The world is not the same place it was in 1986, when “Top Gun” ruled the box office. In Ronald Reagan, America had a movie star for a president, and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson as its honorary ministers of propaganda. The same year that “Platoon” challenged the United States’ militaristic track record, “Top Gun” sold a thrilling if narrow-minded fantasy of American exceptionalism — of boys and their toys, of macho-man bromance and what it means to be the best. Three years after Tom Cruise flipped the bird to a Russian MiG fighter plane, the Berlin Wall fell. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
One could argue that our new, post-Cold War world didn’t need a “Top Gun” sequel. (Tom Cruise himself once insisted as much.) But one would be wrong to do so. Building on the three-parts-steel-to-one-part-corn equation that director Tony Scott so effectively set 36 years earlier, the new film more than merits its existence, mirroring Cruise’s character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, in pushing the limits of what the machine could do — the machine in this case being cinema, which takes to the skies as no blockbuster has before.
Hardly anything in “Top Gun: Maverick” will surprise you, except how well it does nearly all the things audiences want and expect it to do. Orchestrated by Joseph Kosinski — the dynamo who collaborated with Cruise on “Oblivion” and first worked with Miles Teller on 2017’s terrific, underseen firefighter drama “Only the Brave” — to appeal to veterans and neophytes alike, this high-performance follow-up sends Maverick back to the Topgun program, where he won the heart of Charlie (Kelly McGillis) and lost best friend Goose (Anthony Edwards).
Flashbacks notwithstanding, neither of those actors is in this movie, though the screenplay — a tag-team effort between Christopher McQuarrie (Cruise’s guy), Eric Warren Singer (Kosinski’s guy) and Ehren Kruger (yikes) — just about resurrects Goose via his now-adult son, Bradley Bradshaw (Teller), call sign “Rooster.” (“Phoenix” would be more apt, but that tag goes to Monica Barbaro, playing the lone woman in this testosterone pool.) The resemblance between Rooster and his late dad is uncanny, courtesy of a goofy moustache, some hair gel and a scene in which the young pilot pounds out “Great Balls of Fire” on the Hard Deck piano, the way Goose once did.
The Hard Deck is now operated by a character from Maverick’s past, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), although she was only referenced in passing before: In “Top Gun,” Maverick is chewed out by his superior officer for having “a history of high-speed passes over five air control towers — and one admiral’s daughter!” Penny is that daughter: strong, independent and responsible for a daughter of her own (not Maverick’s, and too young to be his love interest). Cruise’s character has matured on the womanizing front, and the movie provides a shallow yet satisfying romantic subplot between him and Penny, which gives him something to come home for, since his daredevil tendencies otherwise give off strong kamikaze vibes.
In theory, Maverick should have graduated Topgun and gone back to teach what he’d learned to other Navy pilots. But after losing his flying partner, the character wound up being more of a loner — or so we learn, catching up with him all these years later, working as a test pilot and stuck at the rank of captain. Following a nostalgia-baiting aircraft carrier landing montage, wherein “Top Gun” theme “Danger Zone” blazes once again, Kosinski tracks Maverick to the Mojave Desert, still living up to his nickname when he takes a multimillion-dollar piece of government equipment — a supersonic, SR-71 Blackbird-style (fictional) Darkstar jet — out for a speed test.
Showing up as none-too-amused Navy brass, Ed Harris arrives just in time to eat a face full of sand as Maverick takes off at rocket speed, gently pushing the plane to Mach 10. (As a point of reference, the F-14s seen in “Top Gun” top out around Mach 2.) It’s a glorious scene, and one that melds everything Maverick once represented with Cruise’s own off-screen personality — which also explains all the self-driven motorcycle rides. The stunt nearly gets Maverick kicked out of the Navy. His only option: Go back to the training academy, where Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) is now filling Tom Skerritt/Viper’s shoes.
The script incorporates Kilmer’s throat cancer, such that Iceman has just one scene, communicating mostly by keyboard — but it’s a smart one, paying off the way the dynamic between these two ex-rivals has evolved. Considering the importance Goose and Rooster play in this next mission, which involves a near-impossible airstrike on a uranium plant, it would’ve been nice to see Meg Ryan return as the widow/mom, but the rules are cruel when it comes to aging female actors. Meanwhile, we can talk about all the cosmetic ways Cruise and Kilmer’s faces have evolved, although there’s only one change that matters: Cruise has perfected that little jaw-clenching trick that signifies “This is a really tough call.”
He won’t get an Oscar for pantomiming such swallow-your-pride stoicism, though Cruise deserves one for everything else the role demanded of him: If the flying scenes here blow your mind, it’s because a great many of them are the real deal, putting audiences right there in the cockpit alongside a cast who learned to pilot for their parts. The idea here is that Maverick has been grounded, relegated to coaching a dozen top-of-their-class hotshots, though he takes to the skies right away, trumping all of these aces in a series of adrenaline-fueled drills. Not a one of these students is convincing as a Navy pilot, though their personalities win us over all the same (even Glen Powell’s alpha-male “Hangman,” who serves as this movie’s Iceman equivalent), and once can imagine future spinoffs involving any of these characters.
“Top Gun” has always been “The Tom Cruise Show,” and no one believes for a second that Maverick won’t maneuver his way into flying the climactic mission. But he can’t do it alone: The operation calls for perfectly coordinated teamwork among six pilots, recalling the group air battle that bonded Iceman and Maverick in the original movie.
These days, videogame-styled blockbusters rely so heavily on CGI that it’s thrilling to see the impact of gravity on actual human beings, pancaked to their chairs by multiple G-forces. Sophisticated movie magic makes their performances seamless with the exterior airborne shots, while the commitment to filming practically everything practically feels like the cutting-edge equivalent of Howard Hughes’ history-making “Hell’s Angels.” The result is the most immersive flight simulator audiences will have ever experienced, right down to the great Dolby roar of engines vibrating through their seats (while the score teases cues for Lady Gaga’s end-credits anthem “Hold My Hand”).
Early on, Ed Harris’ character warns Maverick and his team that “one day, they won’t need pilots at all,” by which he means, drone technology is not far from allowing the Navy to do all of its flying by remote control. Cinema seems to be moving in that same direction, replacing actors with digital puppets and real locations with greenscreen plates — but not if Tom Cruise has anything to do with it. Engineered to hit so many of the same pleasure points as the original, “Top Gun: Maverick” fulfills our desire to go really fast, really far above ground — what the earlier film unforgettably referred to as “the need for speed.”
Still, this buckle-up follow-up also demonstrates why we feel the need for movie stars. It goes well beyond Cruise’s rah-rah involvement in what amounts to a glorified U.S. military recruitment commercial (the 1986 film might have been as perfectly calibrated as a Swiss watch, but it wasn’t subtle about its GI Joe agenda). It’s the way we identify with the guy when he’s doing what most of us thought impossible. Turns out we need Maverick now more than ever.