Top Gun: Maverick — out Friday in cinemas worldwide — is a veritable Tom Cruise movie. For one, his character, the know-it-all Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, is right there in the title. And the much more important two, it’s Cruise’s star wattage that is responsible for Top Gun: Maverick’s existence. Here is a sequel, over three decades on, to a movie much poorer than most are willing to admit. Top Gun hasn’t aged well either, but Cruise definitely has. He’s the biggest actor of his kind currently in Hollywood. Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) understands both those facets — Cruise’s charm and power, and the failures of the original film — and delivers a follow-up that is better in most departments. Though admittedly, Kosinski is clearing a low bar.
For instance, unlike in the original where a ludicrous mission was thrust on the recently-graduated fighter pilots to form the film’s bombastic third act, Top Gun: Maverick is all about a ludicrous mission. From the start. Maverick and his superiors at TOPGUN drill into the minutest details over and over, coaching not just their pupils, but even the audience in a way. By the end of Top Gun: Maverick, we know exactly what the mission is, even if we’ll never have any idea what it’s like to fly it. That shows Kosinski knows what Top Gun: Maverick is about, though the laser focus also hurts it in other sections.
Of course, what many are here for is action. And the new Top Gun film delivers in spades. In fact, Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t begin with its star Cruise, but with a Naval show off. Kosinski is essentially setting the mood. And when we do get in the air with Maverick and Co., the camera doesn’t cut around Cruise’s face as we take off. As with Mission: Impossible, this is testament to Cruise’s dedication to performing his own stunts. Even with the other actors — all of whom had to handle lighting and cinematography on their own, as there’s no room for anyone else — it’s clear that Top Gun: Maverick has shot most, if not all, of its action inside real cockpits and with real skies as the backdrop, rather than dropping down to CGI imagery that most films are guilty of.
As a result, the high-flying action is both legible and awe-inducing. (If you’re going to watch Top Gun: Maverick, I would recommend you do it on the biggest screen possible. Preferably an IMAX one.) Though to be technically accurate, I should say low-flying, given the nature of the big mission. Much of the action sequences’ propulsive force is down to planes flying so close to the ground and each other — I’m pretty sure it would get them fired in the real world — in combination with endless spins, twirls, and other exciting manoeuvres. Kosinski transfers his eye for flair and kinetic energy, as seen on Tron: Legacy, onto Top Gun: Maverick, imbuing the film with sheer joy and a rush of adrenaline.
But outside the cockpit, Top Gun: Maverick is a much more delicate balancing act — and it doesn’t always land. Kosinski directs off a screenplay that’s been worked on by three credited writers, including Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) as the primary team, with Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) — whom Cruise trusts on the M:I franchise now — also lending his talents alongside. Top Gun: Maverick feels caught between being an escapist American-summer-blockbuster movie and a sincere high-stakes-and-deep-emotions movie.
The new Top Gun movie is a very different film from the original, which belonged to an earlier time and spoke to a different America. There are no shower scenes, no men walking around in towels, and hence no unintentional homoeroticism. The volleyball scene is turned into an American football game, and though there are plenty of shirtless men, it has a narrative function. Top Gun: Maverick isn’t a traditional Tom Cruise flick either, where he runs (a lot), engages in fisticuffs, and flashes his smile. Though his scenes with Jennifer Connelly — who plays the new love interest — afford a bit of the latter. (In addition to a blatant placement for a pretty-famous car brand.)
Thirty-six years on from graduating TOPGUN as second best in his class, Maverick (Cruise) — having always wanted to be in the sky — has done everything possible to sabotage his career and stay in the rank of Captain. As his superior Cain (Ed Harris) points out, he should be at least a two-star Admiral, if not a Senator by now. Grounded by Cain over a stunt he pulled to keep his team in their jobs — Cain believes human pilots are history — Maverick is assigned his new and final mission. After that, he’s out. But to his surprise, he isn’t supposed to fly it. Instead, his new superior Cyclone (Jon Hamm) wants him to teach the best of the best, who have been called back to TOPGUN from the squadrons they were assigned to.
