So many different movie and TV properties from the 1980s have been rebooted or reimagined over the years that it’s a wonder the decade still has anything to offer. But when Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to 1986’s Top Gun, was announced, it marked something special, both because it had been over 30 years since the original, and because star Tom Cruise is still operating at the peak of his entertaining powers, a rarity for any longtime Hollywood A-lister.
Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, stuck at Captain in the ranks of Naval officers because he still has a penchant for disobeying orders from his superiors. One such stunt that opens the film in a stellar way has Maverick sent back to North Island in San Diego to train the best of the best Top Gun graduates for a special mission overseas, a teaching job that his superior, Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), promises will be Maverick’s last post ever.
Of course, Maverick has no intention of teaching “by the rules,” and so he guides his trainees — which include Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), and Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro) — through a series of increasingly risky flight sessions, all to get them prepared for a seemingly impossible scenario.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski and written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie, this is the final major movie that was scheduled for release in 2020 to finally make it to the big screen. And even though some have been frustrated by its multiple delays, the wait was well worth it, as the high-flying action, with the audience right there in the planes for much of it, can only properly be enjoyed in an all-encompassing environment.
Some sequels try to change things up to offer something new, and some say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Maverick falls squarely in that second category, as it essentially offers up the greatest hits from the original in a slightly repackaged manner. You have Rooster, the son of Goose (Anthony Edwards), singing “Great Balls of Fire” just like his dad. You have Maverick romancing Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a bar owner who’s his equal in many ways, just as Charlie (Kelly McGillis) was. You have the Top Gun pilots engaging in a game of shirtless beach football, a tip of the hat to the shirtless beach volleyball game from the first film.
But what everyone really wants is to be wowed by the fighter plane action, and the film does not disappoint. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing planes fly at hundreds of miles an hour in close proximity to one another, and the effect increases exponentially when we’re put in the cockpit with Cruise or others. Seeing the actors actually experience the debilitating effects of g-force while in a steep ascent ups the verisimilitude of the film so much that you find yourself holding your breath due to the tension.
The actual mission the pilots are training for is a bit nebulous. The filmmakers make sure that the target, a uranium facility that’s about to become operational, is located in an unnamed country to thwart any unnecessary hand-wringing about maligning a certain area of the world or its people. This lack of specificity keeps that part of the story from meaning all that much, but in the end all we care about is the pilots and their skills.
I’ve said it many times before, but no other superstar actor gives more to his chosen craft than Cruise. He’s right there in the plane, on the motorcycle, and on the beach, mixing it up with people 25-30 years younger than him, and not seeming out of place in the slightest. The young pilots are all cast well, from established people like Teller and Powell to lesser-knowns like Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, and Jay Ellis.
What makes Top Gun: Maverick as successful as the original is the willingness to go against the grain of 21st century moviemaking and forgo obvious CGI. The planes, the pilots, and their need for real speed is what makes a Top Gun movie special, and the filmmakers deliver in almost every possible way.
Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters on May 27.