Tom Cruise returns to the skies in Top Gun: Maverick, a note-perfect sequel that delivers everything one could want from a sequel to the 1986 hit… and even a little bit more. The film’s unexpectedly touching storyline deals with themes of letting go of past attachments, while the dynamic aerial combat scenes will be edge-of-your-seat gripping even for non-fans.
Thirty-six years after the events of the original film, Cruise’s Navy test pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell has purposely avoided promotion in order to continue to fly more and more advanced planes. But as Top Gun: Maverick opens, rear admiral (Ed Harris) has pulled the plug on his experimental (and expensive) efforts to reach Mach 10 speeds.
After Mitchell risks everything to reach his goals, the Navy is ready to strip the decorated veteran of everything… but a good word from old rival and now-admiral ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer) gets him one last chance: this time, training a group of top recruits on a dangerous, and potentially deadly, run-and-gun mission with a two-week ticking-bomb deadline.
That mission, which is essentially the Death Star trench run from Star Wars, takes up the vast majority of Top Gun: Maverick’s running time from planning to execution, and it’s all breathless stuff. Cruise’s Maverick trains his recruits to barrel down a narrow canyon low enough to avoid detection by anti-aircraft missile launchers, strike a target with multiple rockets within three-meter precision, and scale a vertical cliffside to get out before the enemy can scramble.
While this mission may occupy a single action set-piece in most films, Top Gun: Maverick sets it up in such vivid detail that we know what’s going on every step of the way. It takes time to become familiar with every turn the planes need to take and the placement of each missile launcher they need to avoid, but the careful setup truly pays off during a thrilling climax.
There’s a number of human stories here, too: Maverick clashes with superior officer ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (Jon Hamm), gets to know bartender Penny (Jennifer Connelly), who was briefly mentioned in the earlier film, and comes to terms with ace recruit ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s wingman Goose from the first movie.
Among an impressive supporting cast, Glen Powell steals his scenes as ‘Hangman’ Seresin, Top Gun: Maverick’s version of Iceman from the earlier film, with a natural charisma and smug self-assuredness. And in a memorable one-scene cameo, Val Kilmer returns as Iceman in a sequence that touchingly incorporates the actor’s real-life medical condition.
Echoing the earlier movie, music is also a highlight here. Composer Harold Faltermeyer, responsible for the iconic Top Gun theme, returns for the sequel and is joined by no less than Lady Gaga and Hans Zimmer; Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone also sets the mood during the opening credits.
Everything clicks in Top Gun: Maverick, but the film really soars when it takes to the skies. The incredible aerial cinematography is a spectacle all by itself, and creates the kind of irreplaceable, awe-inspiring real-world effects that are missing from most contemporary Hollywood blockbusters.
Amusingly, the “enemy” nation where Top Gun: Maverick’s climactic scenes take place is never named; while the training sequences take place in the Nevada desert, the climactic run is in a wintry climate. That would seem to suggest Russia; recent events would give Top Gun: Maverick some timely relevance, though it was shot four years ago and faced numerous release delays, most notably due to the pandemic.
When that climax finally kicks in – and fills up IMAX screens, switching from a widescreen aspect ratio used for the rest of the film – Top Gun: Maverick truly becomes something special. The original film was an iconic piece of 1980s filmmaking, but this one works on another level: that of a precisely-composed action movie in the grandest of Hollywood traditions. Kudos to screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie, and director Joseph Kosinski, for pulling it off.