Among them, we have Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late best friend Nick “Goose” Bradshaw who died in Top Gun. It’s clear that Maverick still feels guilt over Goose’s death — his actions did have a role to play in the accident that claimed Goose’s life — and that has forever impacted his pseudo-father relationship with Rooster. The team of young’uns also includes the cocky Hangman (Glen Powell), an equivalent to — or you could say a mix of — both Maverick and his former rival Iceman (Val Kilmer), now a four-star Admiral who’s Maverick’s only friend in the Navy. There are a bunch of other pilots, played the likes of Lewis Pullman, Monica Barbaro, Jay Ellis, and Danny Ramirez, but neither of them has defining characteristics or an arc beyond a point.
Speaking of thinly-written characters, Connelly plays single mother and bar owner Penny, who we’re told has romantic history with Maverick. There’s no sign of the original Top Gun love interest, played by Kelly McGillis, who was also Maverick’s instructor. In fact, women have a negligible role in positions of power on Top Gun: Maverick. For what it’s worth, Penny schools Maverick in an unexpected sailing scene. But beyond those two minutes, her character doesn’t really have any meat to it, and their relationship keeps hitting the same beats and is very predictable in where it goes. Despite Connelly’s best efforts to make Penny into a real 3D woman, she’s wasted on Top Gun: Maverick.
What the new Top Gun movie does well to depict though is the TOPGUN stuff. Not only do Kosinski and Co. have a grip on the action and how it’s put together, there’s an undercurrent of tension at the root of everything on Top Gun: Maverick. There’s tension between Maverick and Rooster naturally, though the latter despises him more over another thing entirely. There’s tension between Maverick and his superiors. (The relationship between Hamm and Cruise’s characters — Cyclone voices what he wants, and then Maverick gets his way — feels like commentary on Cruise’s relationship with Paramount.) Though Maverick is at the end of the line, there’s a begrudging respect or admiration from nearly everyone, once they see him operating a jet.
On top of all that, they are working against the clock on Top Gun: Maverick. Not only must they execute the mission in under three weeks before a uranium enrichment plant goes live, they must also get in and out in minutes to avoid perilous dogfights with a highly-equipped enemy force. Maverick doesn’t feel he’s qualified to teach — his last stint as TOPGUN instructor lasted 2 months, he tells us early on — and he’s the kind of guy who would rather put himself on the line, than send someone else on a deadly mission. While he struggles to curtail some of his excesses, Maverick grows elsewhere. For instance, when his trainees screw up and try to explain themselves, he berates them by reminding them they will need to face the families of the wingmen they fail.
While it improves upon the original in most regards, Top Gun: Maverick is also completely like it in one. As with the original, this is a movie where the enemy doesn’t matter. Their pilots are faceless, and though their planes and terrain offer clues, Top Gun: Maverick is careful never to name them. Their jets are repeatedly called “fifth-generation fighters” despite that being a mouthful. Keen-eyed viewers have already figured out that they are designed on Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57. The specifics of the mission — and the involvement of other jets — suggest the target might be Iran. But Top Gun: Maverick chooses to be completely apolitical. That said, the missing flags of Japan and Republic of China on Maverick’s bomber jacket, replaced in the film’s early tease in order to appease Chinese interests, have been reinstated now that those interests no longer matter.
The biggest question for this Tom Cruise movie, though, might be entirely off the screen. The two Top Gun films — 36 years apart — have been released in very different theatrical markets. Early into Top Gun: Maverick, Ed Harris posits that the likes of Maverick are dinosaurs, with technology set to take over from them. In a similar way, movies on the big screen are dinosaurs. In the time since the first Top Gun, technology has invaded movies in all sorts of ways.
From not just their making and how actors’ performances are incorporated, but also in how they are released. Cameras are also now everywhere. As Kosinski once noted, if audiences can get fighter jet footage, captured by actual US Navy pilots, on YouTube, then their film would have to go much beyond. (He crazily ended up filming 800 hours of footage, more than The Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Top Gun: Maverick delivers in that regard, though it also stumbles outside its groove.
In some ways, it’s a miracle. A sequel to a decades-old movie that no one asked for could’ve easily crashed and burned — and it still might get ignored, as turned out to be the case for Blade Runner 2049. That Top Gun: Maverick works as well as it does, for the most part, is kudos to Cruise and Kosinski for understanding the assignment. It’s a gamble that largely pays off, though it’s nothing compared to the dream Top Gun: Maverick sells you on.
Top Gun: Maverick is released Friday, May 27 in cinemas worldwide. Paid previews began Wednesday, May 25 in India and elsewhere. In India, Top Gun: Maverick is available in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.