“The future is coming,” a stern senior officer (Jon Hamm) warns the perennially authority-adverse Navy pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), “and you’re not in it.” A sterner and more senior officer, an admiral played by Ed Harris, lays out the situation for the rogue flying ace even more bluntly: “Your kind is headed for extinction.” “Maybe so, sir,” retorts Mav as he exits the admiral’s office, his eyes twinkling as manfully as only Tom Cruise’s can twinkle. “But not yet.”
At first glance, Top Gun: Maverick itself could hardly be less of a roguish upstart. It’s a grand-scale summer blockbuster that is at pains to display every dollar of its $152 million budget, a legacy sequel from a legacy studio: Paramount Pictures, the second-oldest Hollywood studio still in operation. (The oldest, Universal, was founded only a week earlier in 1912.) The original Top Gun was a surprise box-office smash in 1986 despite mostly tepid reviews, a zeitgeist-surfing fist-pumper with a soundtrack album that would fast become one of the bestselling movie soundtracks of all time. Still, 36 years later, the economics of filmmaking, film distribution, and film viewership have transformed so completely that releasing a movie like Top Gun: Maverick does constitute something of a subversive move on the studio’s part. In 2022, gambling a budget this big on an old-fashioned, star-driven action movie with a middle-aged leading man at its center and nary a superhero in sight is quite literally risky business.
Top Gun: Maverick arrives in theaters at the end of a series of production- and pandemic-related delays—the release was originally set for summer 2019—along with a massive global publicity tour by the tireless Cruise, who’s being lauded, hyperbolically but not without justification, as “the last real movie star”—an indestructible relic from the time, a generation or two ago, when audiences went to movies not on account of their comic book IP but because of the human charisma bombs at their center. Maverick top-loads the nostalgia with an opening sequence that is a nearly shot-for-shot lift from the original Top Gun, right down to the precise wording and typeface on the introductory title card and Kenny Loggins’ synth-powered rock hit “Danger Zone” on the soundtrack.
After that initial burst of adrenaline to the limbic centers of audience members who remember the older film, the new one lays out the elements of its story. After nearly four decades of Navy service, the rebellious Maverick has never advanced past the rank of captain. Mav is perpetually on the verge of getting discharged for his, well, maverick behavior, and after he takes a piece of top-shelf aerial hardware out for an unauthorized Mach 10 joyride, he finds himself demoted—no longer test-flying cutting-edge military aircrafts but instead teaching that skill to new recruits at “Top Gun,” the elite flight school where he himself experienced triumph and heartbreak 36 years before.
The class of young flyers that Maverick is assigned to train, for a high-stakes if hazily defined overseas mission, is marginally more diverse than the sausage-party class of ’86, but they share that group’s love for aerial one-upmanship, team-bonding games on the beach, and cool call-sign nicknames embroidered over the pockets of their crisp flight suits. Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) is the only female member of the team. Hangman (Glen Powell) is an alpha-male Maverick wannabe with the same smug self-overestimation as the younger Mav. Phoenix’s wingman, the shy but amiable Bob (Lewis Pullman), is the only trainee so unconcerned with his own perceived coolness that his call sign is simply … Bob.
The toughest member of the class for Maverick to win over is Rooster (Miles Teller), whose rust-colored mustache and aviator shades immediately clue the audience in to his true identity: He is the now-grown son of Goose, the loyal wingman (played by Anthony Edwards) whom Maverick lost in a training accident in Top Gun. Goose bears a yearslong grudge against his late dad’s best friend, both for the accident itself and for reasons that emerge over the course of the film. Their eventual reconciliation and cockpit-born bond of eternal friendship aren’t hard to see coming, but the troubled history between the two men is movingly if economically sketched, as is a reunion between Maverick and his former flight-school nemesis, Val Kilmer’s Iceman. That once-hot-dogging pilot is now a high-ranking officer who’s spent the past few decades intervening in Mav’s dust-ups with military brass to protect his old friend’s career in the service. Kilmer’s real-life struggle with throat cancer is incorporated into this subplot, with his character suffering from an unnamed ailment that has taken away his voice.
