There’s something irresistible and magnetic about “Top Gun: Maverick” from its first frame. Directed by Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy,” 2010) and starring Tom Cruise (“Edge of Tomorrow,” 2014), the sequel to Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” (1986) sees test pilot Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell thrust back into the TOPGUN academy after 36 years. This time, he’s assigned with training a fresh batch of the academy’s best for a mission that might as well be impossible (pun unintended).
I’ve been thinking about this a lot and finally zeroed in on why I love “Top Gun: Maverick.” Within the first half-hour of the movie, the audience sees a glimpse of Maverick, a lone wolf who holds onto memories of better days with the people he loved and cared for the most. As the film moves forward, he’s told his test-piloting team’s being scrapped for unmanned aircraft testing—a decision he manages to barely save his teammates from by committing his usual calculated recklessness.
The jobs of his team are saved for a while longer as a result. In an ensuing conversation with his superior (Ed Harris, “Mother!,” 2017), who profiles and chastises him, he’s told, “Your kind is heading for extinction.” It only takes him a beat to respond with the line that—to me—sums up pretty much the point of the whole film:
“Maybe so, sir. But not today.”
“Top Gun: Maverick” is the rare old-school action blockbuster sorely missing from the big screen for a while. It’s got charisma and swagger, takes itself seriously enough through the end, and romanticizes the big, the bold, and the brave. While it comes with its own set of valid problems propagandizing military recruitment like its predecessor, those problems won’t necessarily bog most viewers down from finding it thoroughly entertaining and emotionally compelling.
But that’s not the only reason I fell hard for this movie—I found myself interpreting the film as a strong statement that the kind of classic big-screen blockbuster cinema its makers have made isn’t dead yet. And they still have the undeniable power of putting butts in seats in a period where cinemas desperately need it to happen.
It’s wild that “Top Gun: Maverick” is set in what definitely looks like the present-day—smartphones, showy tech, et al.—but it feels like a parallel universe where time’s otherwise stopped. Watching the movie literally transports you to a world full of specific visual nostalgia cues. Between vistas soaked by golden sunsets, a soft-rock soundtrack, tons of gorgeous high-contrast imagery, bomber jackets, and aesthetically pleasing cross-dissolves, they’ve got everything—you name it, they’ve got it.
The movie’s not all glitter, though—there’s a lot of gold to find in its narrative. The movie’s story is simple, packed with all the tropes for an action drama about fighter pilots—facing your fears, confronting your past, snatching victory from the jaws of the impossible, the works. It’s how it’s told that makes the difference.
Maverick is very different from the last time we saw him. He’s still good-natured, cocky, and an occasional risk-taker, but much of that has taken a backseat to showcase his grief, regret, and the fleeting moments of his world-weary silence. Cruise puts his best foot forward every second in the movie with an understated performance that often catches you in the feels. Miles Teller’s (“The Spectacular Now,” 2013) “Rooster” is the perfect foil to Maverick—he’s kind of the young Maverick surrogate who’s got a bone to pick with his mission trainer.
Jennifer Connolly (“Alita: Battle Angel,” 2019) plays Cruise’s love interest, Penny, and—along with him—has the tricky task of emotionally conveying they’ve got a lot of history behind them, which she pulls off like it’s no big deal. Their chemistry on-screen is magnetic, with a particular—potentially unforgettable—moment towards the film’s closing minutes acting like a perfect payoff.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is, unsurprisingly, also a technical cinematic achievement, boasting Kosinski regular Claudio Miranda’s fantastic cinematography—it’s worth the price of the IMAX ticket for its many ambitiously shot set pieces—and a soundtrack that brings back the chill vibes of “Top Gun” composer Harold Faltermeyer, who’s joined by a top-billing that includes Hans Zimmer (“Dune,” 2021), Lady Gaga, and Lorne Balfe (“Mission Impossible: Fallout,” 2018). Eddie Hamilton’s (“Kingsman: The Secret Service,” 2015) film editing flows like a calm river, ratcheting up the tension only when required, so when the action set-pieces kick in, you feel the need.
The need for speed (I’m sorry, did y’all think I wasn’t going to sneak that in?)
“Top Gun: Maverick,” if anything, proves that old-school big-budget blockbuster cinema that takes itself seriously isn’t just sorely missing from the yearly cinematic roster but still has the power to stand on its own. For a movie that’s nostalgic enough to feel like a warm blanket and hot cocoa on a cold winter evening, it is surprisingly more introspective about its nostalgia and its place in our world than reaching any cynical extreme. Highly recommended.
A previous edition of this review was written in collaboration with—and first published on—The Black CAPE Magazine.