Tony Scott‘s testosterone-fueled movie has all the narrative depth of a music video combined with a military recruitment reel, and it’s become as much of a pop-cultural emblem as 1986’s Top Gun. It’s hard to imagine many more symbolic products of Reagan‘s rah-rah patriotism, with its fervent ode to American uniqueness and triumph over a Cold War foe kept purposefully unclear — after all, who wants to shut off a profitable international market?
All of this has only worsened in the post-Trump era, with patriotism edging closer to white supremacy. So, depending on where you are on the political spectrum, how much you’re ready to shut out the actual world and yield to movie-star enchantment may determine how much you love Top Gun: Maverick.
This improved sequel, directed by Joseph Kosinski with virtuoso technical prowess, powerful pacing, and edge-of-your-seat flying scenes, offers in spades. Every frame in Tom Cruise‘s Maverick serves as a reminder, soaking up the stunned adulation of the young hotshots eager to discard him as a dinosaur, as well as the first reluctant regard of the military brass who attempt and fail to bring the brash individualist into line. “He’s the quickest man alive,” one of the control room’s slack-jawed hero worshippers proclaims early on. That’s before he does his trademark robotic “Cruise Run.”
We hear several times, “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” Despite employing a professional craft crew and a superb ensemble cast who were put through thorough flying training, Cruise leaves no doubt that he is the pilot. Even the vintage F-14 Tomcat, Maverick‘s tactical fighter jet of choice in the first film, is cranked up for a glory lap, a testament to old movie stars and old technology all rolled into one. The script by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie positions Cruise‘s character as both a rule-breaking rebel and a selfless saint. This results in a work of astonishing egomania, rivaled only by Paramount’s adoring press notes.
Starting with Kenny Loggins‘ “Danger Zone” playing over video showing new-generation F-18 hornets slashing through the skies and swooping down onto an aircraft carrier amid a sea of high-fives, fist-pumps, and thumbs-up, the sequel almost comically follows the original beat for beat. Despite its repetitive nature, it succeeds in terms of nostalgia and innovation. Mainstream audiences will be ecstatic, particularly the innumerable parents who adored Top Gun and will be ready to share this new jolt of adrenaline with their kids.
Pete “Maverick” Mitchell lives alone in a hangar in the Mojave Desert, with a photo shrine on the wall dedicated to his former radar intercept officer and closest friend Goose, who perished in a training mishap in the first film. (In a helpful recap portrayed as Pete‘s troubled recollections, Anthony Edwards and Meg Ryan appear.)
Maverick rides his Kawasaki into the Naval station every day, continuing to earn his kicks as a daring test pilot, despite the fact that promotion to captain would have grounded him by now. Maverick‘s wings are cut after his aerial showboating irritates Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), who is eager to convert to drone planes and eliminate stick jockeys.
He’s been sent to the prestigious Fighter Weapons School, nicknamed Top Gun Academy, in San Diego, which was founded in 1969 to teach the top 1% of Naval aviators, despite only serving for two months as an instructor over 30 years ago. He was not wanted for the position by Cain or the academy’s senior officer, call sign “Cyclone” (Jon Hamm). Iceman (Val Kilmer), Maverick’s erstwhile opponent and eventual wingman who went on to become an admiral and lead the United States Pacific Fleet, persuaded them that he was the sole human who could arrange pilots for a top-secret campaign.
Two pairs of F-18s must sneak in, bomb the bejesus out of it, and then get out fast, overcoming a near-impossible swift ascent over mountainous heights and surviving the expected burst of opposing missiles and aerial dogfights.
The candidates for that mission are “the finest of the best,” past star grads who, other than being more culturally diverse, are essentially the same as the 1986 group. Even a lady, Phoenix, is present (Monica Barbaro). The two characters that matter the most are swaggering blowhard Hangman (Glen Powell) and Goose’s son Rooster (Miles Teller), who is still haunted by the spirit of his father and is enraged with Maverick for putting his name on the Naval Academy list.
The Hangman-Rooster rivalry is reminiscent of the Iceman-Maverick rivalry in Top Gun, and the unsettlingly homoerotic half-naked volleyball scene is mirrored here by a chaotic beach team-building football game.
The one noticeable exception to the original model is Kelly McGillis‘ astrophysicist and civilian Top Gun teacher Charlie, who turned down a lucrative career in Washington to be with her guy but isn’t even mentioned here. Instead, Maverick rekindles an old affair with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a single mother with a glamorous past. She owns and operates a local bar, The Hard Deck, which serves as a tactical story point. She appears to be wealthy enough to possess a stylish yacht and drive a Porsche. (Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer, has never met a car he didn’t like.)
During training, Maverick‘s job is to put the super-competitive applicants to the test, reducing them down from 12 to six and selecting a team leader. “That is not who I am.” During a rare moment of self-doubt, he adds of his aviator career, “It’s who I am.” “How am I going to teach that?” Anyone who can’t figure out who will be their team captain and wingman isn’t paying attention.
Even though the part puts little demands on Teller‘s range, the simmering friction between Maverick and Rooster — who can’t look past his animosity to recognize the protective obligation his father’s buddy feels toward him — provides an emotional foundation. But it’s also true of Connelly, Hamm, and the rest of the ensemble; they all perform their jobs while only orbiting around Cruise‘s sparkling Planet Alpha, finally having to admit that Maverick is a great guy no matter what.
The film’s most affecting moment occurs during Kilmer‘s Iceman‘s little screen time, when his health difficulties mirror those of the actor in the actual world, creating deep sadness. In a sequence between Iceman and Maverick that recognizes the characters’ hard-won connection as well as the antagonism that preceded it with gentle humor, there’s reciprocal warmth, even love.
The balance between interpersonal drama and flight maneuvers is carefully maintained by Kosinski (who directed Cruise in Oblivion), the writers, and editor Eddie Hamilton; scenes cut between field practice and classroom discussions in which Maverick draws attention to fatal errors on a computer simulator are particularly impressive. The mission itself, though, is all nuts and bolts, with hair-raising action, apparently insurmountable obstacles, and miraculous saves keeping the excitement high.
This is a film that benefits greatly from the Imax experience and the accompanying massive audio. Harold Faltermeyer, Lady Gaga, and Hans Zimmer‘s strong scores also hold its own, with Gaga‘s song “Hold My Hand” finding ideal love placement. Other songs have a throwback feel to them — David Bowie, T. Rex, Foghat, The Who — but Teller gets to smash the piano keys and lead a Jerry Lee Lewis sing-along, which is a clear nod to his on-screen father.
The dogfights and tactical maneuvers of the pilots are the most unforgettable parts of Top Gun: Maverick, and the sequences that will make future generations fill with pride and adoration for good old American courage. They are just as they should be. The nicest thing this film achieves is to prioritize genuine analog action above the typical numbing barrage of CG nonsense, a decision bolstered by the actors’ presence in the flying cockpits throughout filming.
Claudio Miranda‘s art benefits from the technological improvements of the last three decades, using camera rigs that provide a sense of being there. Even if the headgear’s breathing system gets in the way of his characteristic clenched-jaw intensity, Cruise’s insistence on doing his own flying is certainly spectacular. No one can deny that he puts in a lot of effort in this film, justifying the labor of love. But no one will be concerned about his self-esteem as a result of it.