Some wonder if Tom Cruise and the producers of Top Gun: Maverick waited too long to do a sequel. After all, it has been 36 years since Top Gun hit screens in 1986. Well, wonder no more. Not only is the timing right and execution of this long-gestating follow-up splendid, but it also actually tops the original in every way imaginable, from an all-knowing performance for the ages from Cruise to its highly emotional storyline, “take my breath away” aerial sequences and just about anything else you want from a studio blockbuster. With five different release dates in a pandemic-delayed launch, somehow the time it has taken to get to the screen seems inspired. And by the way, you must see this one on a theater screen — the bigger the better. This is an example of Hollywood filmmaking at its zenith.
Tom Cruise is Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who is still that rule-breaking flyboy we remember. His need for speed in fact remains so insatiable he hasn’t been able to rise above the rank of captain in the decades since making bomber jackets and aviators cool again. He’s about to lose his job for an unauthorized joy ride at Mach 10 when former rival Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now the commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet, swoops in and gives him a new assignment.
It’s then back to Fighter Town, U.S.A. in San Diego to train a special detachment of Top Gun graduates (“the best of the best,” we’re repeatedly reminded) for a seemingly impossible mission: strike a uranium enrichment facility located on (unnamed) enemy soil between two mountains at the end of a twisting, winding cavern and then get the hell out of there alive.
This time around, the group of hot-looking Navy pilots is refreshingly more diverse. The detachment includes callsigns Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Payback (Jay Ellis), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), and BOB (Lewis Pullman), and is led by two alpha males, Hangman (Glen Powell) and Rooster (Miles Teller).
Plot twist! Remember that scene in the original where Maverick and his wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards), are singing “Great Balls of Fire” at the bar? Turns out the kid sitting on the piano grew up to be Rooster. So, yeah, it’s complicated. Not only does Rooster blame Maverick for the death of his dad, he also resents him for holding back his Naval career for reasons I won’t spoil.
Throw in a rekindled love interest named Penny (mentioned but not seen in the original, played by Jennifer Connelly), a disapproving commanding officer (Jon Hamm), several thrilling training montages, a game of sweaty beach volleyball football and a touching onscreen reunion between Cruise and Kilmer, who has battled throat cancer, and you’ve got everything you’d expect in a “Top Gun” sequel. But then it gives you something more.
The original “Top Gun” was style over substance, not much more than an MTV music video in search of a movie. Here, director Joseph Kosinski and screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie deliver plenty of both. The final mission is indeed one of the most intense action sequences in recent memory, full of jaw-dropping aerial acrobatics and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Kosinski relied on real F-18s flown by real Top Gun pilots over CGI and that authenticity shows up on film. See it on the biggest screen possible if you can.
Then, just when you think you’ve figured out how this thing is going to end, the film swerves in another direction. The third act not only explores the fragile and complex relationship between Maverick and Rooster, but it also allows Maverick to decide if he still wants to be that 1986 version of himself. Behind all that machismo, you’ll find charming and vulnerable performances from both Cruise and Teller. The result is more emotional than any movie that opens with Kenny Loggins singing “Danger Zone” has any business being.
Still, the film isn’t without its faults. Cruise and Connelly generate few sparks, Hamm seems to be channeling Alec Baldwin’s character from “Pearl Harbor,” the jokes are unapologetically cheesy and some scenes feel like they were shot specifically for a Berlin Lady Gaga power ballad. There’s Maverick and Penny on a motorcycle! Maverick and Penny on a sailboat! Penny standing next to a Porsche!
But none of that stops “Top Gun: Maverick” from being the kind of wildly entertaining, old-school blockbuster that summers and popcorn were made for. Buckle up, you’re in for a ride.
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