Thirty-five years should be plenty of time to think up a good sequel, and damn if they didn’t actually do it.
After pumping everyone up with a five-minute flight-ops music video of Harold Faltermeier’s “Anthem” paving the way for Kenny Loggin’s “Danger Zone,” viewers catch up with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), still a Naval aviator after three decades… and inexplicably still a captain. Even with a guardian angel watching over his career, Maverick’s determination to keep flying no matter the consequences culminates into one final military assignment: train a group of previous Top Gun flight school graduates to fly an impossible mission in just three weeks. Unfortunately, being “the best of the best” doesn’t guarantee survival, pitting Maverick against policy-enforcer “Cyclone” (Jon Hamm), confronting his past with “Rooster” (Miles Teller), and confronting his love life regarding one Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) — yes, that Penny Benjamin.
The original 1986 Top Gun was bulletproof, featuring state-of-the-art effects, beach bodies, a killer soundtrack, and all years before the Tailhook Scandal destroyed its playin’ with the boy’s club image. It’s no secret the U.S. Navy likes their pilots cocky — young, dumb, and full of… confidence, as long as it doesn’t spill over into chutzpah — and the imperfect first film both confronted one’s mortality but also climbing back onto the horse after being thrown. Since that time, Tom Cruise has leveraged his star power into a string of event films, living the dream as perhaps the last actual all-caps MOVIE STAR who can open a blockbuster film on his name alone. After COVID delays and theaters still skittish about a return to box office norms, the sequel will need more than fans over fifty to put butts in seats. Is Maverick merely a rehash of the original, or is it willing to take on the risky business of something new?
Hang onto your privates, generals, because the not-so friendly skies are about to be filled with stars and explosions! Against all odds, Maverick does the impossible, touching on everything that made the original work while propelling the story forward in an organic way, and love him or hate him, Cruise throws everything into his part. Whereas the first film magically created just-in-time bullet-point events to move the story forward, the sequel weaves a plot around a singular mission that doesn’t even try to hide its 1977 space-opera inspiration. While Cruise is again playing a guy who’s the best at everything, drama oozes from the same character with the on-screen realization his plot armor doesn’t extend around everyone else he’s responsible for, and movie stardom doesn’t get any more meta than that.
Speaking of heart (and a minor spoiler), the ad trailers hint that Tom “Iceman” Kazansky got himself promoted all the way up to admiral, but the inclusion of Val Kilmer’s character is more than mere mention. The new crew of jet jockeys has grown more inclusive yet remains equally competitive, but like the first film, they’re mostly in the background except for the aforementioned “important” cast. Plans to go forward in the franchise could easily be about any of these folks, but it would still be unnecessary unless there was a damn good story to fuel it. Maverick ties up every loose thread left from the original film, looks good doing it, and can even be forgiven taking one step over the nostalgia/convenience line before taking a final bow and flying off into the sunset.
Top Gun is a relatively safe IP, has wide audience appeal and paints the U.S. military machine in a favorable light; it’s practically unpatriotic for Americans not to like it. Tinseltown is littered with the corpses of films that tried and failed to recapture old glory, from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Independence Day: Resurgence, but sometimes the sequel no one asked for is the one audiences need. This one just happens to be pretty damn good.
Top Gun: Maverick is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, some strong language, but the approach will not be easy. You are required to maneuver straight down this trench and skim the surface to this point. The target area is only two… sorry, three meters wide.
Four skull recommendation out of four