It dawns on you watching “Top Gun: Maverick” that Tom Cruise really is America’s greatest living action star. Has anyone been doing it better, or longer than he? It’s been..well since the first “Top Gun” in 1986, a film that’s sexier than it is great, but oh how sexy it is, and how inspirational it’s been to countless clones as well. But none of those have the secret weapon- Cruise is a force and he’s been doing honor by his legacy for 30+ years.
He’s back as Maverick (real name not important), the Navy Captain who is now called back to Top Gun Academy for a super complex mission regarding bombing a uranium plant. Only surprise is he is not expected to fly the mission but train a group of hotshot young cadets, one of which is Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s tragically deceased pal Goose, and Mav feels protective of the young man, to Rooster’s chagrin.
Cruise often gets criticized for being more action star than actor, which is why the performance he gives here feels among one of his most refreshing in a while. This Mav is now close to being a wash-out. He’s not who he once was and he’s haunted by the memories of those he’s lost. There’s more of a middle ground for him now between rule-breaker and responsibility as he tries to penetrate the egos of the youngsters while proving to himself he can handle a different role.
That’s what casts many of the young actors here more as subordinates than adversaries for Mav and in that you don’t get as many stand-outs among the crew. Glen Powell, Jay Ellis, and Monica Barbaro play cocky characters who have a more one-dimensionality to them than anything but if anyone makes out beautifully in this movie it’s Teller, who gets his best role in a while, and goes toe to toe with Cruise better than anyone.
Another key stand-out here is Joseph Kosinski, the director. He, and his cinematographer Claudio Miranda, do Tony Scott and the first movie proud- there’s a dizzying array of speed, aerial feats, and the pushing of human endurance while in these planes, captured with exquisite eye for coherence and done with great tension, whether it be in scenes of teacher imparting wisdom to his students or the behind enemy lines shoot-out and escape which ends the film. This is edge of your seat stuff.
But Kosinski also knows how to rev up a fan’s engine. Whether it be Mav going all renegade in the opening moments with Kenny Loggin’s “Danger Zone” playing over it, or a shot for shot re-do of Mav riding his motorcycle alongside a Jet taking off, or a scene of R&R on the beach as the guys play some nerf football (in place of volleyball). He balances these out with a more serious minded film- one that never gets better than when Val Kilmer shows up for one scene in a bittersweet and wonderfully realized moment between adversaries turned friends.
Jon Hamm also does nice work, playing not so much a villain but more a Commanding Officer who doesn’t think much of Mav, while Ed Harris just seems wasted in one scene. Then there’s Jennifer Connelly, playing the love interest, and the film tries to establish a history between her and Mav but I don’t think it ever rises to the level of interesting. Plus the movie just denies us another flowing, music video type sex scene and if you’re gonna do that, why even establish a romance to begin with?
Overall, though, this is a movie that does right by what came before. It’s nostalgia that feels more reverential, never falling back on “wink wink” inside jokes, and it also finds a way to progress the story forward and maybe even provide better closure to certain things. It’s a legacy sequel that brings justice to the very words and at its heart is still Tom Cruise, doing his best, as actor and producer, to make sure this movie provides. Still the perfectionist, still the TopGun. There aren’t many more like him.
Rating: 4 out of 5