Like Tom Cruise’s fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Top Gun: Maverick is a sequel of a different breed. When I say they don’t make blockbusters like this anymore, and that there are no true movie stars quite like Cruise, it’s actually an understatement. Returning to the role that made him one of the most famous actors in the world, an older, wiser, and yet still strikingly handome leading man material, Cruise reminds you that he’s so much more than just the guy who does crazy stunts. He’s a legit star, a romantic hero who can make the audience swoon as easily as he can make thrill them to the core. This movie is the real deal. Strap in and get ready for take-off.
Thirtysix years after the original, and hit with numerous delays that started with the death of original director Tony Scott, and then again by the pandemic, Top Gun: Maverick is nostalgic in ways both expected and not. It’s a generational story, mirroring the friendship between Maverick and Goose that was the heart of the original movie. Only now, that relationship is between Maverick and Goose’s son, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (a terrific Miles Teller). When we first reconnect with Maverick, he’s essentially the same guy he’s always been. Reckless and defiant, he swipes an experimental fighter plane just to show up a Rear Admiral (Ed Harris) threatening to cut off project funding. It’s classic Maverick.
For years, the story surrounding this film was that it would find Maverick facing a world in which fighter pilots are no longer needed, and instead are replaced by unmanned drones. I think we’ve seen more than enough drone movies over the years, and thankfully, Top Gun: Maverick thinks so, too. This isn’t a soulless action flick like Stealth, but a surprisingly human story about a man who is holding on to the one thing he’s known his entire life. So when faced with the prospect of being grounded forever, or training up a team of hotshot pilots for a nearly-impossible mission (no pun intended, Mr. Cruise) to take out a heavily fortified target, Maverick does the thing that will keep him in the air. Even though it means having to *ugh* teach, but also to teach Rooster, who is part of this dangerous operation. Props to the trio of screenwriters (including Cruise pal Christopher McQuarrie) who came up with the mission parameters, because just hearing them lay it out I thought it sounded like nobody was coming out of it alive. Missiles, low visibility, impossibly low altitude, and a flight path that makes hitting the Death Star look easy.
Echoes of the past reverberate at every turn, but this is no mere nostalgic cash grab. Every single callback, whether it’s the sounds of “Danger Zone” in the opening to elements of “Take My Breath Away” heard throughout, and even the shirtless football game between squadmates, push the story forward while establishing that the past matters to these characters. And nobody wears the weight of the past more than Maverick.
Maverick’s estranged relationship with Rooster is much deeper than blaming him for Goose’s death years ago. It goes beyond that, and speaks to the protector, the team player that Maverick learned to be in large part due to Goose. If anything, that part of him has grown stronger over the years. We also see it in his romance with Penny (Jennifer Connelly, absolutely glowing), someone he has shared quite a past with and not all of it has ended up good. He’s more cautious in starting something anew with her, when he probably would’ve wanted to hit Mach-10 back in the day. It should be said that Penny is more than just a love interest here. There’s an attempt to give her some agency and a story of her own. She owns the local watering hole, frequented by Navy officers, naturally, and has a daughter who knows to look out for her mom.
Don’t even get me started on Maverick’s former rival and lifelong friend, Iceman, because I’ll cry just thinking about him. Val Kilmer returns to the role in small, bittersweet scene that speaks to the actor’s real-life struggles. It’s one of many heartwrenching, tear-jerking moments and even though his words are few it’s some of the best stuff we’ve seen from Kilmer in a long time. Cruise is exceptional here, as well, with Maverick shouldering love, respect, and great sadness for his friend’s health troubles. But you also still get that sense of Maverick and Iceman remaining rivals to the end. Friends now, yes, but rivals forever.
Teller is exceptional as the headstrong but untested Rooster. He’s a natural born leader but needs to be put through the paces only in the way Maverick can. This is also a star-making film for Glen Powell, who plays the cocky pilot appropriately-named Hangman. His clashes with Rooster, rooted in competition and eventually respect, mirror Maverick and Iceman. Jon Hamm is solid as a Commander with a grudge, and I really liked Monica Barbaro as Phoenix, one of the most promising pilots on the mission.
There’s so much to love about Top Gun: Maverick that’s it’s hard to get a bead on everything. Joseph Kosinski was the absolute right choice to direct this, having proven himself on previous films Tron: Legacy and most importantly, Oblivion, which is where he first worked with Cruise. Kosinski, along with cinematographer Claudio Miranda hit you with one breath-taking shot after another. I have no earthly idea how they shot some of the dogfighting scenes, but the visceral feeling of speed and power of those jets rocketing through the air absolutely demands you see this on the most powerful sound system you can find. Thank goodness Cruise wouldn’t allow Paramount to sell it to a streaming service. The goddamn horror!! The aerial scenes, of which there are many with lots of insane high-flying manuevers, will set a new standard for this type of film. And yes, I say that because I think there will be many copycat films that emerge from this. I’m also guessing that Navy recruitment will see a spike.
There are moments in Top Gun: Maverick that will strike fear in your heart for the fate of Maverick, and I think that’s crucial to why this film is so effective. It’s also key to why Cruise is the last true remaining movie star. It would be so easy for him to go the route of other blockbuster celebrity actors and play the invincible hero, but Cruise has spent his entire career making us care about his characters, win or lose. We hear about actors selecting their roles to perfectly suit their public image, but I think Cruise picks roles that not only challenge him on a physical and mental level, they ask us to invest something of ourselves. From the moment Top Gun: Maverick turned on the throttle, I was its wingman all the way to the finish and I’m betting it will be the same way for you.
Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters on May 27th.