Top Gun: Maverick is of course custom-made to scratch the international itch for big-budget, star-driven action movies—the kind that look cool with Tom Cruise snugged down in their cockpit. It’s a better film than the first Top Gun, released 36 years ago this month, and much credit for that must go to new director Joseph Kosinski, who previously helmed Oblivion, another Cruise vehicle. Kosinski surpasses the late Tony Scott as a ringmaster of airborne acrobatics (note the shot of two jets flying in tandem across the screen when they’re suddenly spun apart by a third jet blasting up between them from below). He also wields IMAX and Dolby Atmos technology with thunderous gusto, which is exactly what we want when the time arrives for a fighter jet to come screaming into view and fly sideways under a bridge.
The story? Well, Cruise is back as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell—an officer who is still fighting off promotion to a higher rank because it would tear him away from the only thing he loves in life, which is being up in the air. Pete’s actually not so much of a maverick now, having quit the mission-flying grind to become an instructor at the Navy’s San Diego flight–training school, called TOPGUN. But despite his abundant energy and appealing twinkle, he still manages to annoy some key superiors—men with call names like “Cyclone” (Jon Hamm) and “Hammer” (Ed Harris). (You walk out of this movie feeling a sudden need for a fun radio handle of your own.)
Pete is also getting heavy attitude from a new student called “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who is the son of his old flight partner, “Goose” Bradshaw. Goose, who was played by Anthony Edwards, was killed in the first movie, and Rooster has always blamed Pete for his death. This is not an especially compelling plot element, in part because Teller isn’t an especially compelling actor. (Glen Powell, who was originally cast as Rooster, demonstrates how much more interesting the character might have been with his performance in a different role here, playing a likeable wiseass called “Hangman.”)
Given his frequent personality conflicts with higher-ups, Pete is fortunate to have a top-brass guardian angel watching over him—his onetime frenemy Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who has risen to the rank of fleet commander. This casting introduces a tone of bittersweet verité to the film: Kilmer, whose voice has been ravaged by throat cancer and tracheal surgeries, was brought back to reprise his old character at Cruise’s insistence, and he gives a brief, touching performance.
Not invited back for this movie, unsurprisingly, was Kelly McGillis, who provided a gentle glow of PG love interest in the original Top Gun as a civilian flight instructor named Charlie. Her tousled presence in that film sat amusingly among such oddities as the locker-room scene in which we watched Pete and his buddies standing around in their towels and dog tags. McGillis, who’s now 64, was happy to acknowledge looking her age in a recent interview, and said she hadn’t expected to be called back. This left the new story short on romance, though, so Charlie has been replaced by a character named Penny, who’s engagingly played by Jennifer Connelly. But Penny’s function is a little tentative even after she and Pete bed down, especially after we’ve watched Pete and his buddies, shirtless and gleaming with body oil, engaged in a strenuous beach volleyball match.
But all of this story stuff is a distraction, of course. The point of the movie is the wide–open IMAX skies and the abundant zoom and swoop of the planes and the ecstatic faces of the pilots as they fulfill their destinies and blow things up. You want action? Here it is.