It’s astounding how we’ve seen the trend of blockbuster sequels to popular movies that came out nearly 40 years ago, best known as “legacy sequels.” They have proven to be light years better or on par with their predecessors and restored the passion within their respective franchises, like Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner 2049, or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Can it feel like a cash grab or be decades too late to care? Sometimes, it’s the case. But this is Top Gun: Maverick we’re finally talking about. Because if it’s none other than Tom Cruise leading in an action movie, it demands you to pay good money to experience the long-awaited sequel on a giant screen imaginable, taking you right back into the danger zone.
After more than thirty years of service as one of the Navy’s top aviators, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is where he belongs, pushing the envelope as a courageous test pilot and dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him. When he finds himself training a detachment of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission the likes of which no living pilot has ever seen, Maverick encounters Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), call sign: “Rooster,” the son of Maverick’s late friend and Radar Intercept Officer Lt. Nick Bradshaw, aka “Goose”. Facing an uncertain future and confronting the ghosts of his past, Maverick is drawn into a confrontation with his own deepest fears, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.
We were so close to receiving this two years ago, in June 2020, only to be in shambles of depression because of the pandemic. After consistently shifting release dates and wondering if this would see the light of day, this remained one of my most anticipated films, even more so after the early reactions from CinemaCon. Expectations all depend on your feelings over the first movie. You look back at the original, released in 1986 and directed by the late Tony Scott, as a cheesy action movie about naval pilots with the persuasive angle to recruit those into the Navy, and you’re right. But I like Top Gun just fine; it’s not a great film, but even after re-watching it recently to prepare, it’s not as high-octane as I remembered. I can now see why the highest-grossing popular movies of the ’80s have a mixed reception. Still, I was pumped to see what a follow-up 36 years later would add up to, even if there weren’t any emotional attachments I had to what came before. So is it safe to say we’re looking at a great film that gives the proper summer blockbuster meaning? Well, it’s a good sign when I already want to see it a second time. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick more than I initially thought.
This movie has been in development for over a decade and I didn’t think it would come to life following Scott’s death. However, even the news of a new movie could work if it had all the right tools and time to make it worthwhile. Director and co-writer Joseph Kosinski is no stranger to doing big-screen sequels, as his directorial debut was Tron: Legacy (2010). He has since worked on Oblivion (2013) and the very underrated Only the Brave (2017). Still, he’s always been a director who always works in a visual background, so his first two films have great visual effects but have service-level storytelling. That being said, Kosinski might’ve made the best film of his career, which proves why the studio, Paramount Pictures, held onto this to be seen in theaters instead of going straight to streaming. Just the opening with the credits and the music cues up lets you know you’re in for a ride. Kosinski and everyone involved puts on a showcase on how you do a sequel the right way and do so by being better. Remember how they’re so points for second place? Well, there are points for first, and this takes the prize without hesitation. Any moment where it wants to harken back to what some loved from the previous movie, it’s done so in respect without relying on being nostalgic in building upon its predecessor.
For Tom Cruise to step back into the shoes of one of his most iconic movie characters would be a walk in the park, especially when his performance launched his successful career as the incredible action star we see today. Here, I think this is one of his best performances in a long time that didn’t entirely depend on him doing insane stunts. Everybody who knows me knows he’s been my favorite actor for years, and I don’t want to hear any disrespect about him from anybody when he’s in something this good. Everyone will go into this wanting Cruise as Maverick. But I love how we see a mature version of Maverick this time around, where he was just the hotshot pilot training to be at the top of his class. We still see him as a man who pushes the limits of being a bit reckless, but is now the instructor of training his fellow cadets into battle. They could’ve easily ruined this character for all he’s worth, but thankfully, there was a real purpose within him. He still can’t get over the death of his best friend all those years later and for him to take on this huge responsibility to see his students live through the next day is all that matter. Unfortunately, this has most movie audiences forget he’s always committed to his work in drama and continues to crush everything he’s in when he’s about to be pushing 60-years-old in July (two days before my birthday).
