Top Gun: Maverick is probably the best possible follow-up that fans of the late Tony Scott’s original 1986 movie—now very much considered a classic—could hope for. With star Tom Cruise returning to one of his signature roles, a well-placed original cast member, and a lineup of new faces, plus the narrative beats and action footage that the name Top Gun demands, director Joseph Kosinski’s legacy sequel checks off all the boxes.
More satisfyingly, however, the long-delayed movie is genuinely engaging and exciting enough to draw in others as well, including even those of us who (yes, we’re out here) don’t care for the original film. It plays exceptionally well as large-scale summer fare meant to be seen on the big screen (we recommend IMAX). At the same time, the things that people disliked about Top Gun—the one-dimensional characters, the maudlin melodrama, and the montages of military porn that play almost like Navy recruitment videos—still remain. But one might argue that this is all part of the franchise’s cheesy charm.
Cruise returns as Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, still with the Navy after more than 30 years of service and currently working as a test pilot, giving new aircraft the toughest workouts possible while he continues to dodge both a promotion and retirement. But the latter may be forced upon him, as Rear Adm. Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) arrives to inform Maverick, “The future is coming. And you’re not in it,” referring to Cain’s preference for drones instead of human-piloted aircraft.
Nevertheless, Maverick is being ordered back to the Naval Fighters Weapons School in San Diego—aka TOP GUN—to train a new batch of pilots who are the cream of the crop and all previously winners of the title “Top Gun” in recent classes at the elite school. They’re needed again for an urgent mission: six of them must fly into a hazardous, narrow path between two mountains and launch missiles directly at a suspected enemy’s underground uranium laboratory, which is of course guarded by enemy fighters and rocket launchers (the enemy is never identified and politics are kept carefully out of the story, but the landscape sure looks like North Korea).
It’s an assignment so dangerous that only Mitchell could possibly teach it since he’s the only one who’s flown a mission remotely like this, and even he questions whether the pilots can return in one piece. Complicating matters: one of the pilots who is up for the mission is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the moody son of Maverick’s late best friend and radar intercept officer, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, whose accidental death during a training engagement decades earlier still haunts Maverick’s conscience.
Once the stage is set, Top Gun: Maverick moves like a precision watch, hitting its narrative beats with such accuracy that one wonders if director Kosinski could fly the F/A-18 and knock out the damn target himself (the script and story are credited to five writers, including regular Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie).
Naturally, Maverick spars with the commanding officer (Jon Hamm) over his methodology, with Rooster over Goose’s death and Maverick’s own complicated history with Rooster’s career, and with the cocky pilot Hangman (Glen Powell) over the latter’s attitude. Whole scenes from the first movie are recreated and tweaked, with a beach football game replacing the famous beach volleyball sequence. And in lieu of original leading lady Kelly McGillis returning, Maverick reignites a relationship with local bar owner and single mom Penny (Jennifer Connelly), mentioned but never seen in the original film.
All this plays out in predictable fashion, with the new pilots remaining simple archetypes (although thankfully women are added to the team this time), Hamm doing his gruff best in the first film’s Tom Skerritt slot, and Connelly’s character seemingly there just to gaze worriedly at Maverick. Yet there are also moments of genuine poignancy and sweetness, as when Maverick visits his old friend, and now commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). There is real emotion in their scene together, which is certainly given weight by Kilmer’s own well-documented health issues.
And then there are the aerial sequences, in which Top Gun: Maverick truly comes to full, stunning, jaw-dropping life. The flying sequences are nothing short of amazing to experience, with the actors clearly seated in actual F/A-18s being flown by experienced pilots. Special camera rigs were built for the planes, while Cruise himself reportedly put the rest of the cast through intensive flight training, but the results capture the grandeur, wonder and terror of blazing through the skies at death-defying speeds in a way that no CG or Volume (the hi-def LED panels used in The Mandalorian) could ever replicate.
Kosinski, Cruise, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and the crew clearly pattern the climactic bombing run and dogfight at the mine after the final battle in the original Star Wars, right down to the risk of enemy fighters, the defensive towers lining the canyon walls, and the almost impossible-to-hit target and steep climb out of the trench (someone even calls out, “I can’t shake ‘em!” as they’re besieged by
TIE enemy pilots). The template is obvious, but the scene is still breathtakingly intense and a white-knuckle ride almost all the way through.
It is viscerally realized through a breathtaking use of practical effects and aerial photography, but the moment that it seems to be building to for two hours, and an emotional climax, is blunted by several more twists and turns that rob the film’s closing moments of some of the power they accrue. This is where diehard fans, who are sure to be giddy from having their nostalgia joy buttons pushed for the length of the movie, and the rest of us may part ways, with Maverick striving for drama but settling for sentimentality.
Still, despite the lack of much beneath the surface (just like its predecessor) Top Gun: Maverick carries on the blockbuster tradition that the first film so gleefully embraced back in 1986. Sure, the constant shots of military fighting machines and men making enigmatic hand signals alongside them gets old if you’re not that way inclined, and one could argue that Scott’s original film paved the way for lesser emulators like Michael Bay to wave their incoherently edited, jingoistic flags.
On the other hand, Cruise is as effortlessly charismatic and watchable as ever in the role he may be most remembered for, and the movie fills the screen and passes the time reasonably quickly. And those sequences up in the fighters are truly the kind of immersive, mind-blowing filmmaking that cinema was made for. Top Gun: Maverick occasionally sputters but—to continue with the cheesy puns—never goes into a tailspin, and more often than not even soars.
Top Gun: Maverick is out in theaters May 27.