Even if you don’t harbor fond feelings for the 1986 Top Gun, a movie that upon its release was seen by many as a glamorized recruitment commercial for the Reagan-era military buildup, it’s hard not to appreciate the care that went into this lovingly tooled sequel—a far better film on the sheer level of craft than the original. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography has a burnished golden-hour glow that, to the film’s credit, lingers more often on human faces than on slabs of military hardware. The flight sequences, skillfully edited by Eddie Hamilton, could easily have been a muddy blur of quick cuts and weightless green-screen effects; instead, they hum with the real-time, real-space thrill that only practical effects can bring. Cruise has long been a stickler for performing his own stunts, though what that means in a film built around demonstrations of world-class piloting is hard to discern. What’s certain is that Cruise, who could already fly a plane, got extensive Navy flight training along with all the younger actors playing pilots. Though they may not be the ones in the cockpits during the stomach-dropping vertical dives and steep upward climbs out of narrow canyons, the Top Gunners are clearly filming their airborne scenes from inside real and very fast-moving planes, and the strain placed on their faces, bodies, and voices by the increasing G-force gives the many flight-training scenes suspense and dramatic heft.
In place of the late Tony Scott, to whom this film is dedicated in a closing-credit title, the director is Joseph Kosinski, who previously made another 1980s-era property reboot (Tron: Legacy), another Tom Cruise vehicle (Oblivion), and another action-focused drama starring Miles Teller (the firefighter picture Only the Brave). The script, by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, hits familiar beats: Maverick pursues a romance, this time not with Kelly McGillis’ flight instructor character but with a bartender and single mother named Penny (Jennifer Connelly, wistful and affecting in an underwritten role). Like his father before him, Rooster sits down at a piano and bangs out a credible singalong rendition of “Great Balls of Fire.” And like the team of pilots in the first Top Gun, the new crop of trainees take unwise risks in the air, get chewed out by their superiors, and then climb into their cockpits and do it again. No wheels are reinvented (though one pair does get sheared off a plane’s landing gear by a barely cleared mountain), but the dialogue charms, the aerial sequences soar, and the two hours and 17 minutes of runtime speed by at (forgive me) Mach 10.
As was the case in the first Top Gun, the high-stakes mission our young pilots (and one old one) set out to accomplish has been carefully laundered of all geopolitical specificity. A uranium refining facility has been found in an unnamed “rogue state,” and the Top Gun team must take out this dangerous weapons technology in a technically challenging but apparently bloodless aerial attack. The landscape where the attack takes place is mountainous and snowy, ruling out the Middle East—a nation in the former Soviet Union, maybe? Ideologically, this Top Gun feels less loaded than its predecessor, but that may only be because, in a world four decades out from the second Reagan administration, the line between entertainment and propaganda has gotten ever harder to discern.
In one late scene, crossing enemy territory to rescue a downed colleague, Cruise does his trademark super-fast run, his hands slicing the air like helicopter blades and his legs churning like pistons. Cruise is in and of himself a piece of well-engineered technology, a stainless steel action star who at age 59 (he was around 56 when he shot most of this movie) can seem frighteningly—or is it fearfully?—impervious to age and change. Other characters, led by Ed Harris’ disapproving admiral, often compare the crack pilot’s obsolescence in the modern military to an analog machine that’s outlived its utility in the age of remotely piloted drones. But Mav’s continued usefulness to the 21st century Navy, like Cruise’s to 21st century Hollywood, stands as living refutation of the theory that flesh-and-blood heroes, subject at least in principle to injury, aging, and death, are completely done for as of the summer of 2022.
Top Gun: Maverick’s dialogue can be transcendently dopey, a fact the script sometimes seems to acknowledge with some amusement. In one recurring piece of mentorly advice, Mav actively discourages the practice of introspection, urging his students, “Don’t think—do!” Yet the script is canny in the ways it makes this particular star’s defiance of the passage of time a core trait of the character he’s playing. It’s both Maverick’s superpower and his Achilles’ heel that, even as he is forever on the move (“he’s the fastest man alive!” gasps one awed onlooker), he will not and cannot move on.
Even as a viewer with no special attachment to the original Top Gun—which I recall dismissing at the time as a piece of middlingly entertaining patriotic kitsch—I found myself tearing up near the end of Top Gun: Maverick when Cruise’s Mav and Teller’s Rooster embraced after one especially bromantic air battle. It’s a well-earned sentimental moment, sensitively acted by both stars, and a welcome chance for the two to communicate strong emotions by other means than groaning while pulling back on their sticks. But my emotional response to the Mav-Rooster rapprochement may have had less to do with the drama unfolding between those characters than it did with my surroundings: the once-common, now-rare shared cultural space that is a big, dark, loud theater full of hyped-up people watching an old-school movie star pull off feats of derring-do. Maybe that viewing experience really is on the way out, headed for extinction like the analog flying skills and air-chopping running style of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. But not yet.