THE STORY – After more than 30 years of service as one of the Navy’s top aviators, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is where he belongs, pushing the envelope as a courageous test pilot and dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him. Training a detachment of graduates for a special assignment, Maverick must confront the ghosts of his past and his deepest fears, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who choose to fly it.
THE CAST – Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris & Val Kilmer
THE TEAM – Joseph Kosinski (Director), Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer & Christopher McQuarrie (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 131 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
For all of his faults, Tom Cruise, now nearing the age of 60, seems to have inhabited the attributes of the characters he plays at this point in his long and legendary career. Much like Ethan Hunt from the “Mission: Impossible” franchise or, in this case, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell from “Top Gun,” Cruise is on a single mission: to save the big screen theatrical experience. With each film he produces, he’s willing to push his body and the limits of his crew to deliver a high-octane spectacle, the likes of which the world has rarely or never seen before. “Top Gun: Maverick” is the latest example of big-budget, blockbuster filmmaking done absolutely properly due to the efforts of Cruise and all those he has brought on for this sequel over 30 years in the making. Sure, it’s just as cheesy as the original 1986 film at times, but under the direction of Cruise’s “Oblivion” filmmaker Joseph Kosinski (“Only The Brave“), “Top Gun: Maverick” manages to outclass the original film in nearly every conceivable way simply by leaning into the original film’s strengths, correcting its weaknesses and pushing the boundaries harder and faster than any film has done before it when it comes to shooting aerial combat. Was there a need for more speed? After watching “Top Gun: Maverick” in the biggest, loudest theater you can possibly find, the answer will undoubtedly be a resounding yes.
It’s been nearly forty years since the events of the original “Top Gun,” which left Navy pilot Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) with a lifelong friend in Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) and reeling from the loss of his best friend Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards, shown through flashback footage). Now, still a captain and just as insubordinate and risk-seeking as he was all of those years ago, Maverick is finally being put in his place by his superior (Ed Harris) and is sent back to Top Gun, where there is a whole new generation of the world’s best pilots in need of a teacher for a high-risk, dangerous mission. Extremely reluctant at first, as he very much still wants to be the one in the cockpit flying these missions, Maverick is swayed by Iceman, now an admiral, to take the job, much to the disapproval of Vice Admiral “Cyclone” (Jon Hamm). Once he arrives, Maverick re-connects with an old flame, bar owner Penny (Jennifer Connelly), and must confront the complicated relationship he has with one of his students, Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Goose. The latter still holds Maverick partially responsible for his father’s death all of those years ago due to his daredevil antics despite the Navy ruling the death as purely accidental. Other notable students in his class include Lieutenant “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), an arrogant hot-shot pilot who would rather leave his team out to hang and dry than suffer defeat. The only woman in the group, Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro) and her WSO Lieutenant Robert “Bob” Floyd (Lewis Pullman), Lieutenant Reuben “Payback” Fitch (Jay Ellis) and his WSO Lieutenant “Fanboy” Garcia (Danny Ramirez) and Lieutenant “Coyote” Machado (Greg Tarzan Davis) round out the group of pilots who are considered the best in the world, except maybe when compared to Maverick. At a crossroads professionally and internally over his place in the world, Maverick must decide if he wants to stay grounded or take to the skies once more.
From the film’s first moments, which faithfully re-interprets Tony Scott’s original iconic opening (the film is dedicated in memory of the late director), there is both a reverence and acknowledgment of the first film’s strengths and flaws. Kosinski fully embraces the cheesy music cues (yes, Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” can be heard in the film’s opening), scorching California sun visuals, and evident heterosexual machismo (which many have interpreted to be more homoerotic-leaning over the years) of the original film. Where “Top Gun: Maverick” excels miles beyond the first film, though, is in the two areas where it matters most: action and heart.
This is a big movie with even bigger emotions as Maverick is still struggling with the guilt over losing his best friend, Goose. Was it really his fault? How can he prevent the same thing from happening to Rooster without entirely severing their relationship? The dramatic character work demanded of Cruise allows the actor to deliver some surprisingly layered work in a movie that didn’t fully need it but is all the better for it. Cruise is already shot and presented here as the true movie star he is; his irresistible charm is still intact with a commanding presence few other actors can achieve on the screen nowadays. So, when he digs deeper to explore Maverick’s psyche fully, especially in his dramatic scenes with Teller and one very welcome scene with Kilmer, it only elevates the movie on both a character level and also on a meta-level.
Ed Harris’ Rear Admiral Cole tells Maverick that the world is heading to the point where soon there will be no need for pilots, and his arrogance and death-defying nature is a dying breed in a more strict and uncompromising world. Much like Maverick, Cruise is in danger of being phased out by the kind of blockbuster filmmaking that would rather rely on CGI and green screens to tell its stories instead of the nuts and bolts practical filmmaking from Cruise’s era, which he is still carrying with him and redefining for a whole new generation of moviegoers. Such admirable efforts are justifiably rewarded with some of the most stunning aerial footage ever captured on screen before.
Cinematographer Claudio Miranda, using large format cameras, beautifully photographs “Top Gun: Maverick” to give it a sense of scale that can only be fully appreciated on the big screen. However, he’s not the only one, as Cruise had himself and his fellow actors trained to fly in the real-life F-18 planes and shoot themselves inside the cockpit (it’s not like you can have an entire crew up in the air mounted to these planes to shoot them from every conceivable angle) to showcase aerial combat in such a highly immersive way, never-before-seen in cinema. While the first film’s footage was certainly exhilarating for its time, it’s nothing compared to what Cruise, Miranda, and the rest of the cast and crew have achieved here. From the humorous but dangerous training sequences to the film’s climactic mission it’s been building up to, claiming how impossible it is to fly at such a low altitude (100ft) to avoid enemy radar and lock-on missiles and then turn into a dogfight amongst the snowy mountains is nothing short of astonishing. Kosinski wisely uses simulated visual effects, clever editing, and voiceover during the training scenes to illustrate the finale’s mission route and stakes (they must achieve their objective within two and half minutes), so by the time we arrive at the mission, the audience is clued into the geography, logic, and risks, physically and emotionally, in a way the first film was never able to convey, thus making the action easier to follow and more involving for the audience.
With blistering editing, thunderous sound, and sweeping music (the end-credits song “Hold My Hand” by Lady Gaga is the kind of massive power ballad that perfectly sums up this movie’s intent and sends the audience out on a soaring high), “Top Gun: Maverick” is flawlessly calibrated to deliver full-throttle entertainment, warm nostalgia and enveloping emotion with maximum effect. Cruise is fully dialed into his persona, both as a movie star and as a death-defying risk-taker, in a way that pays off for those who were fans of the original film and newcomers. While having seen the original film will certainly aid in the viewer’s appreciation of what this sequel achieves emotionally, “Top Gun: Maverick” can still be seen as a standalone film and thoroughly enjoyed for its action, humor, and the easily digestible story of teamwork, leadership, and legacy. It’s a triumphant example of blockbuster filmmaking, proving that there are still boundaries to be pushed and elements from the past worth preserving.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Miles ahead of the first film in nearly every conceivable way. Breathtaking visuals and aerial action that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Tom Cruise’s charm, death-defying antics and movie star persona are perfectly utilized for maximum entertainment.
THE BAD – Some might still consider it to be too cheesy at times. The female characters could’ve been given a bit more to do.