Nimbly mixing nostalgia and full-throttle action, “Top Gun: Maverick” soars higher than it has any right to, constructing a mostly terrific sequel 36 years later (including a Covid release delay), using a good but not great movie as its jumping-off point. That might not be enough to take your breath away, but as brawny summer entertainment goes, it comes shockingly close.
The original featured Tom Cruise on the early cusp of his movie stardom, but he demonstrates that even as an older guy there’s still plenty left in the tank. If you needed bookends for nearly four decades of roles, you could do a whole lot worse than this.
Older but not necessarily wiser describes Cruise’s Pete Mitchell, a.k.a. Maverick, the daredevil Navy pilot whose career hasn’t matched his high-flying skills, largely because he has a bad habit of sidestepping orders and flouting authority.
“I’m where I belong,” Maverick says, when asked why he’s still a captain after all these years, following an introduction to the Kenny Loggins song “Danger Zone,” just to reset the mood.
On the verge of paying the price for that, he’s given the proverbial last chance, called back to Top Gun to train pilots for a top-secret mission, among them Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of the partner that Mav famously lost in the first movie.
There’s more to it than that, including an opportunity to reconnect with old friend Iceman (Val Kilmer, whose off-screen health issues are nicely woven into the story); butting heads with the commanding officer (Jon Hamm); and an old flame (Jennifer Connelly). And yes, the film replicates the competitive jockeying among these hard-charging pilots, although the ranks have been expanded to involve more people of color and a woman (Monica Barbaro) who can more than hold her own.
Cruise reunites with “Oblivion” director Joseph Kosinski, working from a script credited to a trio of writers, among them the star’s frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie. Somehow, the film manages to putty in the intervening decades on the, um, fly, painting a portrait of a guy whose “need for speed” has both propelled him forward and held him back, especially in terms of commitment and rootlessness.
Even the seemingly tired plot of Maverick carrying around guilt over Goose all these years, and fretting about adding his kid to that wreckage, works unexpectedly well. Part of that has to do with the movie’s emotional moorings, which are sentimental without becoming syrupy. (A dedication to the late Tony Scott, who directed the original, is another nice touch.)
Still, it’s called “Top Gun” for a reason, and the aerial sequences are visceral and effective, conveying the adrenaline rush and physical toll of hurtling through the sky as well as the mentality required to eagerly brave those risks.
Somehow, “Maverick” manages to recycle those latter beats – with an exceptionally well cast class of new pilots – and still feel contemporary, all while approximating the old-fashioned virtues of the kind of movies that flourished in the ’80s but have found the theatrical skies considerably less friendly in recent years.
Paramount waited a long time in order to launch “Top Gun” in theaters, and that bet seems likely to pay off. Because while you could watch Maverick’s heroics in the comfort of home, like the man said, the big screen is where he belongs.
“Top Gun: Maverick” premieres May 27 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.