MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Too often, when beloved films get sequel treatments decades after the original, the sequel pales in comparison. That has been the case for 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 (released 35 years after the original) and 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns (released 54 years after Mary Poppins).
Trying to recapture the magic of what made the first film so successful while introducing just enough to justify bringing a new story to the cinema is no easy task. Luckily, Top Gun: Maverick bucks that trend and delivers in every way possible.
Thirty-six years after graduating second in his class of fighter pilots, Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is still flying. He has avoided almost all promotions so that he can stay in the air and is serving as a U.S. Navy test pilot. When he pushes the limit of an experimental plane that leaves the jet in shambles, Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) wants to ground Maverick for good but the latter is given a reprieve.
Maverick is told to report to North Island as a Top Gun instructor on the orders of his old rival and now commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) has assembled several Top Gun graduates for Maverick to train for a top-secret mission because Iceman still believes in him.
Among the hotshot pilots are Lt. Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), and Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s late radio intercept officer Goose (Anthony Edwards). Tensions between Maverick and Rooster rise to the surface when it is revealed that Mitchell once pulled Bradshaw’s application to be a pilot.
Meanwhile, the assembled pilots were chosen to fly a dangerous mission that requires precision flying and targeting while also testing their bodies amidst enemy fire. Iceman believes Maverick is the only man who can teach these pilots how to accomplish it, but can Maverick whip them into shape and get them home at the same time?
When Top Gun was released in 1986, it was emblematic of the music videos seen all over MTV during that period. Director Tony Scott basically presented good-looking actors as fighter pilots with a rocking soundtrack featuring Kenny Loggins, Berlin, and some rock classics. Applications to be Naval Aviators went up by five times upon its release.
In Maverick, Cruise was arguably at his zenith and played his most iconic character. The devil-may-care attitude while looking incredibly cool behind Ray-Ban Aviators and getting the girl was everything a movie star was supposed to do. For over three decades, Cruise held off on putting the iconic Maverick helmet on again and cruising on his motorcycle. It seemed a sequel would never happen.
Instead, Cruise waited until the right script with the right scenarios, right actors, and the right director after Scott’s passing could be assembled. Director Joseph Kosinski is clearly a fan of the 1986 film and does not shy away from the callbacks that millions of fans worldwide would clamor for.
Although Cruise can still turn on the charm in Maverick’s skin like he did three decades ago, he isn’t afraid to address the fact that he is clearly much older now. The young pilots routinely take shots at his age, even while he’s just having a beer and flirting with old flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).
By making Penny an independent, intelligent single mother, she isn’t intimidated by Maverick and does not hesitate to call him out on his past sins. Having Penny know how to sail while Mitchell is clueless puts the veteran ladies’ man out of his element, something he probably needs to be at this stage of his life.
The fact that Goose’s death still haunts Mitchell and finds a living embodiment in his son only adds to Maverick’s anxiety and fear that he’s not suited for this task. Credit to Teller and the film crew for making him look as close to Edwards did in the previous film, as well as the song and dance at the bar that will leave fans smiling.
On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, the scene between Maverick and Iceman is poignant and powerful as the two old rivals have clearly become friends over the decades. Kilmer has had real-life health issues over the past few years but his performance as Iceman in was also pivotal.
Having Kilmer reprise the role and show where Kazansky has risen to is a stark contrast to the still rebellious Maverick. While Mitchell is still flying jets, Kazansky has had numerous other responsibilities but also has physical problems. The scene between Cruise and Kilmer is the heart of this motion picture and will leave many fans either smiling broadly, in tears, or both.
Of course, the scenes in the fighter jets still take center stage in Top Gun: Maverick. Just as filmmaking has taken leaps and bounds over the past 30 years, so has fighter plane technology. The F-18 Super Hornets are spectacular in the air and the actors were put through a grueling training camp that Cruise insisted on before filming.
Seeing Maverick display his abilities while putting the younger pilots through their paces gives him the credibility and respect that they did not want to give an “old man.” When he is eventually shot down and Rooster goes after him, then they have to secure an old F-14 Tomcat like Maverick and Goose used to push the right nostalgia buttons once more.
The original Top Gun was an adrenaline-inducing music video disguised as a motion picture that cemented Tom Cruise as the quintessential movie star. Top Gun: Maverick does all that and even surpasses the original with more emotional development and progression of the old story that nobody could have expected.
Already reaping the benefits at the global box office, this sequel reminds everyone what Tom Cruise so clearly knows about himself: he is a movie star in every sense of the term and it’s an absolute pleasure seeing Pete Mitchell take flight once more.