gun: Maverick” rekindles a daredevil spirit for digital times.

Early in the film, a skeptical general played by Ed Harris tells Maverick his kind is headed for extinction, a relic soon to replaced by automation. Maverick replies, with a smirk, “Not today.”

“In the film, he’s talking about him as an aviator. But watching it last week, it did feel like Tom Cruise is talking about the movie business,” says Kosinski. “In the age of streaming, he’s still making a really, really strong case for the theatrical experience.”

But does a new “Top Gun” fit as seamlessly into today as the original did the Reagan ’80s? The original “Top Gun” wasn’t a hit with critics. Pauline Kael called it a “shiny homoerotic commercial,” a thread that Quentin Tarantino picked in 1994’s “Sleep With Me” when he, as an actor, called it “a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality.”

Others saw a Pentagon-backed recruitment film with pumped up patriotism, and a portrait of American individualism set against a faceless, country-less enemy. Much of that is still present in “Maverick” — there’s no shortage of disobeyed orders and the bad guys remain a blank slate. But Kosinski approached the film as foremost about the close-knit culture of aviators.

“I do feel like the theme of the first film is not really about politics. It really is about friendship, camaraderie, competition, sacrifice,” says Kosinski. “That’s what we wanted to do on this film very purposefully. We designed a fictional antagonist. The mission itself is one about keeping the world safe. It’s not about invasion. It’s really about the relationship between Maverick and Rooster.”

In 2012, momentum was starting to gather for a sequel. The original film’s director, Tony Scott, was meeting with Bruckheimer at the Naval Fighter Weapons School known as Top Gun in Nevada. Scott killed himself days later.

“We certainly were doubtful that it was going to happen,” says Bruckheimer. “But we still had interest in trying to get the movie made.”

Bruckheimer brought in Kosinski, who had directed Cruise in the sleek 2013 science-fiction adventure “Oblivion.” Knowing from that experience what Cruise would respond to, Kosinski focused his pitch to the actor on character and emotion. He and Bruckheimer flew to Paris to meet with Cruise while he was shooting a “Mission: Impossible” film. The director, who came with a poster adorned with the title “Top Gun: Maverick,” had 20 minutes to make his case.

“At the end of that meeting, Tom stood and he walked over to the phone and he called the head of the studio and said, ‘We’re making this film,'” says Kosinski. “I mean, that’s a real movie star who can greenlight a movie with a phone call.”

Cruise had a few stipulations. One was that Val Kilmer, who has difficulty speaking after throat cancer and numerous trachea surgeries, return to play Iceman. (The actor appears briefly but poignantly.) Another was that all the actors playing pilots be trained to ride in F-16s and withstand higher G-forces. On the original, only Cruise managed it.

“Tom devised a way to train the actors. In the first one, when they put them up in the air with one camera in the cockpit, everybody threw up. We had no usable footage. Their eyes were rolling back in their heads,” says Bruckheimer. “Tom said, ‘Listen, we have to figure out a way to put our actors up there so they can handle the G-forces.'”

It took 15 months, Bruckheimer says, to work out with the Navy, lawyers and the film crew how to have six cameras in the cockpit. Actors playing pilots — Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, Greg Tarzan Davis, Danny Ramirez, Lewis Pullman and Jay Ellis — were trained over three months to prepare for the velocity of F-18 flights.

“Some actors said, ‘I won’t do it. I’m afraid of flying.’ So we lost some talented people who just couldn’t commit to making the movie in the way we did it,” Bruckheimer says. “The majority of the pilots that we worked with on this current movie said they joined the military because they joined the first ‘Top Gun.'”

So “Top Gun” has already proved that it can have a lasting effect in the real world. “Top Gun: Maverick” is hoping to show that, when done well, big Bruckheimer-styled blockbusters can still outrace anything else in theaters, or at home.

“This film is looking to the future,” says Kosinski. “Not only the past.”