Back to the danger zone: Reviewing “Top Gun: Maverick”

Pruett Norris , Reporter

The original “Top Gun” was a pop culture sensation when it premiered in 1986, grossing $180 million domestically and $357 million in the global box office, according to Box Office Mojo. Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer and their gang of aerial aces soared into the hearts of moviegoers worldwide, cementing Cruise’s star status and making “Top Gun” a blockbuster legend. However, despite its success, “Top Gun” is a mixed bag on its own merits. The movie sweats testosterone, and its homoerotic tension adds a fascinating undercurrent to the film, said film critic Pauline Kael. But other elements don’t work quite as well. The romance between Cruise and co-star Kelly McGillis is boring and forgettable, and the movie’s stakes are either juvenile or ginormous. Nonetheless, the movie warranted a sequel, leading to this summer’s release of “Top Gun: Maverick.”

“Top Gun: Maverick” flys through many of the hoops an audience might expect in a sequel. Cruise and Kilmer return, archival footage from the first film is used to tear-jerking effect, and there’s even an opening plane montage. “Maverick” is more than its nostalgia. It uses the world of “Top Gun” to tell a modern adventure story that soars above its predecessor in every way.

“Maverick” from the very beginning proves it has something of its own to say. Three decades after his original mission, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, played by Cruise, is confronted with a hard truth: manned planes are being phased out of combat, and drones are quickly taking their place. The pilots he instructs aren’t just competing against each other or dogfighting enemy planes. Instead, Maverick has to teach his team to fight against the future.

This is a much richer concept than “Top Gun” originally afforded audiences, said Hollywood Insider critic Kevin Hauger. The first movie’s themes are timeless, but not original. “Top Gun” is Maverick’s hero’s journey. The movie title bears his name but covers so much more. There’s heaps of emphasis in “Maverick” on the impossible stakes of flying against modern technology. Unlike the first film, these pilots aren’t engaging in training exercises to win a trophy. These stakes are life or death, and anything less than perfect will result in the latter. These are consequences far more compelling than the sports rivalry of the first flick, where the plot was a backseat pilot to Cruise and Kilmer making witty remarks to one another. 

We still get plenty of personal time with Maverick. “Top Gun: Maverick” manages to synthesize every independent interpersonal plot thread from “Top Gun” into a cohesive plot tapestry. Maverick’s three major relationships in the first movie felt imbalanced and unrelated. In “Maverick,” that disjointed energy has vanished. Each relationship Maverick has in “Top Gun: Maverick” not only seems to matter, but also affects how he approaches the others, whether it’s his newfound respect for Iceman played by Kilmer, his contentious mentorship with Goose’s son Rooster played by Miles Teller, or his romance with love interest Penny played by Jennifer Connelly.

The largest congratulations for this success should go to director Joseph Kosinski. His vision of a modern “Top Gun” tells its own story while honoring the world of the first film. Kosinski nails the action, delivers the emotion and creates cohesive entertainment the whole way through. Teller also leaps off the screen, delivering a passionate, physical performance with an equally impressive mustache and a six-pack ready for all the beach football “Top Gun: Maverick” can muster. The tension between Rooster and Maverick is the emotional core of the movie, and Teller does an excellent job at communicating their relationship’s emotional cocktail of betrayal and admiration.

Then there’s Connelly, who replaces the stilted romance of the first film with an electric chemistry between herself and Cruise. Their warm, flirtatious romance lights up the movie and feels true to both sides of Maverick’s world, land and sky, in a way “Top Gun” never managed. The supporting cast are also flying Mach 10 with their performances, with Naval higher-ups depicted by Ed Harris, Jon Hamm and new Top Gun pilots played by Monica Barbaro, Glen Powell and Lewis Pullman.

While much of “Top Gun’s” charm came from its idiosyncrasies, “Top Gun: Maverick” is better for touching on them and then soaring away. The tension of the beach volleyball scene, while iconic, serves the plot better replaced by the teamwork of beach football. The competition between Top Gun students is much more entertaining with real stakes at hand than the jockeying of its predecessor, and the expanded thematic focus should be lauded for how high it flies and how well it lands. “Maverick” isn’t self-serious, either. It’s funny and winning, but its victories are earned on more than the charisma of its leading men. The movie finds organic routes to levity and maintains a clear plot-forward focus, even when “Maverick’s” climax veers in unexpected directions.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is a romance, an adventure, a drama, a sports movie and a war flick rolled into one, and it all comes together for a very successful mission.

RATING: 4.5/5 Yosefs