I was only two years old when Top Gun came out, so I missed the fervor. I knew it was popular, and that my mom watched the VHS tape a lot, but that’s sort of it. A fun relic of the mid-’80s, when movies could be enormous budget titans without any specific franchise aspirations. Tom Cruise, you don’t need me to tell you, is maybe the biggest movie star in the world. Still. So why, after 36 years and with legacy sequels being all the rage, wouldn’t he want to revisit one of his early triumphs? The result, the long-delayed Top Gun: Maverick, feels like a throwback to both the ’80s and the pre-pandemic movie days in a mostly great and unexpected way. High art? Never. Unrivaled action movie? You bet your ass.
I want to front load this review with some brass tacks: Top Gun: Maverick has the very best and most exciting aerial action I think I’ve ever seen. It more than rivals the original film’s jet fighting prowess. Any time Maverick is behind the stick of a fighter, performing some ridiculous maneuver and teaching a new batch of Top Guns how it’s done, the movie is bliss. Visual, aural, hyper-sensorial bliss. The story, on the other hand, is for the most part incredibly rote, but in a very “it’s a movie” way.
We catch up with Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) as a test pilot for a program destined for closure in a military world reliant on drones. He still doesn’t follow orders, even though he’s almost 60. A character even points out early on that at his age and service record he ought to be at least a two star admiral, if not a senator. He’s got one last assignment before he’s discharged forever: get a roster of Top Gun graduates ready for the most dangerous and seemingly impossible mission of their lives.
Among the possible mission members are Hangman (Glen Powell), a cocky a-hole; Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), the requisite no-nonsense one; Bob (Lewis Pullman), a meek but capable engineer; and Rooster (Miles Teller), with whom Maverick has a history. Yes, Rooster is the son of Goose from the first movie, which you can tell by his mustache and ability to play piano. We also meet Cyclone (Jon Hamm), the academy’s commanding officer and requisite authority figure with whom Maverick can butt heads.
Top Gun: Maverick does something really interesting with its story, at least partially. While a lot of it feels like a retread of the first movie or completely beholden to nostalgia, we also get the feeling that we’re not watching the second movie but the fifth; Maverick has clearly had decades-worth of adventures we don’t get to see but feel very natural. The movie’s love interest is Penny (Jennifer Connelly), the new owner of the bar on Top Gun Island, and she and Mav have a history the movie doesn’t spend too long explaining. It’s just something we need to take as read. All we can do is wonder what Maverick did, and that’s okay.
The movie has a quaintness to it which seems to work in its favor. Though it’s the United States Navy, it’s not about the military industrial complex; just like the original film, the baddies are some unnamed foreign power with advanced weapons and aircraft. But it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot, a point the movie seems keen to remind everyone of all the time. It has a starry-eyed love for piloting as a skill, something which will always win out against remotes.
Though Maverick’s prowess never once comes into question, the movie does wrestle with the notion of Pete Mitchell getting older, not to mention other members of the original cast both in and not in this one. Tom Cruise is old. He’s in amazing shape and can do all the stunts, but he’s an old guy. This feels like a big step for him to admit it on screen, even if fleetingly. As the movie progresses, he flies older and older planes, as though acknowledging relics are still capable of greatness, even without the flashy bells and whistles.
So, it’s definitely too much of a retread of the original (or a grab toward nostalgia for it). We get a shirtless beach sports scene for no reason. The movie opens with a near-identical aircraft carrier montage with “Highway to the Danger Zone” on the soundtrack. Miles Teller may as well be doing Anthony Edwards cosplay. It’s okay, but it doesn’t need to go that hard into it. That said, they change it up enough and Maverick as a character really works here. He’s regretful of some of his past mistakes, doesn’t want to lose anyone else, but he also doesn’t really know how to change.
Couple that with some fan-effing-tastic airplane stunts and edge-of-your-seat action sequences and it’s a pretty solid win. Seriously, those fighter sequences, from beginning to end, are worth all the nostalgia grabs alone. Go see it on a big screen with amazing sound and you’ll definitely feel the need for speed.
3.5 out of 5