Top Gun: Maverick shouldn’t work as well as it does. After all, the original film has long become an 80s nostalgia piece–a cinematic keepsake of a different era: Top Gun was an overblown anthem to hyper-patriotism, with flared nostrils and jittery cocaine sweats. That film couldn’t salute the flag hard enough, as spangly, Van Halen-esque guitars wailed over the soundtrack. In this time of chilly, insular cynicism, you’d think the world would have no use for another Top Gun. Well, you’d be wrong. Maverick tones down the humid self-seriousness and reorients itself as a giddy, frenetic romp of pure escapism. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say it: This one beats the original, hands down.
After three decades, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise, duhhhhh) has settled into a life of abject loneliness, punctuated by sudden bursts of pure adrenaline. He flies hypersonic test planes for the Navy, and constantly pushes the limits of what man and machine can endure. Years have passed, but this is still the same ol’ Maverick: He’s reckless, insubordinate, and sardonic. This prickly attitude costs him promotion after promotion; most of his superiors are now younger men. Maverick’s lifelong frenemy, Iceman (Val Kilmer), is now a decorated admiral. To make matters worse, Maverick still suffers deep emotional trauma from the loss of his old buddy Goose (Anthony Edwards) in the earlier film.
The opening stretch of Maverick doles out gobs of fan service, and anybody who’s seen Top Gun can see it coming from a mile away: Once again, Maverick flips off the rules and regulations, pisses off yet another commander (Ed Harris), and gets his ass chewed in some dimly lit office. (You want to play a drinking game? Chug every time Maverick gets bitched out by a superior officer. Or take a shot every time someone is referred to as “the best of the best.” You won’t make it out of the theater.) In the real world, Mav would get chucked in the brig. Of course, this is an unreality, so he gets kicked upstairs. That’s right! Maverick is assigned to teach those hotshot pilots back at Top Gun.
Turns out, the Navy has cooked up a deadly mission, and they need, uh…*checks notes*…”the best of the best.” It’s an impossible target between two steep mountains, deep in enemy territory, surrounded by next-level fighters and missile launchers. Maverick has to train a dream team of fighter pilots and potentially send them into certain death. That assignment gets even dicier when Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) gets placed on Mav’s team. He’s the son of Goose, and he resents Maverick over a few issues from their past. This awkward situation forces Maverick to confront his complicated history and patch up his relationship with Rooster.
As we all know, Maverick is a lover and a fighter, so the filmmakers have to serve up a little romance. This takes the form of Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a witty, wise, and pretty bartender Maverick once loved and left behind. This subplot feels tacked on, but Connelly is such a professional, she elevates the love story beyond its lazy screenwriting.
In truth, all the lead performers knock it out the park, and that goes especially for Cruise. A long and winding career now lies between him and the original film, which marked a turning point in his filmography. Cruise, along with our perception of him as a personality, have evolved so much in that span, it was no longer clear if he could truly go home again. Happily, the actor slips right back into the role that launched him. Maverick is still defined by the need for speed, but that arrogance has been broken-in like a pair of comfortable jeans. Cruise attracts so much controversy that it’s easy to forget just how talented and charismatic he really is.
Teller also brings it as the prodigal son. He bears a striking resemblance to Goose, even down to Anthony Edwards’ mannerisms. Cruise and Teller turn their boiling tension into an undeniable chemistry, much the way Cruise and Val Kilmer did in the first film. As for Kilmer, he makes a brief, touching cameo as Iceman. Anyone who’s seen Val, the actor’s autobiographical documentary, will know about his intense battle with throat cancer. Maverick incorporates this illness into the character, reducing his communications to either a computer keyboard or a raspy growl. Cruise and Kilmer get an emotional scene together, and it’s one of the highlights of the film.
Back to the subject of “talented and charismatic”–poor Jon Hamm. The man who gave Don Draper to the world gets relegated to playing a highly decorated hall monitor. I know somebody has to do it, because God knows we can’t have a Top Gun movie unless somebody’s chomping on a cigar and screaming at Maverick. Couldn’t we have moved a few rungs down the Hollywood food chain? Hamm is way too good to waste an entire movie scowling and glaring at a bank of radar screens. (The same probably goes for Ed Harris, but his appearance is pretty brief. I get the feeling he showed up, barked a few lines, grabbed his paycheck, and headed for the Poconos.)
But let’s get down to brass tacks. You’re not going to Top Gun: Maverick for the acting, right? Well, good news: The filmmakers know that, too. When it comes to breakneck dogfighting scenes, this movie delivers big time. The action in Maverick is visceral, blood-pumping excitement–popcorn escapism at its absolute finest. Cruise signed on with the condition that Maverick wouldn’t be a bonanza of CGI. All the jet fighter action had to be real, right down to the actors in the cockpit. That was a wise decision, and it shines through in the finished product. Director Joseph Kosinski stages every set piece so that it’s both coherent and gripping. This is a booming blockbuster, so see it on the biggest screen you can find.
With that said, Maverick isn’t a perfect film. It runs a little long, with a few too many crises piling on at the end. Further, Cruise is such a magnetic presence, the story loses charge when it veers away from him. The hotshot pilots, who fire off stale putdowns and engage in endless locker room grabass, are nowhere near as compelling. Aside from Rooster, none of these characters deserve the runtime they get.
Don’t let those quibbles deter you. This is a rock-solid sequel, probably the best that could’ve been made. It recaptures that loving feeling from the original, while also creating a wholly different vibe for these different times. Maverick might not be the best of the best, but it’s still pretty damn good.
131 min. PG-13. In theaters only.