Review: “Top Gun: Maverick”

I have to admit, I initially wasn’t all that excited for “Top Gun: Maverick,” long-awaited (both in terms of the 36 year distance between it and its predecessor, and multiple delays, first to shoot more complex action scenes, and later due to the COVID-19 pandemic, repeatedly pushing it from its initial summer 2019 release date) sequel to the 1986 blockbuster that was met with a middling critical reception but was a box office smash and helped propel star Tom Cruise to superstardom. My memories of the original “Top Gun” were less than favorable. But then I rewatched it in preparation for “Maverick,” and I was surprised. Not by the stunning aerial action scenes, or Cruise’s charisma, but rather, by the strong emotional foundation that all those elements were built upon. On a surface level, “Top Gun” is a male fantasy where fast vehicles, beautiful women, and danger are always within reach, but the film is actually about the pitfalls of male ego, and the importance of brotherhood and teamwork. Those same elements are carried over into “Maverick,” which succeeds at recapturing the exhilaration of the original while bringing the story and characters into a new phase.

When “Maverick” opens, it’s been over three decades since Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) graduated from the elite Naval Fighter Weapons School TOPGUN. He’s still with the Navy, but as a test pilot, working on a hypersonic scramjet program. When Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), arrives to shut the program down, Maverick takes the jet out for a spin to prove what it can do, but once again puts his pride first and pushes it too far. Thanks to his friend and former colleague, “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now an Admiral, intervenes to prevent Maverick from being grounded, having him sent back to TOPGUN for a dangerous mission. But Vice Admiral Simpson (an appropriately icy Jon Hamm) doesn’t want Maverick to fly on the mission: he wants him to teach a group of the school’s recent top graduates how to do it. Maverick struggles to connect with the younger recruits, especially the cocky “Hangman” (Glen Powell), and Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late best friend Goose, who still harbors resentment toward Maverick for pulling his Naval Academy application.

Miles Teller as Rooster in “Top Gun: Maverick”

“Top Gun: Maverick” shares some things with the first “Top Gun” that feel more poorly dated than like old-fashioned fun, namely the jingoism inherent in the TOPGUN missions. In “Maverick,” the mission the pilots are training for involves bombing an unsanctioned uranium plant in an unspecified foreign country, the enemies who ultimately retaliate against them also remaining anonymous. It’s uncomfortable to think about, but the film, for better or worse, doesn’t dwell much on the specifics, opting to use that thinly plotted mission mainly as an excuse to dazzle viewers with the aerial action sequences. Director Joseph Kosinski (no stranger to legacy sequels, his directorial debut being 2010’s “TRON: Legacy”) takes the reigns from the late Tony Scott, who helmed the first movie (and to whom this film is dedicated), and he succeeds at putting the audience right in the middle of a spectacle of sight and sound by filming the actual actors actually flying in the air, an impressive feat and the sort of practical approach to filmmaking that is few and far between in most big Hollywood blockbusters these days. Just when it starts to feel like the film is zooming toward a fairly predictable conclusion, a wrench is thrown in the proceedings and the climax takes a giddily exhilarating turn.

“Maverick” had a lot of hands on its screenplay (written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and recent “Mission: Impossible” director Christopher McQuarrie from a story by Justin Marks and Peter Craig), but it makes nice use of both new and legacy characters, even if the story does feel like it’s still all revolving around Maverick rather than passing the baton to the new kids. Kilmer reprises his role as Iceman for one brief but pivotal scene, and the actor’s battle with throat cancer in recent years that resulted in the loss of his voice is brought into the movie in a respectful way. Teller’s Rooster serves as the bridge between Maverick’s past and future, and the flashbacks to Goose in the first movie are sentimental, but far from shallow fan service. Jennifer Connolly is another new face, playing Penny, the daughter of an admiral who is alluded to in the first movie, runs a bar, and is one of Maverick’s former love interests. Their love scenes are rather awkwardly handled, but the women in this movie are not treated as objects and the older characters all play important roles in helping Maverick move past his ego and doubt and realize that he can be a good mentor to the younger pilots (who also include, besides those already mentioned, Monica Barbaro’s “Phoenix,” Lewis Pullman’s “Bob,” Danny Ramirez’s “Fanboy,” and Jay Ellis’ “Payback”). There’s no question that this is the same Maverick from “Top Gun,” who still possesses some of the same flaws and an adolescent streak (he refuses to advance in rank in the Navy because he just wants to fly) but it’s also clear that he’s in a different stage of his life now, and the film never tries to pretend that his problems now are the same ones from 36 years ago. Maverick may still be a bachelor with no children, but he finds his relationship with the younger pilots, and with Rooster especially, taking on shades of a father/child bond. Ultimately, the most refreshing thing about “Maverick,” the thing that elevates it to something above an average fighter pilot action drama with a predictable storyline and character beats, isn’t the straightforward but carefully crafted action scenes or the throwbacks to the original movie, but the sincerity with which it portrays the love these characters have for each other, and especially the way the male characters don’t try to hide their feelings. If “Top Gun: Maverick” is a fist-pumping spectacle that everyone can enjoy, it’s mainly because of that.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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