Intrepid Navy pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is pegged as past his prime, called a relic in a dozen different ways during the first fifteen minutes of Top Gun: Maverick (★★★☆☆).
The folks in the high-flying sequel might as well be throwing their barbs at Maverick star Tom Cruise, who proved himself a box office draw 36 years ago with the phenomenal success of Top Gun, the film that cemented his brash onscreen persona.
The courageous, grinning, gunning Little Engine that will always out-hustle his competition no longer radiates that same insatiable hunger. But Cruise — and Maverick — still move like men with something left to prove.
Introduced living in an old Navy air hangar somewhere in the Mojave, Pete Mitchell is still a maverick after all these years, still forgoing a helmet while speeding around on his motorcycle, still ranked captain despite decades in service, and still risking his life for Navy and country as a test pilot for a Mach 9 program. He’s also still flouting the authority of crusty older-timers like Ed Harris’ Rear Admiral “Hammer” Cain.
Top Gun: Maverick traffics flagrantly in still and again, happy to make a meal of audience nostalgia for one of the quintessential ’80s blockbusters. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, who also wrote and directed the 2013 Cruise vehicle Oblivion, the movie recreates or references several memorable moments from the original, directed by Tony Scott.
So, again, Maverick on his Kawasaki Ninja races side-by-side against a fighter jet speeding into takeoff. Again, Cruise and company hit the beach for a sweaty, shirtless ballgame — though, instead of volleyball, it’s football this time around.
But Maverick’s no longer one of the boys — he’s a mentor now, called back to Fighter Weapons School to train a squad of young pilots for an impossibly dangerous mission. Among the trainees is “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s dearly missed best friend Goose, whose tragic death in Top Gun replays here as a flashback triggered when Mav sees Rooster rocking out on a bar piano to “Great Balls of Fire,” just like his daddy did in the first movie.
The script leans heavily into the sentiment stirred by dead dads and grieving sons. Grown men will weep. If the Goose and Rooster drama doesn’t get them, Val Kilmer’s touching cameo will. Father’s Day viewing has been sorted.
Maverick wants to be a father figure to Rooster but is rebuffed, prompting a fresh approach from Cruise in his portrayal of humility and vulnerability. Mav needs to win over the trainees who might doubt him, Rooster who might not trust him, and he won’t be able to simply smile and grind his way to success. He has to show he cares, which brings out the most warmly appealing Cruise performance in a while.
The lively chemistry between Cruise and his young castmates — including Teller, taking Rooster from smarmy hotshot to brave team player, and Glen Powell as Maverick-like pilot “Hangman” — will get more hearts racing than the movie’s pat romance. As Mav’s friendly ex, Penny, Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly is photographed alluringly riding behind Mav on his cycle, tending her bar, piloting her sailboat, and that’s about it. She seems like she could take him or leave him, so who is this bar-owning, yacht-sailing, Porsche-driving single mom supposed to be?
We’re given even less to go on when it comes to identifying the mission’s enemy target, a uranium-enrichment plant in a foreign land that’s never specified. Convenient for the film’s global box office aspirations, the complete avoidance of saying who and where the Navy’s fighting comes off as forced and comical, but also in tune with Cruise’s mode in the movie, willing to bend a little or a lot in order to be embraced again.
Where the film doesn’t bend is in producing thrilling aerobatic dogfights, and jet-fighter chases at crazy low altitudes, accomplished with sharp visual effects and shots of actors in real planes.
The visuals might lack the sizzle of Tony Scott, but the tension in the air battles is thick and well-earned, razor’s edge suspense juxtaposed against the goofy fun of bro hugs and team-building on the ground. Still grinning and gunning and running like a champ, Maverick hasn’t yet lost that lovin’ feeling.
Top Gun: Maverick is Rated PG-13 and is playing in theaters everywhere. Visit www.fandango.com.
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