We all know Cruise would be great, but I was glad to have a fondness for most of the supporting cast. The other big name that had me curious was Miles Teller as Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, son of Maverick’s wingman Goose. You had to expect some friction between him and Maverick with the history they got, and there’s more to the relationship I didn’t see coming. So that was handled better than I had in mind. Teller is always good when a suitable role is on his side, and this is one of his strongest performances in years. I also have to shout out to Glen Powell as the cocky pilot “Hangman,” who I like seeing in movies these days and can easily be seen as the film’s answer to “Iceman.” The rest of the other pilots who are a part of Top Gun are Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), Lieutenant Robert “Bob” Floyd (Lewis Pullman), Lieutenant Reuben “Payback” Fitch (Jay Ellis), and Lieutenant “Fanboy” Garcia (Danny Ramirez) and Lieutenant “Coyote” Machado (Greg Tarzan Davis) were good even if they weren’t entirely fleshed out as I hoped for. And, without giving anything away about Val Kilmer’s involvement in reprising his role as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, all I can say is that one of the best scenes in the entire film has to do with him and Maverick, which adds to the unexpected heart that almost made me tear up.
But with everything that makes Top Gun: Maverick work, it would be impossible not to leave the theater thinking about how incredible those aerial sequences were. They were indeed exciting to watch before with Tony Scott behind the camera, but how they made it look real during the training scenes was impressive and very practical inside the cockpits, especially if you choose to catch this in the IMAX format. At first, I had difficulty figuring out if the actors were really inside the jets behind a green screen or if Kosinski and his team went into the sky to pull this off. After some brief research, they did practically almost everything, and the crew went through training. A few of those sequences showed I’m not capable of flying that high because of the impending fear of crashing. Though, it’s absolutely thrilling. Also, the cinematography from Claudio Miranda is beautiful and captures the intensity of the action to his advantage. Just when I thought it couldn’t be better, the third act alone was all kinds of exhilarating from every minute that kept me on the edge of my seat and honestly didn’t want it to end because of how unpredictable it was, and that’s what you really want for an action movie.
What I can say is the biggest compliment the film has going for it is that it improves on the flaws most always noticed before and goes for a nice homage at the same time. It has a reasonably straightforward storyline with a few familiar beats to keep the pace going and can be looked at as a film that stands on its own, with the screenplay by Ehren Kruger (The Ring), Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle), and usual Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible- Fallout). Some vital elements allow this to continue what happened in the first movie that doesn’t seem cheesy, mostly the dialogue. The mission, in which the pilots must bomb a uranium facility without being seen, is more memorable and dangerous than what they had to face the last time. Even this delivers on the stakes or letting some breathing room to let it sink into its emotional core works reasonably well. This does a great job of making me forget I’m watching a sequel when it’s perfect as standing on its own and pulling some significant moments fans loved about the first movie.
As for flaws, I expected this to have a long setup, so that didn’t bother me too much. But I guess the romance between Maverick and Jennifer Connelly (still so beautiful)’s Penny Benjamin wasn’t a good enough love story to spend time on, despite enjoying their chemistry. On the other hand, I did like how it wasn’t taking a lot of the screen time the same way Maverick and Kelly McGillis’ Charlie was in the first. Personally, they could’ve written her character out, and it wouldn’t have made a tangible impact on the plot.
The musical score is terrific, too, as the combined forces of Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer, and Lorne Balfe. Do we get the classic “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins? They played it during the opening credits, and it would be hard for someone not to get psyched whenever you hear it. And remember how the original had the Oscar-winning tune “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin was the song everybody remembered the most? Lady Gaga said, “Hold my beer,” to give us “Hold My Hand,” which left me speechless when I first heard it and a few dozen times after. The perfect rock ballad for the film. Maybe it’s early to talk Oscars, but I see the first frontrunner for Best Original Song.
Overall, this was everything I could ask for in a film and a good reason why summer movies belong to be back in the theater. It was definitely worth the wait, but we had to wait this long, and it finally came out is undoubtedly a blessing. But, trust me, leaving the theater will leave you to feel the need… the need for speed.
Top Gun: Maverick is FANTASTIC, as every blockbuster sequel should aim to be and more. Tom Cruise is at his very best in a long-awaited follow-up way more entertaining than its predecessor, excelling in its unbelievable aerial action sequences and impactful emotional weight. It’s certainly a film that will please those who don’t consider themselves fans of the original and have a blast with a film that requires you to see it in the theater. One of my favorites of the year so far and possibly one of the coolest sequels in some time.
Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in theaters everywhere in IMAX, 4DX, ScreenX, and Dolby Cinema. Runtime: 131 Minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some strong language. Studio: Paramount Pictures