The original Top Gun was the quintessential 1980s movie. Is it perfect? Far from it. Does it age well? Not at all. Yet it remains enshrined in its own pop culture bubble as the ideal representation of 80s’ Hollywood – glossy, superficial, soaked through and through with sweaty bromance, cocky machismo and soft-rock anthems. It wasn’t just the high-flying vehicle that made Tom Cruise a star, it captured the brash vibe of an era when the idea of American exceptionalism and individualism didn’t seem like a delusional joke. For all its faults, it’s stupid charm remains infectious till this day. But when it was announced that Top Gun would be continuing with a sequel 36 years later, many assumed it would be just another nostalgia cash-grab, yet another lazy attempt to feed audiences a revived IP long past its sell-by date.
As it turns out, Top Gun 2 is anything but. In terms of action, storytelling, acting, emotion, and just as a purely exhilarating aerial spectacle – Maverick soars above the original in every conceivable way. This movie is outstanding, the ultimate package of what you want from classic summer blockbuster entertainment. Top Gun: Maverick has visceral thrills, massive peril, hard-fought victories, captivating romance, searing drama, and poignant pathos. It’s truly impressive how well this movie works as a crowd-pleaser. Part of its success is down to just how brilliantly director Joe Kosinski crafts the supersonic, rocket-fueled, stomach-churning action on display here. But beyond the technical improvements, the real ace up its sleeve is writer Christopher McQuarrie, whose script acknowledges the brashness of the film’s past without pandering to it.
Reprising his role as Pete Mitchell, call sign Maverick, Cruise’s character is no longer the ego-driven hotshot he was. He’s older, wiser and wizened by the mistakes of his arrogant 20s, which are still felt today. Still only a captain despite decades in the Navy, we find out that Mitchell burned out as a flight instructor just months after the first movie, and has spent his days consigned to a remote outpost as a test pilot pushing experimental aircraft to its limits – the perfect job for a boundary-pushing daredevil. But when an international crisis emerges, the formerly rebellious student becomes the teacher, as Maverick receives orders from Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) to return to Top Gun and train a new generation of overconfident aviators. Their mission: to destroy a heavily fortified illegal uranium plant. (The film wisely doesn’t name the offending country, they’re only vaguely referred to as “the enemy”).
When Maverick gets to San Diego, there are a few problems. One is the presence of an old flame named Penny (Jennifer Connelly) who owns the local bar where the pilots hang out. He also discovers that one of his trainees is Bradley Bradshow (Miles Teller), call sign Rooster, the disgruntled son of Maverick’s late co-pilot Goose, who understandably bears a grudge. Unsure how best to prepare the reticent young pilot for a mission that requires absolute self-assurance, Maverick attempts to mend fences with Rooster while watching him compete with classmates like Hangman (Glen Powell as this movie’s version of Iceman). As the deadline for the mission nears, Maverick trains Rooster, Hangman, and the other pilots with increasing urgency, hoping they will rise to his unconventional challenges, while taking a hard look at his own career as reflected through his students’ failures and successes.
Throughout, Maverick finds a way to pay homage to the iconic moments of Top Gun, but in a way that doesn’t feel frivolous and serves a purpose. For example, the beachside game this time around is used as a team-building tool, while this new gang getting together and singing at a bar leads to one of the film’s most surprisingly emotional moments – of which there are several. Maverick is able to unironically pay tribute to the past, but in a way that builds upon what we know to add weight to new characters and moments. Similarly, Cruise as Maverick feels like a character and an actor reliving their glory days in the most joyous way possible. Through Maverick, Cruise gets to explore one of his most infamous characters, but in a way that now has a significant amount of emotional heft. We get a reminder of just how many things Cruise does extremely well as an actor, and in some of these aspects, we’re seeing parts of Cruise in this role that we haven’t seen in years.
The character beats and dynamics in Maverick are far superior to Top Gun, but where the film really shines is, of course, the astonishing aeronautical action. Instead of putting the actors in a studio cockpit and matching the shots with real aerial footage, Kosinski actually sent their cast up in the sky and captured their reactions with IMAX-quality cameras. After Cruise’s increasing acts of derring-do in the Mission: Impossible franchise, that choice comes as no surprise – for his sequences, at least. But the consistency and versatility of the coverage that Kosinski gets creates an incredible verisimilitude that almost no action film has recently matched. You will be gobsmacked by the aerial footage in Maverick. Unlike other modern blockbusters that look like CGI cartoons (we’re looking at you, MCU), the realism of these impossibly fast, high-altitude, rollercoaster sequences will tie your stomach into knots and have you leaning back in your seat.
But as much as Maverick succeeds from a technical, visceral, thrill-making level – the entire endeavor and every little moment of introspection, suffering and determination is all the more accentuated, strengthened and fist-pumpingly good because you care so damn much about the story, the people and their very human concerns. This is an all around sublime action sequel that ticks all the boxes; among the best Hollywood has ever produced (think Aliens or Terminator 2 caliber). If you want to have a rapturous, emotionally engaging, breathtaking time at the movies, you won’t be disappointed by Top Gun: Maverick.
Top Gun: Maverick opens in Singapore cinemas on 26th May 2022.