Throughout Top Gun Maverick, we’re treated to variations on the theme of a time that has passed, a time of men, machines, and skill that’s threatened with obsolescence by ever more advanced unmanned tech, and yet is just about managing to cling on. It’s a perfect summation of the mission statement at play here, Tom Cruise’s staunch commitment to thrilling, practical action one of the last bastions against the CG goop that has engulfed most blockbusters. The result is magnificent, a long-delayed legacy sequel that easily outdoes its predecessor whilst reminding us yet again of Cruise’s almost-unmatched star power.
Decades after the events of the 1986 Tony Scott original, Maverick reunites us with ace navy pilot Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Cruise), testing out new planes having declined to advance his career to a high-ranking desk position. After a beautifully shot test flight skirts with triumph before ending in embarrassing calamity, Maverick is reassigned to teach at the Top Gun school that originally trained him, preparing 12 of the finest fighter pilots in the navy for an incredibly dangerous mission against an enemy that, like in the original, goes unnamed.
It’s a premise that could feel hackneyed, but Cruise, new director Joseph Kosinski, and regular Cruise-project writer Christopher McQuarrie turn it into something more affecting, reflecting on the legacies of both Maverick and Cruise himself. As Maverick shapes his squad, you also get the sense of Cruise hand-picking some successors to his title of Hollywood Action King, from Miles Teller as the cautious Rooster (the son of Maverick’s ill-fated wingman Goose from the original) to Glen Powell as the cold but brilliant Hangman, spiritual heir to Val Kilmer’s Iceman. Kilmer himself does return in a scene pulled off with a touching care and grace, but it’s really only Cruise pulling continuity duty, everyone else arriving as a series newbie.
Of these, Teller and Powell are obvious highlights, both dialled in to the insane level of drive that these sort of pilots have to have, as are Jon Hamm and Charles Parnell as the pair of admirals overseeing Maverick’s training programme. With Hamm in tight-lipped stickler mode and Parnell as Maverick’s advocate, they make for a tremendously watchable double act. Cruise and Kosinski really put the younger cast through their paces, having to match up to the iconic ensemble of the original in a lot of similar scenes (shirtless beach volleyball is replaced by shirtless beach football, but the spirit’s the same) whilst also breaking new ground by flying their own planes.
It’s here that Maverick truly soars past the original, strapping IMAX cameras to F18 fighter jets to make you feel every second of the aerial action, retreating to the safety of CG in only a vanishingly rare couple of moments. It’s thrillingly immersive without ever being nauseating or overwhelming, incredible editing and great in-cockpit performances keeping the dives, ascents, canyon runs, and dogfights clear and coherent. Every time we step into the planes it’s a transcendent experience, all building up to the most exciting action-movie finale since Mission Impossible Fallout as the team finally takes to the skies against the anonymous villains.
It’s a climax that will have you rapt at the edge of your seat, a perfect spectacle of stunning scenery and human ingenuity, an immense technical achievement that also manages to have very human stakes thanks to Cruise’s peerless action-acting ability. He sells an entire emotional journey for Maverick with just his eyes and through ridiculous g-forces, a unique achievement that puts him up there with the likes of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan as one of cinema’s finest physical entertainers.
It’s so extraordinarily fun that all the little issues – a romantic subplot involving Jennifer Connelly kind of feels like it’s been shipped in from a different film – are simply vapourised in its wake until you’re fist-pumping your way through the credits. No one but Tom Cruise could have possibly got Top Gun Maverick made in the way he did and, when he finally stops being able to defy his age, it looks like no-one will make stuff like this again for a very long time. This is Hollywood action filmmaking at its finest and a cinematic experience to cherish.