In the summer of 1986, I was not concerned with Tom Cruise or Top Gun. Risky Business made a name for Cruise, and Top Gun launched him even higher in an iconic movie that had a hugely successful soundtrack as well. My most anticipated movie of that summer was Aliens, and to date, that screening during the finale may have had the most exciting and interactive audience of which I’ve ever been a part. How appropriate that Top Gun: Maverick pulled off the same trick as Aliens — take all of the elements of the first movie that made it so good and surpass it in almost every way for an even more exciting experience. Who knew that I would find a Tom Cruise movie in 2022 that’s not part of the Mission: Impossible series so thoroughly enjoyable? Top Gun: Maverick caught me off guard and completed its mission by winning me over.
Director Joseph Kosinksi took on a monumental task — make fans of the original movie feel nostalgia while entertaining everyone with a new story for Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise). A number of screenwriters contributed to the script, which usually leads to a disastrous, messy plot. Not here. Maverick works on an experimental plane in the Mojave Desert to reach Mach 10, and the program is about to be shut down because they haven’t achieved that speed. After his hubris leads to a crash, Maverick gets reassigned to TOPGUN (the Navy’s fighter training school) in order to prepare a dozen of the best pilots for a highly dangerous mission to take out a uranium enrichment plant in an unnamed foreign country. Maverick must confront his past since one of the pilots — Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) — is the son of Maverick’s deceased best friend whose death has weighed heavily on Maverick’s conscience. While readying the pilots for the secret mission, Maverick reconnects with an old flame named Penny (Jennifer Connelly). You can’t have a Top Gun sequel without a love interest, can you?
I don’t think that I’ve ever seen Cruise smile so much as he does in this movie. Still, I might have smiled more because there’s so much to like. For all of the negative things that people say about Cruise, when he’s in the zone during a film, there’s no stopping him. Famous for doing his own stunts as much as possible, I doubt that they used digital trickery to put him on speeding motorcycles. The Navy didn’t allow actors to touch the controls of any of the planes, but if they let him, I’m sure that Cruise would try to fly one of the various fighter planes. It’s so difficult to feature personalities when there are 12 pilots in the script. Nevertheless, the filmmakers manage to do just that, which works for nearly all of them except one. I won’t blame Glen Powell because he’s just playing a role; his Lt. Jake “Hangman” Seresin is the poster child for smarmy, cocky scumbag to the point of ruining some scenes. Ed Harris and Jon Hamm chew up the scenery as Maverick’s military leaders who don’t like him one bit, while Bashir Salahuddin steals scenes with his humor and warm persona. Connelly has been busy with the TV series Snowpiercer, and she’s irresistible to both Maverick and audiences in her flirting and romantic scenes with Cruise. For a neat Easter Egg, pay attention to what’s playing in the background in her character’s military bar in her first scene. I never expected to get emotional during this movie. Try not to get a lump in your throat during the reunion between Maverick and Adm. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). The filmmakers worked into the script Kilmer’s real-life cancer, which causes him great difficulty in speaking.
I’m not a shill for upgraded movie theater experiences. I’m quite glad that the 3D craze seems to have died off. Top Gun: Maverick ranks so high on the excitement scale even in a regular theater that I would imagine that IMAX, 4DX and ScreenX (lucky if you have one near you) screens would be worth the extra fee. From the opening credits set to “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins, your heart will be pumping. Hell, even the scenes with Maverick and Penny on a sailboat are somehow exhilarating. The training exercises feel like the actual mission, so when the action gets serious in the final act, don’t look away for a second. I don’t know much about fighter planes unless I’m playing a video game in which I can learn all of their features and special maneuvers. The film shows off a number of planes to make air combat enthusiasts drool, especially the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. I left the theater wanting to try the main mission myself in a video game. I’m not sure if they get to that level of detail, but Microsoft Flight Simulator does have an expansion pack available tied to the movie for those who feel that urge to safely fly like Maverick and his fellow pilots.
The number of callbacks to Top Gun almost gets ridiculous. Fortunately, it doesn’t go too far — maybe Mach 8. Much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens sprinkled familiar elements from the original Star Wars throughout its running time, this movie revisits some of the more important parts that worked. The aforementioned “Danger Zone” puts you right back in 1986, and even a performance of “Great Balls of Fire” acts as a reminder for you as well as Maverick. That synthesizer-heavy theme music still boosts your spirit. Penny’s and Maverick’s relationship mirrors that of Maverick and Charlie (Kelly McGillis) in the original. The connections to Star Wars can’t be accidental. When a character says “stay on target,” that mentally took me back to the Death Star trench run. The Navy flyers’ impossible mission to hit a small target with a powerful bomb echoes Luke Skywalker’s most famous sortie. Somebody on that writing staff clearly loves Star Wars.
Audiences had to wait a long time for Cruise to don his flight suit once again. The pandemic made that wait even longer. I’m perfectly happy with this outing as Maverick’s ride off into the sunset. Will Rooster get his own movie, or could Maverick return? Never say never. Kosinski took audiences back to the Grid in TRON: Legacy for another ride in the digital world inside computers. Top Gun: Maverick similarly injects newer energy into an older property for a flight that leaves the original in the dust.