Top Gun: Maverick review – Tom Cruise soars in a sequel that’s as exciting as blockbusters get

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski. Starring: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer. 12A, 131 minutes.

Top Gun, released in 1986, is arguably the most effective and insidious military recruiting ad ever created. Bolstered by the hair-raising synths of Harold Faltermeyer’s music and a lifelong supply of high fives, Tony Scott’s dream of fighter pilot fever represented an amoral, apolitical ideal of life at sea. The enemy was nameless. The war was barely defined. Here a true brotherhood could be built on nothing but copper balls and good vibes. And a man could sit in a cockpit and feel like he could climb past where Icarus fell. According to the actual US Navy, Top Gun resulted in a 500 percent increase in their hiring rates in the year after release.

One day, what exactly these films do and for whom they benefit will have to be settled. But for now, there’s another truth that’s hard to avoid: the late follow-up Top Gun: Maverick is as exciting as blockbusters get. It’s the kind of edge-of-your-seat, fist-pumping spectacle that can unite an entire roomful of strangers sitting in the dark and leave them with a wistful tear in their eyes.

The film is a true legacy sequel. In the tradition of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it is a carefully reconstructed clone of its predecessor, designed not only to reflect the changing tastes and attitudes, but also the ascendancy of its star Tom Cruise to a level of fame that borders on the mythological. Do we still see Cruise as a man these days, or as an idea?

In Independent thinking personIn the opening scenes, we are reunited with his character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, now head of a program that tests high-altitude hypersonic reconnaissance aircraft. He is about to be shut down, his pilots are being replaced by drones. The only way he can save the day is if he can hit 10 times the speed of sound on his next test run. Anyone who knows old Maverick will predict not only if he’ll make it, but if he’ll decide to take it a little too far. After crashing, he steps into a rustic-looking restaurant, covered from head to toe in ash. The craziest kid you’ve ever seen looks up at him in awe (now bet he’ll join the navy when he grows up).

But people do change, and this Maverick is a man haunted by his past. The military may have cleared him of his responsibility, but he will never shake the feeling that his own bravado caused the death of his best friend Goose during a routine drill. In Top Gun, it humbled him. Here his feelings are less clear and therefore all the more interesting. He wants to put himself in danger so badly that it almost seems like a death wish. He is also stiflingly protective of Goose’s son, Bradley, also known as Rooster (Miles Teller). Maverick tried to block his way to flight school. Rooster hates it bitterly. When Maverick is brought in to train navy recruits in what appears to be an impossible mission on paper – hint hint, there’s a generous dollop of Ethan Hunt in this movie – their relationship becomes all the more fraught.

Due to the practical limitations of time, Top GunThe original dogfights were robust, but always a little hard to follow. Here they are the real flesh-and-bones of the film – breathtakingly balletic and based on the increasingly rare pleasure of the tangible. Cruise and his co-stars sit in real cockpits. The aerial stunts are (mostly, at least) real. It’s quite an achievement for director Joseph Kosinski to make something so ambitious look so effortless. He also works plenty in the language and tone of Cruise’s recent collaborations with Christopher McQuarrie (the screenwriter of Edge of tomorrow and the last two Mission: Impossibles) that Independent thinking person plays as much a Top Gun movie as a Cruise movie. And, as might now be expected, the star attacks the film with such dedication that it completely outshines every single element around him.

Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

(Paramount Images/AP)

Luckily that hides well how much Top Gun: Maverick is structured as Top Gun† Entire sequences – including the “Highway to the Danger Zone” soundtrack opening of jets taking off – are taken from the original film in full scale. The new recruits are roughly re-imagined versions of the old characters: we’ve got a new Iceman in Glen Powell’s Hangman (he finds just the right level of bastard for the role), while Monica is Barbaro’s Phoenix, like Charlie McGillis’ Charlie before her, the only woman on the base with lines. At least this time she becomes one of the pilots. Rooster doesn’t exactly look like his father, but he dresses like him – right down to the sunglasses and the unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt.

But Top Gun: Maverick really isn’t full of the kind of cowardly nostalgia we’re used to these days. It’s smarter, more subtle, and completely more humanistic. Kosinski leaves room for Val Kilmer’s Iceman, whose rivalry with Maverick was so essential to the original, to be celebrated, without the film doing cruel paperwork about the loss of Kilmer’s voice to cancer.

Unfortunately, the film does not extend such a loving hand to the women of Top Gun – neither McGillis nor Meg Ryan, who played Rooster’s mother, are returning. Maverick instead gets a new love interest in the form of Penny from Jennifer Connelly, the daughter of the admiral mentioned in passing in the first film, now a bar owner and single mother. Again, there comes a time when we need to talk about why Hollywood only accepts older women who look a certain way. Until then, who can blame for getting carried away with a movie that is so damn fun?

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is in cinemas from May 25th

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