After finishing second in his Top Gun fighter pilot class some thirty-years ago (the valedictorian being Val Kilmer’s “Ice Man” Kazansky), Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) has bounced from assignment to assignment, angering superiors while successfully executing his country’s most difficult missions.

It seems Maverick’s penchant for burning bridges has left him very few options to keep his wings in the air. The fifty-year-old is a specialist test pilot in the film’s opening, trying to mach ten velocity without disintegrating his prototype jet in the film’s opening act.

Maverick’s durability proves stronger than the multi-million dollar jet, and despite completing the objective he’s sent packing by the ranking commander. That officer (Ed Harris) sends Maverick back to Top Gun to train a special detachment of former Top Gun graduates.

One of those pilots is “Rooster” (Miles Teller), the orphaned son of Maverick’s best friend “Goose” who carries on his father’s mustache legacy. The audience quickly learns that Rooster has a grudge with his would-be mentor that goes far beyond his father’s tragic death.

These ace pilots, despite their skill, are far from ready for an assignment that may mean certain death. This is Maverick’s key challenge, turning a suicide mission into a scenario where his pilots just might make it out alive.

As far as Tom Cruise films go, Top Gun Maverick is the most grounded venture he’s taken on since his team-up with director Doug Liman in American Made (2017). That’s not to say the film isn’t without a few moments of disbelief, but the emotional heft behind many of Cruise’s scenes takes Maverick to greater cinematic heights than his Mission Impossible fanfare.

Director Joseph Kosiniski delivers big with his second outing with both Cruise (Oblivion) and Miles Teller (Only The Brave), making a memorable blockbuster with heart and dare I say… optimism?

Many detractors cite the film’s beyond believable opening sequence, the studio’s decision to use nameless villains as antagonists, and the flesh-filled beach sports scene (with a banger song from OneRepublic called “I Ain’t Worried) as reasons to knock off a few points.

However, the film executes far more right than wrong, arguably giving Cruise his best acting moment since embodying “Vincent” in Michael Mann’s Collateral. Maverick’s reunion with Val Kilmer’s Ice Man is a work of art… finding emotion in the stoic silence as Ice Man types, and even closing with an earned dash of humor.

Kilmer’s presence is threaded throughout the film brilliantly, until he makes his single onscreen appearance. Kilmer is not the only welcome surprise, though. Jennifer Connelly hits the ground running as Penny, Maverick’s former girlfriend and current bar owner.

Connelly feels instantly authentic in this world, and there’s a palpable history between her and Maverick that the writers wisely weave into framework of a desperate mission and a desire to come to terms with one’s past actions.

All the pilots are well-cast and distinct despite very little development onscreen, with standouts being Glen Powell’s “Hangman” and Miles Teller’s “Goose.” Jon Hamm is perfectly fine as the step-down authority figure from Ed Harris’ character.

Like any Cruise outing, he made a point for his actors to film insider the jets, specifically filming themselves as they struggled to utter lines under intense G-force.

The authenticity pays off, and I think authentic is the key word to define this film. It takes an earnest approach to a beloved character from decades ago. Instead of casting legacy characters aside like the dreadful Abrams/Johnson Star Wars trilogy, Top Gun Maverick embraces the legacy characters and keeps them in a revered position.

Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” is the perfect needle drop for the film’s opening, with the trio of Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer, and Lorne Balfe handling score duties. The 1980s themes and sonic designs live timelessly within this decade-spanning franchise.

The closing scene is strong button to the film, despite the uninspired original song by Lady Gaga. Hopefully the One Republic track gains momentum pre-Oscar submissions. It’s not such a bad thing to have a banger at the Oscars (See Justin Timberlake’s opening Oscar performance of “Can’t Stop This Feelin’”).

Letter Grade: A

About The Author

Founder, Awards Editor

Byron Burton is the Awards Editor and Chief Critic at Awards Focus and a National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award winning journalist for his work at The Hollywood Reporter.

Byron is a voting member of the Television Academy, Critics Choice Association, and the Society of Composers & Lyricists (the SCL) for his work on Marvel's X-Men Apocalypse (2016). Working as a journalist and moderator, Byron hosts Emmy and Oscar panels for the major studios, featuring their Below The Line and Above The Line nominees (in partnership with their respective guilds).

Moderating highlights include Ingle Dodd's "Behind the Slate" Screening Series and their "Spotlight Live" event at the American Legion in Hollywood. Byron covered the six person panel for Universal's "NOPE" as well as panels for Hulu's "Pam & Tommy Lee" and "Welcome to Chippendales" and HBO Max's "Barry" and "Euphoria."

For songwriters and composers, Byron is a frequent moderator for panels with the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) as well as The ArcLight's Hitting the High Note Oscar series.

Byron's panels range from FX's Fargo to Netflix's The Crown, The Queen's Gambit, The Witcher & Bridgerton; HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, Hacks, Succession, Insecure, & Lovecraft Country; Amazon Studios' The Legend of Vox Machina, Wild Cat, & Annette; and Apple TV+s Ted Lasso, Bad Sisters, and 5 Days at Memorial.

In February of 2020, Byron organized and hosted the Aiding Australia Initiative; launched to assist in the restoration and rehabilitation of Australia's wildlife (an estimated 3 billion animals killed or maimed and a landmass the size of Syria decimated).

Participating talent for Aiding Australia includes Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Jeremy Renner, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Josh Brolin, Bryan Cranston, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, JK Simmons, Tobey Maguire, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Danny Elfman, Tim Burton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Tim Allen, Colin Hay, Drew Struzan, and Michael Rosenbaum.

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