From the mellow opening tones of its synthesized score to the Univers Ultra Condensed font used in its opening credits, “Top Gun: Maverick” bluntly announces that it feels the need…the need to wring out every nostalgic smile, cheer and tear as he can from fans of the 1986 original.
Replaying its predecessor’s prologue almost beat for beat – that adrenaline-pumping music taking us into the danger zone; those sleek, vaguely phallic fighter jets taking off and landing on a massive aircraft carrier, while cool-looking guys gesticulate in a cool-looking semaphore; all bathed in a romantic, magical glow – ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ knows exactly what it’s doing and how to execute the plan. Like the hyper-competent aces at the heart of the story, this is a film that sets its course early and sticks to it, with finesse, no-fuss style and more than a few sneak attacks of emotion.
That “Top Gun: Maverick” works so well can certainly be attributed to Tom Cruise, who created the main character, Pete Mitchell (call sign: Maverick). In the first film, Pete was solving dad problems while he learned to shoot down Soviet MiGs; 30 years later, he’s still a captain in the US Navy, working as a test pilot and, in a beautifully staged prelude to things to come, zooming into the stratosphere to avoid obsolescence at the hands of remote-flying drones. .
Soon, Pete is called back to San Diego’s Top Gun Airman School, where he’s tasked with teaching a new class of elite pilots to perform a tactically impossible mission. He brought his father issues with him, this time in the form of lingering guilt over the death of his best friend Goose (played by Anthony Edwards in ‘Top Gun’), and the fact that one of his students is Goose’s bitter son, Bradley (Miles Teller).
Bradley’s call sign is Rooster, which we learn in a rowdy bar scene featuring the newest batch of swaggering jockeys; they have call signs like Coyote, Fanboy, and Omaha, but they might as well be Callback, Easter Egg, and Reference in a movie brimming with all three. In less skilled hands, such constant nods to the past would seem complacent and lazy. But Cruise has enlisted his own crack crew to turn an otherwise ho-hum retread into a beautiful, sometimes funny, and cleverly self-aware exercise in escape that, in many ways, surpasses the classic it sequels.
On the one hand, Pete himself has become a much more interesting protagonist, losing the arrogant air of petulance and impunity and turning into a man with a few miles on him. He’s still in disguise by his superiors (played in perfect gruff tone by Ed Harris and Jon Hamm), and they still can’t resist his charms, ending nearly every argument by gazing at him adoringly. (“He’s the fastest man alive,” one mutters.) “Top Gun: Maverick” follows the structure of the first film, punctuating scenes of rivalry, seduction and accountability. with increasingly difficult flight tests and simulated dogfights, all culminating in a truly spectacular and climactic real-time battle.
Let’s be honest: The 1986 film, directed by Tony Scott from a screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., was cheesy to the point of camping. (This slow-motion volleyball match, played by tanned, bare-chested flyboys, still reigns supreme as the most hilarious homoerotic scene in 20th-century cinema.) In the hands of director Joseph Kosinski, working with a screenplay by ‘Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie (from a story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks), testosterone and fetish postures have been toned down, sacrificing nothing through unabashedly indulgent entertainment value.
So: the volleyball scene is now a football game – shirtless in some cases, but also including a female pilot (call sign Phoenix, played by Monica Barbaro), and one in which Cruise’s character fights back with buff beginners before gracefully retreating to the margins. Kosinski has enlisted a formidable ensemble to play the young pilots, who are constantly battling and battling each other: Teller simmers convincingly with unresolved rage at Pete; within the otherwise anonymous collection of support players, Jay Ellis, Glen Powell and Lewis Pullman are particularly effective as Payback, Hangman and Bob.
That last call sign is just one example of the understated humor that runs through “Top Gun: Maverick,” which, gratifyingly, never resorts to snark or smug winking. Although Jennifer Connelly delivers an incredibly relaxed and engaging performance as Penny, the bar owner Pete reunites with after a seemingly messy breakup several years ago, audiences know that true love in a movie” Top Gun” is between the pilots and their wingmen. In the film’s most moving sequence, Pete goes to see his old nemesis Iceman (Val Kilmer), who may be physically diminished but no less distinguished; it’s a moment of taking out handkerchiefs played with taste, restraint and sincerity as disarming as it is authentic.
At the center of all the bends and burns, bends and dives and bro’ing down is Cruise – more tired, more wary, but still in total control like few other stars who have entered the 21st century. As a performer, he’s both imposing and generous, knowing exactly when to step back, when to crack a self-deprecating joke, and when to be Tom Freaking Cruise, in all his smiley, instinctively charismatic glory. As a producer, he wisely took nearly 40 years between “Top Guns” to manage the property with care and intelligence, resulting in a film that feels familiar and new in the right proportions.
Among its many virtues, the most amazing, “Top Gun: Maverick” does not look like a video game or a three-dimensional comic book or an advertisement for a TV show. It splashes wildly across the screen in its own battle against obsolescence, as if to say: This is what movies used to look like. And here’s what they can look like again.