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