Top Gun: Maverick

I love Top Gun. I saw it opening night in 1986, when a Navy recruiter tried to sign me up as I was leaving the theater. I've seen it many times since. To reiterate, I love Top Gun. Top Gun: Maverick is even better. Over the last few years, we've seen quite a few “legacy sequels.” Most of them, even the ones that are fun, traffic in fan service, with endless references designed to make audiences lose their minds. This sequel integrates the original's story with its own more naturally, while simultaneously taking advantage of developments in both cinematography and aircraft to deliver high-adrenaline entertainment.

Tom Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. He's called back to Top Gun by Adm. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) for a special mission. An enemy nation is ramping up production at a uranium facility hidden between two mountains. Blowing it up will be a dangerous, virtually impossible task. Maverick's job is to train the school's talented young pilots to pull it off. One of them is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his former wingman Goose. Rooster blames Maverick for his father's death, meaning there's automatic tension between them. Jennifer Connelly co-stars as Penny, a bar owner and on-again/off-again lover to Maverick. She wants to provide a little bit of stability in his life, provided he's willing to accept it.

Top Gun: Maverick is the latest example of a sequel where the hero becomes the mentor. In a pleasing twist, Maverick essentially has to teach these pilots how to embrace the very same rule-breaking, envelope-pushing flying techniques that irritated the Navy brass thirty years ago. That's a clever twist. Jon Hamm has a supporting role as Adm. Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, a commanding officer who still thinks Maverick is too irresponsible to be trusted. Watching the ways he whips his recruits into shape, especially when they doubt themselves, provides plenty of good drama.

So does the conflict between Maverick and Rooster. This section could have been manipulative, but the film dives into the guilt Maverick feels years later. We also learn a surprising thing he did that has only served to increase Rooster's resentment. Instead of just being a routine gimmick, the movie takes seriously the idea that, as Maverick says at one point, if you fly long enough, you're bound to lose a wingman. Scenes with Penny have a similar emotional impact. Connelly elevates what could have been a one-dimensional girlfriend role, instead making her character someone who is just as strong as Maverick in her own way, plus a steadying force in his chaotic life. She reminds him what it means to be grounded in a general sense, not just an aerial one.

When Top Gun was released, it had a certain novelty value. Using footage of real Navy jets in flight hadn't been done before – at least not in that way. Doing so gave the movie authenticity that was captivating. The actors, however, were still in fake cockpits. Maverick puts them in actual planes that they fly themselves. They experience real, visible G-force and participate in dizzying maneuvers. Consequently, you feel a sense of speed and movement like never before. When the story comes to its big finale, that pays off phenomenally. The last half-hour of this movie is one of the most exciting things I've ever seen onscreen. Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) assembles the mission footage so that we know what's happening at all times, never getting lost in the action. If you're a Top Gun fan, the impact is likely to make you giddy.

All the actors are perfectly cast, and Cruise finds new depth to mine in Pete Mitchell. Moments of humor add to the fun. A few callbacks exist, too. Thankfully, none of them are the kind of obnoxious “Look at this!” distractions common in legacy sequels. They're more subtle, like the way Maverick walks up behind his students the same way Kelly McGillis did to hers in the original. Ultimately, an approach like that is far more pleasurable. Top Gun: Maverick is, all the way around, a thoroughly enjoyable picture. It aims to give the audience a rush, and boy, does it ever succeed. Popcorn blockbusters don't get much better than this.

out of four

Top Gun: Maverick is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and some strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.