‘Top Gun: Maverick’: Tom Cruise Pilots Dynamic Sequel With Exhilarating Style

The ongoing onslaught of sequels and remakes has proven that you can’t quite recover the past. Certain franchises and classics belong so fully to their original time and place, that repeating their formulas like some kitchen recipe proves elusive. “Top Gun: Maverick” has found a way to fuel nostalgia while also operating as something fresh and exciting. The original “Top Gun,” directed by the late great Tony Scott, helped establish the look and feel of Hollywood action films for the next several decades. Released in 1986, it boasts a Cold War macho spirit from an era when America truly reigned supreme. Overnight Tom Cruise went from mere heartthrob to action star, a role he still fills, effortlessly. Therein lie the two things that make “Top Gun: Maverick” stand out at the box office. This movie is the kind of muscular action ride we don’t get much of anymore and it’s driven by the sort of centralized star power that’s also in decline. 

Time has passed and yet some characters stay encased in amber. After opening with the exact same title card as the ’86 movie, explaining what the Top Gun Navy pilot training program is, we reunite with Maverick (Cruise), who has not ascended from the rank of captain in 30 years and mostly operates as a test pilot. His attitude remains the same as well, annoying his superiors like Radm. Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain (Ed Harris) who informs Maverick, after a fresh stunt, that he’s being transferred to Top Gun, now as the head instructor. Adm. Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (Jon Hamm) is tasked with supervising Maverick and informing him of the new mission. The veteran hot shot has to prepare a fresh crop of pilots to fly into an unnamed enemy country in Eastern Europe (you can still guess who) and destroy an underground nuclear facility. Maverick needs to conduct his duties while facing twin ghosts from his past. There’s former lover Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who now runs the local bar, and Lt. Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who blames Maverick for the death of his father, Goose (Anthony Edwards) long ago.

What director Joseph Kosinski has crafted, with Cruise at the helm as producer, is a hybrid movie that is quite irresistible as a popcorn entertainment. It’s both an update aware time has passed but also a retread. Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” once again opens the movie with shots of fighter jets zooming off an aircraft carrier. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda has that saturated, glossy look required in all movies produced by action guru Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the original with the late Don Simpson, and returns for the sequel. Cruise may look older than the cocky young pilot from 1986, but he’s also like one of those guys who never grew up. The screenplay plays around with a self-referential spirit when people like Cyclone condescendingly wonder how Maverick is still a captain. It goes beyond the character, because Tom Cruise has been spending the last few years with massive action extravaganzas, such as the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, proving that stars like him remain vital. Is Cruise himself fighting against time when we see him riding his motorcycle down a runway, smiling in the sunshine as he did all those years ago in the first movie? We never discover what happened to his lover from ‘86, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), because to keep the Hollywood fantasy going, the movie needs a younger Jennifer Connelly. Her Penny is also a retread to the love interests of ‘90s action movies. She’s there to tease and secretly want Maverick from behind the bar, heartbroken from their last try, but waiting for him when he returns from doing death-defying flights. It’s also one of the movie’s weaker points, since Connelly does nothing more than be lit like a Nicholas Sparks character.

But as in the decade that gave us the first “Top Gun,” the point of going to “Maverick” is to drink in the testosterone and adrenaline sequences. The movie never bothers to name the enemy, who we assume is Russia (although the iconography could be Albania?). The first film did the same, but it was the Cold War and all we needed to see were the Soviet red stars on the enemy planes. Nobody will care because this is an expertly crafted piece of action cinema. Never do the flight and dog fight sequences ever feel like an illusion. Indeed, Cruise reportedly vetted the cast based on who was willing to fly real fighter jets. You can feel the gas when Rooster goes a bit too high or when Maverick teaches the fine art of zig-zagging through canyons. Close calls are hair-raising, even the opening when Maverick tests a new plane and takes it way too high near the stratosphere. If possible, please go see this movie on an IMAX screen, where the visual majesty of the whole enterprise is overwhelming. Kosinski and Cruise want to defy the dominant trends and prove a solid action movie grounded on striking realism in its effects can still outdo Doctor Strange. They’re not wrong when it comes to this film’s technique. In another potential in-joke, Maverick is warned early on that soon his kind of pilot will be obsolete thanks to the rise of drone technology. The same has been said about this kind of movie and leading men like Cruise under the shadow of Marvel.

As for the story, it’s more subdued than the original with few quotable lines, yet that also adds to its sense of returning to familiar characters but in a changed world. When Maverick first sees Rooster at a bar playing “Great Balls of Fire,” the moment cuts back to Maverick and Goose singing the song in the original film. That’s proper nostalgia. Maverick may have stayed the same, but his rival-turned-friend Iceman (Val Kilmer) is now Admiral of the Navy, living in the comfort of a high-ranking official. They’re reunion is wistful and surprisingly moving. Rooster is the revenge of the past reminding Maverick you can’t ever escape certain moments, like that horrible flight where Goose died. Miles Teller brings the proper, caged in drive and anger. The script later adds an extra reason for his vendetta that feels too tagged on and unnecessary, but no matter, he looks the part of a hothead learning important lessons. The rest of the pilots receded to the background of Cruise, but are perfectly cast, filling required roles like the arrogant jock Hangman (Glen Powell) and strong female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro). It’s also great fun to see a veteran like Ed Harris, who we must remember once graced “The Right Stuff” and Bruckheimer’s “The Rock,” barking at Cruise with tired authority. Jon Hamm is another brilliant stroke since he was the very face of classic American masculinity in “Mad Men.”

On an aesthetic level there are still some elements of the first “Top Gun” that simply can’t be repeated. Lady Gaga contributes an end credits song, “Hold My Hand,” that pales in comparison to Berlin and Giorgio Moroder’s Oscar-winning classic “Take My Breath Away” with its lush, synth romanticism. With pop culture staples this is almost inevitable. “Top Gun: Maverick” on its own is movie escapism at its most potent. We have always yearned for big heroes and spectacle, even if we have to forgive the macho posturing. Even when the first one premiered it was later challenged that year by Oliver Stone’s more sobering “Platoon.” Now, few action stars are left from an era that Cruise helped define, so why not celebrate it? This time, “Top Gun” doesn’t really wear any particular political stripes, it just wants to take the audience into the air for the sheer sensation. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Top Gun: Maverick” releases May 27 in theaters nationwide.