'Top Gun: Maverick' review: Old-school blockbuster flies high
Tom Cruise's hot shot pilot is back in this sequel to the 1986's original that is everything you want it to be.
Tom Cruise looks magnificent in "Top Gun: Maverick," revisiting the role that made him our planet's biggest movie star more than three decades ago. His trillion-watt smile lights up the screen so brightly and so often that it steals the show from all those military fighter jets flying around on-screen, and however much those aircraft cost, Cruise's beaming grin is worth more.
That a human element such as a smile can make such a huge impression is indicative of the kind of blockbuster "Top Gun: Maverick" is. While it's a thrilling, pulse-pounding, action-packed extravaganza, it is also rooted in real people and human emotions, which feels especially refreshing in our current moviegoing climate, which is overwhelmingly dominated by superheroes and giant whooshes of computer-generated special effects that all blur together after awhile. Yes, "Top Gun: Maverick" takes place largely in the air, but as a movie, it feels grounded in a recognizable and relatable version of reality.
That gives it an endearing throwback quality, separate from all of its callbacks to the 1986 original, which was an era-defining study in macho cool and American chest-puffing in its own right. "Top Gun: Maverick" feels how movies used to feel, and it's a reminder of how fun movies can be.
All of which helps make "Top Gun: Maverick" the best big-screen, bring-your-friends, high-fiving moviegoing experience to roll around in years. It's an exhilarating, crowd-pleasing blockbuster, anchored by a supernova Movie Star (capital M, capital S) performance, top-notch stunts and moments that, quite honestly, just feel good. There are many ways to say it, but in the most simple terms, "Top Gun: Maverick" rules, and once you see it, you're probably going to want to see it again.
Cruise is back as Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, a Navy pilot who has always done things his way, much to his own detriment and lack of career advancement. Give him an inch and he'll take an experimental military aircraft up in the air and all the way to Mach 10, proving that even though it's been 36 years since "Top Gun," Maverick still feels the need, the need for speed. When he gets grounded for the millionth time because of his reckless shenanigans, his hard-nosed superior Rear Adm. Chester "Hammer" Cain (Ed Harris) tells him he doesn't like his look. "It's the only one I've got," Mav tells him, that massive smile creeping across his face.
In other words, he's not changing for anybody. And it's only through the good graces of his old rival-turned-wingman Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer, present in a small but key role), who has played the game and has moved up the ranks (he's now a four-star admiral and the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet), that Maverick gets to go back to Top Gun to lead a new class of cadets into a dangerous mission. It's time for the student to become the teacher.
The specifics of who and what they're fighting on this mission are cloudy, just as they were the first time around. What's important is Maverick butts heads with his superior (Jon Hamm) while being put in charge of a bunch of young hot shots, including Jake "Hangman" Seresin (the charming Glen Powell), Natasha "Phoenix" Trace (Monica Barbaro) and most importantly Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick's former co-pilot, Goose (played by Anthony Edwards in the original).
Maverick and Rooster have circled each other for years, and this mission allows them to, at long last, confront their issues with one another and the ghosts of their pasts. Elsewhere, Maverick picks back up with bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), with whom he's had an on-again, off-again relationship for years, and they try to make something stick. Their relationship is adult, mature and age appropriate, and is very much worked into the framework of the story, not tacked on as an afterthought.
Director Joseph Kosinski, who started his career by bringing back another 1980s property decades after the fact with "Tron: Legacy" (he also worked with Cruise on the 2013 sci-fi outing "Oblivion"), presents the in-air action with dazzling spectacle, as well as a nervous tension that bolsters its authenticity. For most of us, it's the closest we'll ever get to flying a real jet, and it's better than any simulated video game experience can offer (especially 1987's "Top Gun" NES game, a disappointment to this day, as long as we're going back and talking about the past here).
There's a lived-in sense with "Maverick" and Cruise's performance where it feels like he has actually gone through life and existed off-screen in the years since "Top Gun." The script by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie does a good job of filling in the blanks and giving Maverick his sense of place in this world.
It also nimbly handles the business of calling back to things remembered and cherished from the first movie. The creative team knows what fans want and expect from a "Top Gun" sequel, and if anything it overly errs on the side of checking those boxes for them; going ahead and playing "Danger Zone" in the first few minutes may be a step too far, but we'll allow it.
There's always a big worry when revisiting an iconic movie or character, of how to balance new and old and how to handle nostalgia without living in the olden days. "Maverick" manages to play with the past in a fun, honest, non-ironic way — the last thing anyone needs is for this to be a snark fest or to try to make fun of the original — while also moving its characters forward and giving them their own mission to lock into. In that way, "Maverick" is the perfect wingman to "Top Gun" and a more than worthy successor to a classic. It flies so high it soars.
'Top Gun: Maverick'
Rated PG-13: for sequences of intense action, and some strong language
Running time: 137 minutes