But the beating heart of Tom Cruise’s screen return as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell after 36 years is the emotional meeting with one-time “Top Gun” pilot rival Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, played by Val Kilmer.
On screen, Iceman is now Admiral Kazansky, who has spent his Navy career looking after the rebellious Maverick and is near the end of his life due to an unspecified illness. The real performance comes from the two superstars who shot to worldwide fame with 1986’s “Top Gun” and are reunited in the long-awaited sequel.
Cruise, 59, has remained one of the world’s last movie superstars, while the once famously mercurial leading man Kilmer, 62, battled throat cancer in the 2010s that required a tracheotomy which still greatly impacts his speaking voice.
There have been many teary eyes watching the “Maverick” reunion, including from Kilmer.
“I was very moved the first time I saw it. Almost 40 years is a long time for a reunion,” Kilmer tells USA TODAY over email of the scene. “We laughed all day. Tom is great and surprisingly funny!!”
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“Maverick” director Joseph Kosinski says the scene’s depth was boosted by real emotions.
“It’s a long friendship. They were both there at their career beginnings with the original ‘Top Gun.’ I’m sure there was a little bit of a rivalry back then, just like the characters,” says Kosinski. “But for both to be back in this movie, it was a really special moment. There was so much joy.”
Kilmer says he was gunning for a reunion as soon as the sequel was announced three decades after the original “Top Gun.”
“I called the agent immediately,” Kilmer says. “Yes, ‘Top Gun’ has all the perfect elements for a sequel.”
Kilmer, who was indifferent to earning his “Top Gun” role in his original audition, wrote In his 2020 memoir “I’m Your Huckleberry” that he pleaded for the “Maverick” part: “As the Temptations sang in the heyday of Motown soul, ‘ain’t too proud to beg.’ The producers went for it and Cruise went for it.’ “
Kosinski says it was Kilmer who suggested the idea of Iceman serving as the high-ranking mentor, discussing the part with himself, Cruise, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
“It is nice to see Iceman reach such success in the career he loved,” Kilmer says of his new admiral status. “It’s a good story arc. And it was very exciting to be back at it with Tom.”
In the scene, instructor Maverick is called to Iceman’s house to discuss his pilot recruits, including Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the troubled pilot son of Maverick’s late BFF Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards).
Kilmer, wearing a sweater and a scarf, types most of his “Maverick” dialogue to Cruise on a computer keyboard, including asking, “How’s my wingman?” – a follow-up to Iceman’s final line to his rival in the original, “You can be my wingman, anytime.”
But as the “Maverick” scene deepens, Iceman eventually speaks, saying, “The Navy needs you Maverick, they (the pilots) need you.”
The scene evolved to the speaking finale, says Kosinski. “It ends up being more powerful when (Kilmer) speaks at the end of the scene. Those words carry more weight,” says Kosinski.
“It changed every day in rehearsals,” says Kilmer. “They made the right choice in the end.”
The final hug between the two onscreen was “straight from the heart,” says Kilmer. “I love Tom. We’ve always gotten along great.”
There is a moment of levity as the two argue over who was a better pilot since Iceman won the Top Gun Trophy in the original.
“One can always use a laugh,” says Kilmer who makes it clear he’s the ace. “There can only be one Top Gun…”
Kilmer, who starred with his daughter Mercedes in the 2020 crime drama “Pay Dirt,” says he’s well healthwise and looking forward to more work.
“I’m feeling strong and excited to play any chance I get,” Kilmer says.