As inescapable a pop-cultural totem as 1986’s Top Gun became, Tony Scott’s testosterone-powered blockbuster has all the narrative complexity of a music video crossed with a military recruitment reel. It’s hard to think of many more emblematic products of the rah-rah patriotism of the Reagan years, with its vigorous salute to American exceptionalism and triumph over a Cold War enemy left purposely vague — hey, don’t want to shut out a lucrative foreign market.
All that has only continued to toxify in the post-Trump age, with patriotism curdling into white supremacy. So depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, your enjoyment of Top Gun: Maverick might depend on how much you’re willing to shut out the real world and surrender to movie-star magic.
Top Gun: Maverick
The Bottom Line
Refueled and ready for takeoff.
Which this superior sequel — directed with virtuoso technical skill, propulsive pacing and edge-of-your-seat flying sequences by Joseph Kosinski — has in abundance. Every frame of Tom Cruise’s Maverick is here to remind you, soaking up the awestruck admiration of the young hot shots ready to dismiss him as a fossil and the initially begrudging respect of the military brass who try and fail to pull the cocky individualist into line. “He’s the fastest man alive,” says one of the slack-jawed hero worshippers in the control room early on. And that’s even before he does his signature robotic “Cruise Run.”
“It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot,” we hear more than once. And Cruise leaves no question that he’s the pilot, despite hiring a pro craft team and a solid ensemble cast who were put through extensive flight training. Even the relic F-14 Tomcat, Maverick’s tactical fighter plane of choice in the first movie, gets fired up for a glory lap, a salute to aged movie stars and old technology in one. Cruise’s character is somehow positioned by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren and Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay as simultaneously a rule-breaking rebel and a selfless saint. That makes this a work of breathtaking egomania outdone only by the fawning tone of Paramount’s press notes.
Starting when Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” accompanies footage of new-generation F-18 hornets slicing through the clouds and swooping down onto an aircraft carrier amid a sea of high-fives, fist-pumps and thumbs-up, the sequel follows the original beat for beat, to a degree that’s almost comical. And yet, as formulaic as it is, there’s no denying that it delivers in terms of both nostalgia and reinvention. Mainstream audiences will be happily airborne, especially the countless dads who loved Top Gun and will eagerly want to share this fresh shot of adrenaline with their sons.
Pete “Maverick” Mitchell lives alone in a Mojave Desert hangar with a photo shrine on the wall to his former radar intercept officer and best buddy Goose, who died during a training accident in the first film. (Anthony Edwards and Meg Ryan are seen in a helpful recap framed as Pete’s tortured memories.)
Maverick zooms into the Naval base on his Kawasaki each day and continues to get his kicks as a daredevil test pilot, resisting the advancement in rank from captain that would have grounded him by now. But when his aerial showboating pisses off Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), who’s pushing to transition to drone aircrafts and make stick jockeys obsolete, Maverick gets his wings clipped.
Despite having lasted just two months as an instructor almost 30 years ago, he’s reassigned to the elite Fighter Weapons School, aka Top Gun Academy, in San Diego, which was established in 1969 to train the top one percent of Naval aviators. Neither Cain nor the academy’s senior officer, call sign “Cyclone” (Jon Hamm), wanted him for the job. But Maverick’s former rival and eventual wingman Iceman (Val Kilmer), who went on to become an admiral and command the U.S. Pacific Fleet, convinced them he was the only man who could prepare pilots for a top-secret mission.
A uranium enrichment plant has been detected on enemy soil — once again, exactly which enemy is unclear — and two pairs of F-18s need to sneak in, bomb the bejesus out of it and then get out fast, overcoming a near-impossible quick climb over rocky peaks and then surviving the inevitable blast of enemy missiles and aerial dogfights.
The candidates for that mission are “the best of the best,” former star graduates who are pretty much a repeat of the 1986 bunch aside from being more culturally diverse. There’s even — gasp! — a woman, Phoenix (Monica Barbaro). The two that matter most though are swaggering blowhard Hangman (Glen Powell) and Goose’s son Rooster (Miles Teller), still carrying around the ghost of his father and hostile to Maverick for stalling his career by taking his name off the Naval Academy list.
The Hangman-Rooster dynamic more or less mirrors the Iceman-Maverick friction from Top Gun, just as the incongruously homoerotic shirtless volleyball scene is echoed here with a rowdy team-building football game on the beach.
The only notable place where the screenwriters don’t genuflect to the original model is with Kelly McGillis’ astrophysicist and civilian Top Gun instructor Charlie, who declined a plum Washington job to stick with her man but doesn’t even rate a mention here. Instead, Maverick sparks up an old romance with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a single mom with fabulous highlights. She runs a local bar — its name, The Hard Deck, doubles as a tactical plot point — which apparently puts her in an income bracket to own a sleek sailboat and drive a Porsche. (Producer Jerry Bruckheimer never met a power vehicle he didn’t love.)
Maverick’s task during training is to test the limits of the super-competitive candidates, whittling them down from 12 to six and choosing a team leader. “It’s not what I am. It’s who I am,” he says of his aviator vocation during a rare moment of self-doubt. “How do I teach that?” Anyone failing to guess who’ll land the team leader spot and who’ll be their wingman isn’t paying attention.
The simmering conflict between Maverick and Rooster — who can’t see past his resentment to perceive the protective responsibility his dad’s friend feels toward him — provides an emotional core even if the role makes scant demands on Teller’s range. But that’s true also of Connelly, Hamm and everyone else in the cast; all of them get the job done while remaining satellites that merely orbit around Cruise’s glittering Planet Alpha, eventually having to acknowledge that Maverick’s a helluva guy no matter what stunts he pulls.
The film’s most moving element comes during the brief screen time of Kilmer’s Iceman, whose health issues reflect those suffered by the actor in real life, generating resonant pathos. There’s reciprocal warmth, even love, in a scene between Iceman and Maverick that acknowledges the characters’ hard-won bond as well as the rivalry that preceded it, with gentle humor.
Kosinski (who directed Cruise in Oblivion), the writers and editor Eddie Hamilton keep a close eye on the balance between interpersonal drama and flight maneuvers; scenes intercut between field practice and classroom discussions during which Maverick points out fatal errors on a computer simulator are particularly sharp. This is all nuts-and-bolts buildup, however, to the mission itself, in which hair-raising action, seemingly insurmountable setbacks and miraculous saves keep the tension pumped.
This is definitely a film that benefits from the IMAX experience, and the big-ass soundscape that comes with it. The muscular score by Harold Faltermeyer, Lady Gaga and Hans Zimmer also pulls its weight, with Gaga’s song, “Hold My Hand,” getting prime romantic placement. Musical choices elsewhere tend to lean into a retro vibe — Bowie, T. Rex, Foghat, The Who — while Teller gets to hammer the piano keys and lead a Jerry Lee Lewis singalong that pays direct homage to his screen dad.
The most memorable part of Top Gun: Maverick — and the scenes that will make new generations swell with pride and adulation for good old American heroism — are the dogfights and tactical maneuvers of the pilots. Just as they should be. The best thing this movie does is boost visceral analog action over the usual numbing bombardment of CG fakery, a choice fortified by having the actors in the airborne cockpits during shooting.
Cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s work benefits from the technological advances of the past three decades, with camera rigs allowing for you-are-there verisimilitude. Cruise’s insistence on doing his own flying is undeniably impressive, even if the headgear’s breathing apparatus gets in the way of his trademark clenched-jaw intensity. No one is going to dispute that he works hard in this movie, justifying the labor of love. But no one is going to come out of it concerned for his self-esteem, either.