Oftentimes with decades-later sequels, stories come from a place of greed. There's an assumption that a brand can be revived with guaranteed success and a fresh crop of faces leading the charge; but for Top Gun: Maverick, it seems like the sequel took three decades not out of laze or indifference, but because they needed filmmaking to catch up. While the larger narrative of the 2022 sequel plays it safe, functioning more as a near beat-for-beat remake of the original than anything new, there's a subtextual meaning beneath its surface that makes it such an interesting piece of modern American art. On the surface, it's a movie about flying jets and how cool they look, yes, but beneath that it seems to be a movie about Tom Cruise coming face-to-face with his mortality and how the legacy of his feature films will be what he leaves behind.
Set roughly the same amount of time after the first Top Gun as it has been since that movie was released, Cruise leads the cast once again as Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. Still one of the best pilots in the world, he begins the film in a place where he appears to be on the way out to pasture. He's about to fly a fancy new jet, the real-world Lockheed Martin Darkstar spy plane, but must face the reality that a higher-up from the military (Ed Harris) is en route to shut down the program entirely. His collaborators in the control room have long faces, certain their program will be shuttered and they'll be reassigned to something less exciting.
Maverick knows he has to do something, something that might be brash but which can help his fellow servicemen continue doing their job. They stand around delivering lines similar to "we're being replaced" and "the future is coming," they refer, of course, to a world where unmanned drones patrol the skies instead of pilots. It's hard not to see this scene and couple Maverick's on-screen work ethic with what we know about Cruise's own principles. This isn't a scene about the military, it's a scene about filmmaking, movies, and the future of the craft. His co-stars could very well be lamenting the potential for being replaced by CG characters, or worse, deep fakes of themselves after they've passed away. But Tom Cruise is here and he's going to actually get in front of the camera and perform.
Leaked audio previously revealed Cruise blew up on crew members of the new Mission: Impossible who weren't following COVID safety protocols. It was a reaction that many stood behind when it was released, recognizing the passion that the actor/producer had about getting the feature made and doing it in the safest way possible. In the film, Maverick puts himself on the line to make sure that his collaborators can keep working, putting the Top Gun sequel's plot on course but also establishing it within the real-life framework of how Cruise views his career.
To put a finer point on it, Cruise is flanked by a slew of young actors and plenty of his contemporaries as well. He's recruited to return to the Top Gun flight school to train recruits for a dangerous mission, one against a vague "rogue state" enemy which seems like trademark Hollywood/Military shyness from wanting to actually anger a real-world entity. It's simple, really; Maverick is the best of the best and he's got to come in and teach these kids how it's done and how they can be better. It makes the textual read on Maverick as a movie about Cruise's career seem even more obvious. He's a man that sees no limits and habitually makes the impossible possible, putting himself in danger for the sake of entertainment, and the next generation of stars would do well to take it to heart.
Tantamount to the success of Top Gun: Maverick, though, is the impressive visual feast that it offers. Directed by Joseph Kosinski and utilizing IMAX quality cameras inside and out of actual jets gives the film a level of visual fidelity and intensity unlike anything else you've ever seen in a movie. Though the original film can be praised for making its action set pieces out of footage given to the production by the military, Top Gun: Maverick was actually able to coordinate and choreograph what it wanted in its images, resulting in a more cohesive, interesting, and unique sequence of stunts that are thrilling from start to finish.
Miles Teller leads the pack of young pilots in the film, playing Rooster, the son of Goose from the first Top Gun, which also includes Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Monica Barbaro, Jay Ellis, and Danny Ramirez. It says a lot that these young actors are able to hold their own while sharing the screen with Cruise, and not just in terms of their dramatic acting chops, but in handling the maneuvers of being inside an actual fighter jet flying at hypersonic speeds. While Teller gives perhaps the best performance of this group, channeling real dramatic weight when confronting Cruise over his past with his father, it's Glen Powell's Hangman that will fly away as the audience favorite. Powell takes on the smarmy, arrogant pilot role in the film and comes out of it the MVP.
Jennifer Connelly stars as Penny Benjamin, the actually age-appropriate love interest to Cruise and the "Admiral's daughter" that was teased in a throwaway line in the first Top Gun. Connelly and Cruise ooze chemistry in each scene, with the former giving the latter so much flirtatious grief that it's easy to forget they weren't romantically involved on-screen in the original movie. Also present is Jon Hamm, perhaps the only actor in Hollywood that can dress down Tom Cruise on camera and make it seem convincing.
For a film that plays as loud and bombastic as it does, there's a surprising amount of poignant and touching scenes that play with almost no sound. The romantic beats between Connelly and Cruise carry this in large part, but perhaps the most touching and personal moment in the entire film is the return of Val Kilmer as Tom "Iceman" Kazansky. Having evolved from rivals to friends in the original, something that the new movie makes clear, has persevered over the past thirty years. Kilmer is given a chance to act in a scene that carries a tremendous amount of gravitas for a movie with a ton of explosions and dogfights, and it might be the best in the film. Don't be surprised when the Oscar push for Kilmer (and the movie itself) begins in earnest early next year.
The only weak links in the entirety of Top Gun: Maverick are within its blueprint. As stated, it plays out -- up to a point -- as an almost-identical movie to its predecessor, giving the impression that maybe this is just an HD remake of the original (which, it largely is, but it's proof that this isn't an inherently negative thing). Top Gun: Maverick does have plenty of tricks up its sleeve, though, and without spoiling where the narrative goes, there's comfort when the film strays from predictability. There's also a moment in the finale that feels more Mission: Impossible than Top Gun, a tonal shift that is definitely jarring. Its inability to commit to an actual villain does really hammer home that this is pure spectacle as well, as it is deliberately avoiding any potential offense to specific box-office markets.
Top Gun: Maverick is a movie that is satisfying on the narrative level, in a visual sense, and when accounting for what the movie is actually about. The film is the rare sequel that outdoes the original in every way, delivering the ultimate theatrical experience that will have audiences convinced they've just hit crossed Mach 5 themselves.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Top Gun: Maverick lands in theaters on May 27th.