Top Gun: Maverick is a serious and bombastic legacy sequel to the corny yet iconic ‘80s action movie. Like a lot of legacy sequels, it brings back some original characters, some children of original characters, and sometimes is close to being a copy and paste remake. Maverick features high-flying action that somewhat missteps with the new characters. Also, like the original Top Gun, it may find training exercises a bit more interesting than they are. Eventually, awesomely, dogfights are supplied too. Star Tom Cruise returns to his role easily and Maverick is a very fun to watch with palpable, visceral realism.
Having crashed a very expensive and very experimental supersonic plane, flying ace Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is recruited to train pilots at the Top Gun military academy, the same place he trained decades ago. He is sent to his new post by his old friend/former Top Gun competitor Admiral “Iceman” (Val Kilmer) as Maverick works under Vice Admiral “Cyclone” (John Hamm). A deadly nuclear facility is about to launch so Top Gun trains pilots to take it out. Amongst the pilots is talented “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro), the cocky “Hangman” (Glen Powell), the guy-who-didn’t-really-get-a-callsign so he’s just called “Bob” (Lewis Pullman) and more. The applicant who haunts Maverick is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former co-pilot Goose who died flying with Maverick years ago. While Maverick strikes up a relationship with the bartender Penny (Jennifer Connelly), he is troubled that the flight mission may be impossible, even as he pushes the recruits harder to survive.
The crux of the film is a bit annoying as Maverick is stuck being a flight instructor when he’s the best pilot ever. There are way too many new flying aces introduced and it’s difficult to care about any of them because the hero of Top Gun is Maverick so the newbies get in the way. Cruise’s Maverick is a likable hero who is constantly ticking off the higher ups as he’s an unabashed adrenaline junkie (kind of like Cruise himself). This works for the opening when he’s flying a supersonic top secret spy plane and pushes it until exploding. Which leads to one of the movie’s best gags where a dazed Maverick wanders into a diner and chugs down a glass of water looking like a spaceman who fell to Earth.
Cruise works best when Maverick is doing impossible flight maneuvers as he takes out most of the new class rather easily. Unsurprisingly, he is eventually selected to lead the critical mission which was so obvious there’s no reason it should have been questioned. One of the weirder late-era Tom Cruise action flick quirks a seemingly contractually obligated running away from danger scene which is strange to see in a movie that is set primarily in cockpits. Still, the action when the planes are flying is fantastic as the actors were strapped into real planes as there are some impressive visuals of the Earth and aircraft below falling away. Although visual effects are so seamless nowadays, why did they bother when all of that can be achieved in a green screen and only look slightly less believable? Still, that extra bit of effort makes the inside the cockpit moments soar. The objective of the mission is very high, involving flying extremely low so they don’t get swatted out of the sky, an impossible bombing run, and escaping before superior fighters take them down. This comes together in a gripping climax with lots of desperate moments, although the film cheats on which characters should have survived.
Some bits get a bit remake-y, like the opening of planes being prepped to fly is almost shot for shot the same as the first and the focus on air training combat is like the original. Like the first film, Connelly as Maverick’s girlfriend is basically just a prize to be won, although the film gives them a shared history which adds pathos. When Goose’s son Rooster is rocking “Great Balls of Fire” at the piano exactly like Goose himself it gets a pass because it leads to an excellently done traumatic flashback montage of Maverick seeing Goose dying. Maverick’s regret at Goose’s death and conflict with his son is the emotional core. Unfortunately, Teller’s Rooster comes off as annoying as Teller is brooding behind a mustache. Also, Rooster makes some incredibly dumb third act decisions to manufacture drama. Out of all the recruits only a few stand out; Barbaro’s Phoenix is the most skilled, Powell’s Hangman seems like a jerk but has a huge moment at the end. Pullman’s Bob is the lovable loser because his callsign of “Bob” is just awful. Hamm’s Admiral repeatedly chews out Maverick but Hamm is good enough to make him watchable. The return of Kilmer’s now Admiral Iceman is surprisingly heartfelt. He only has a small bit of screentime with mostly silent work but he conveys a lot with a very emotional final moment between him and Maverick.
There isn’t anything here in Top Gun: Maverick that is going to be quoted for decades after, but this is a fine sequel. It loses the cheesy fun of Top Gun but delivers solid spectacle. While it may skirt with being a remake without compelling new characters it does deliver for anyone wanting a return to the danger zone.
Top Gun: Maverick
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer and Lewis Pullman