Top Gun: Maverick review: A high-flying sequel gets it right
In Top Gun: Maverick's opening scene, someone makes the mistake of asking Tom Cruise to take his fighter jet to Mach 9. He pauses, then flashes that megawatt Cheshire grin. Never mind that it's a practice run; there is only one Mach he knows, and it is 10 (or maybe 10.2). That's because he's a maverick, the Maverick — Captain Pete Mitchell of the United States Navy, a rogue's rogue for whom clouds part and Hans Zimmer synths soar.
He's also 36 years older than the cocky young lieutenant he played on screen in the 1986 original, a bare fact that the sequel (in theaters May 27) both elides and celebrates in a movie whose bright stripes and broad strokes feel somehow bombastic and tenderheartedly nostalgic at the same time. Imagine a world where motorcyclists scoff at helmets, all bars burst into jukebox singalongs, and the U.S. military is simply an unblemished agent for good. A few decades ago you didn't have to, because you lived in it; Top Gun: Maverick can because it never left.
Inevitably, a few things have changed: Lady Gaga is on the soundtrack now, and there's a whole new class of lion-cub recruits. But that's still Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" chugging over the title credits, and Maverick is still the fastest man alive in an F-14, even if he's never managed to exceed the lowly rank of Captain. "You should be at least a two-star admiral by now, or a Senator," Ed Harris's Rear Admiral grouses early on, before grudgingly sending him off to the Top Gun base in San Diego. Maverick's constant insubordination and looming obsolescence should have gotten him discharged years ago, he reminds him; instead, he's been saved by an old friend, Iceman (Val Kilmer), now an admiral himself.
There's a reason for that intervention: a uranium plant in a heavily guarded secret bunker that needs to be eliminated before it becomes operational for the enemy. (What enemy? Don't ask, don't tell.) And only jets can infiltrate it, if the Academy's ten best recruits can be taught to thread the needle and get out of there alive. Leading the team is Maverick's new job, though the bossman there (a scowling Jon Hamm) is not exactly overjoyed to welcome him — and a promising young pilot called Rooster (Miles Teller, in a kicky little mustache) even less enthused. That's because Rooster's parents were Goose and Carole (Anthony Edwards and Meg Ryan, who appear only in misty flashbacks), and all he knows is that Pete had something to do with him getting pulled from the fast-track flight program years ago.
Otherwise, Rooster's main rival amongst the new hopefuls is Hangman (Hidden Figures' great Glen Powell), a fellow pilot whose smirky antagonism recalls the last movie's Iceman rivalry in everything except the frosted tips (Powell is a more natural kind of blonde, but the square-jawed swagger and resting smug face play the same). Director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) revels in the sonic-boom rush of their many flight scenes, sending his jets swooping and spinning in impossible, equilibrium-rattling arcs. On the ground, too, his camera caresses every object in its view, almost as if he's making a rippling ad for America itself: The unfurling snap of a boat sail; the gleaming Formica in a desert rest-stop diner; golden bodies playing touch football in the California surf while a magic-hour sun goes down.
That nationalistic glow extends to Maverick's courting of a former paramour, Jennifer Connelly, but there's a bittersweet sentimentality in their reconnection, the kind of unhurried adult romance that doesn't make it on screen much anymore. (A brief interlude with Kilmer, who has largely lost his voice to cancer, is also surprisingly moving.) Kosinksi, of course, has to make his Maverick work with or without the context of the original, and the script, by Peter Craig (The Batman) and Justin Marks (The Jungle Book) toggles deftly between winking callbacks and standard big-beat action stuff meant to stand on its own. Teller and Powell are breezily appealing, actors at the apex of their youth and beauty, though the movie still belongs in almost every scene to Cruise. At this point in his career, he's not really playing characters so much as variations on a theme — the theme being, perhaps, The Last Movie Star. And in the air up there, he stands alone. Grade: B+