I openly consider Top Gun one of the greatest action films of all time. Actually, that’s an understatement – at one point, it was listed as one of my greatest films of all time. It’s the platonic ideal of what an action film should be – stars so committed they make the cheesiest script work, a keen attention to direction and editing that will take your breath away (har har), just pure cinema at its finest. The idea of a sequel – oft-delayed due to personal tragedies, an idealized nostalgia for its predecessor, and the challenge of a close-ended story – has been something of a joke for at least two decades now, if not more. Yet Top Gun: Maverick is here, and despite the odds against it, like Pete Mitchell itself, it continues to dazzle and amaze no matter the odds.
After 36 years since his famous confidential dogfight, legendary pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) has been working as a test pilot for the U.S. Navy. Despite being one of the best pilots in history, Maverick has failed to be promoted beyond the rank of Captain. After his department is shuttered in favor of drone technology, Maverick receives an order from his old friend Iceman (Val Kilmer), now admiral of the Pacific fleet. In three weeks’ time, a hostile nation (which one? Shut up, who cares) will go live with an enriched uranium facility, located inside an impenetrable canyon. Mitchell’s orders are to train twelve recent Top Gun flight school winners for the mission – none of whom have engaged in aerial combat – with six earning the chance to execute. Candidates include first female Top Gun Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), skilled hotshot Hangman (Glen Powell), and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former co-pilot Goose.
The reason Top Gun: Maverick is so strikingly incredible is certainly not its plot – should you think about it for more than three seconds, the entire thing would likely fall apart under the weight of a framed photo of the first film’s final scene in the Navy Hall of Fame, or a climax that’s essentially the ending of Star Wars, or dialogue so cheesy it’ll write checks the film can’t cash (to be fair, the first film’s script only works because the actors are so committed). No, we come to Top Gun for two reasons: a loosely-connected story about coming-of-age, and impeccable flight choreography. When it comes to the former, Maverick does its job fairly well; the first film’s narrative about male friendship, teamwork, and brotherhood is replaced with a fitting story about surrogate fatherhood.
However, what truly allows Maverick to soar (my apologies for the pun; you should expect at least a few more) is its flight choreography. The work by director Joseph Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (of Life of Pi fame) is simply extraordinary. Every fight from the first film – a masterpiece in its own right – is elevated here. One early scene sees test pilot Maverick reaching Mach 10 in a hypersonic prototype. Later, Maverick takes over Viper’s role in harassing the new recruits with superior flight maneuvers. By the time we reach the climax, we’re watching as four jets engage in an interweaving battle with SAMs. It’s so breathtakingly shot and rendered, and hits every emotional note at just the right time, you’ll forgive each and every stupid twist the climax takes – and it does get stupid, as only Top Gun could.
Miranda’s cinematography is truly astonishing to witness, both in its aerial visuals and the IMAX-caliber GoPros mounted inside real-life cockpits as the actors take to the skies. While I’m a little disappointed that the film couldn’t match the original’s film-stock sheen (nobody could shoot oranges and blues quite like the late Tony Scott), Miranda demonstrates once again that he’s one of the few cinematographers capable of bringing life to digital cameras. Each shot is masterful, whether it’s the planes careening through the air, Cruise racing on his motorcycle, or a group of pilots bonding over a game of shirtless beach football (because you can’t have Top Gun without a pointless shirtless sporting event. Kosinski keeps things tightly edited and perfectly tense, and allows the score by Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, recycled material from Harold Faltemeyer, and even Lady Gaga – whose original song “Hold My Hand” is interwoven throughout, a technique from the 80s that I’ve sorely missed. Don’t worry, though, all the songs you want are still here (except, tragically, “Playing With The Boys”).
Top Gun only works for two interwoven reasons: a cast willing to make the dialogue sound believable, and Tom Cruise. Look, I don’t know what to say about Cruise that hasn’t already been said. He’s a marvel. No actor in history has been as successful at making every script sound top notch, regardless of quality. He is Maverick, in ways that run deeper than the film itself. Without Cruise’s insane death wish, natural charisma, and inherent movie star-quality, there is no film. Yet an actor’s only as good as his wingman (again, I’m sorry), so how’s the rest of the cast? Well, they range from “good” to “great.” Teller really doesn’t come into his own as Baby Goose until the third act, when he really gets to shine; but until that point: holy sh*t does he look like a young Anthony Edwards. It is ridiculously uncanny.
However, as both an actor and a character, Teller’s Rooster is outshone by Glen Powell as Hangman. I’ve been a fan of Powell’s since 2016’s Everybody Wants Some!!, but he is absolutely exceptional here. He plays the role as a cross between Cruise and Kilmer in the first film, with every bit as much charisma as both legends. The fellow recruits all pull their weight, including a very-good Barbaro as Phoenix, a lovable Lewis Pullman (looking very much like his dad) as Bob, and Greg Tarzan Davis as Coyote. Jennifer Connelly dutifully gives her all to some of the film’s worst dialogue as Maverick’s new love interest Penny, while Bashir Salahuddin steals every scene he’s in as Maverick’s new crew member Hondo. Jon Hamm and Ed Harris are here to be hard-ass authority figures in Maverick’s way, and they play their parts well. Yet of every supporting performance in the film, none live up to Val Kilmer reprising his role as Iceman. The famously sick Kilmer has just one scene in the new film, yet he gives himself over to the role so beautifully, it’ll easily make you cry.
Top Gun: Maverick is action at its finest. It’s a love letter to a dying art form, both narratively – the decline of manned aviation – and artistically – the decline of the star-driven blockbuster. Yet just like Maverick, we won’t go down without a fight. This is a capital-B blockbuster that can stand on its own, regardless of its nostalgic ties; a demonstration that even if you’re not making the smartest film in the world, you should always, always, always give it 110%. After all, who knows? Perhaps your cheesy action film will end up endearing millions, launch an actor’s career, and birth the finest action sequel since Terminator 2.
Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in theaters nationwide