There’s little reason why an unironically reactionary, Reagan-era, Cold-War artifact like the Tony Scott-directed Top Gun, the equivalent of a propagandistic recruiting video for the U.S. Navy and its pilot program, would have anything like the pop-cultural cachet it’s retained for almost four decades except one: Tom Cruise. A movie star’s movie star — and likely the last of his kind — Cruise has made a veritable meal out of playing “best of the best,” elite professionals who risk life and limb to achieve their goals. So far, so generic, except Cruise’s near-superhuman, monomaniacal devotion to hyper-realism has led him to risk actual life and limb, often performing dangerous stunts himself for the immediate and long-term pleasure of moviegoers. They wouldn’t want it any other way and neither, apparently, would Cruise.
With frequent Mission: Impossible collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie (Edge of Tomorrow, Valkyrie, The Usual Suspects), co-writing the risk-averse script, Top Gun: Maverick finds the title character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, practically unchanged in the intervening 36 years since he rode off into the sunset at the conclusion of the first film. Maverick’s anti-authoritarianism, as appealing now as it was then, has left him marking time with exactly one commission (from Lt. to Captain) on his resume and work as a test pilot for a retro-futuristic, experimental jet plane. Maverick also lives inside an airplane hanger, spending his off-hours methodically repairing an American WWII fighter plane.
Breaking all the rules and pushing the experimental jet plane past its tolerance levels (i.e., Mach 10), Maverick gets unceremoniously, if predictably, removed from the test pilot program. As a “reward” for all of his rule-breaking, Maverick gets sent back to San Diego and the Top Gun program where it all began, not as a young, hotshot pilot with everything to prove, but as a seasoned instructor imparting shedloads of hard-won, screenwriter-tested wisdom on “best of the best” pilots still at the beginning of their careers in the U.S. Navy. It helps that Maverick’s one-time antagonist turned lifelong friend, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer)— an admiral now — has Maverick’s back, functioning as a kind of guardian angel.
Top Gun: Maverick also gives Maverick an age-appropriate love interest. Penny Benjamin (Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly) is an ex-girlfriend and single mother who’s purchased the near-base Hard Deck where U.S. Navy pilots and various hangers-on spend their off-hours, drinking too much beer, playing too much pool and, in Top Gun: Maverick’s most egregious, cringe-inducing callback to the original film, an overemphatic, incongruous rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.” Penny represents the promise of a mutually supportive domestic partnership Maverick desperately needs (except he doesn’t know it yet). Alas, Kelly McGillis’s Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood, Maverick’s previous romantic interest, doesn’t even receive a perfunctory callout here.
Slightly of more importance, the U.S. Navy, in the form of the perpetually disapproving Vice Admiral “Cyclone” (Jon Hamm), has another, more urgent task for Maverick: Prepping 12 jet pilots, including Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the adult son of Maverick’s onetime best friend, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), for an ultra-secret mission against an unspecified, unnamed enemy. Unreconciled with Maverick’s involvement in the crash that cost Goose his life and Rooster his father, the younger Bradshaw seethes with bitterness and resentment. Despite his self-acknowledged loner status, Maverick sees Rooster as the son he never had and, still feeling a measure of guilt and self-doubt over Goose’s unfortunate demise years earlier, is understandably protective of him. It’s an attitude and choice that immediately turns Maverick and Rooster into antagonists.
Borrowed shamelessly, if not outright stolen, from the original Star Wars, the top-secret mission in Top Gun: Maverick involves a confluence of circumstances, from a trench run at low altitude in semi-antiquated F-18s, to an underground target the size of a postage stamp, and likely engagement with the enemy’s fifth-generation jet fighters. In one mid-air drill after another mid-air drill, Maverick, the first among equals, unsurprisingly proves himself a superior pilot to the men and women (actually one woman, Monica Barbaro as Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace) under his temporary command, schooling them in the ways of his Maverick(ness).
Maverick is a firm believer that the “pilot in the box” can overcome the technological inferiority of his jet fighter to fly faster, smarter, and far more successfully than a jet pilot in a no-expenses-spared, state-of-the-art jet fighter. It’s hardly a credible claim, but one most audiences will happily set aside. There’s a brief feint to our current reality (drone warfare), but we’re expected to believe that drones aren’t the answer, not for this mission or in general. The enemy remains unnamed and faceless, perfect for our plug-and-play times where Russia, once seen as a non-threat, has not only renewed a dormant Cold War but turned it into a hot one with the recent invasion of Ukraine.
It’s an incredibly easy sell, though, especially for willing audiences practically bathing in the nostalgic neon glow of Cruise’s decades-in-the-making return to one of his most iconic roles. Top Gun: Maverick all but shreds any attempt at plausibility in the third act when it turns into an entirely different film altogether (actually two). To say more would be to spoil one, if not two, plot-related surprises that, if nothing else, will amuse or even delight moviegoers. Joseph Kosinski (Only the Brave, Oblivion, Tron: Legacy), a technically accomplished filmmaker working at peak efficiency here, delivers flying and/or combat-related sequences that will figuratively if not literally elevate moviegoers from their seats.
Those electrifying, exhilarating mid-air set-pieces, shot with a minimum of CGI and green-screen work and a maximum of real-world jet planes and cameras mounted in and outside F-18s, are refreshing in their originality and newness. That they’re incredibly well choreographed, shot, and edited only adds to an overwhelmingly sensory-expanding experience. Add to that experience a ready and willing Tom Cruise, pushing 60 but looking more than a decade younger, and Top Gun: Maverick feels like the first big-screen must-see film this side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Top Gun: Maverick opens theatrically on Friday, May 27.