They don’t make movies like Top Gun: Maverick anymore. Ignore for a second the massive billboard currently occupying Leicester Square, the original’s sudden spike in popularity on Letterboxd, and that Tom Cruise’s face seems plastered over every bus and train station in the country, all of which would suggest otherwise. Ignore the fact that Maverick is another legacy sequel to a film from the 1980s, another male-led action movie with a pop-filled soundtrack where an ageing hero comes out of retirement (or as close as Tom Cruise will ever get to retirement) for “one last mission” before the men in suits shut his programme down for good. This is so much more.
Because Top Gun: Maverick is a film which feels not just out of time, but obsessed with the past. When Tom Cruise’s titular hero waxes lyrical about a pilot’s intuition, it’s hard not to get misty-eyed thinking back to the days when practical filmmaking was the norm. Maverick himself, the “best of the best,” the only man for the job, feels reminiscent of the age of the movie star, a dying breed of which Cruise may arguably be the last surviving specimen. Top Gun: Maverick is a glorious return to what feels now like a bygone era, unapologetically sincere without taking itself too seriously, unafraid to lift wholesale from its past, and wearing its heart like a patch on its fighter pilot jacket.
We re-join Maverick thirty years after the events of the first film where, in signature Cruise style, he’s taken a break from the Navy to test hypersonic jets on a remote US air base. One unauthorised test flight and a misplaced fighter plane later, however, and he’s hauled back to the Fighter Weapons School – aka Top Gun – to train a new group of graduates for a top-secret mission.
These youngsters run the full gamut of military stereotypes: the talented and prideful lone wolf with no time for his teammates (Glen Powell as Hangman); the awkward, bespectacled spotter whose callsign is an amusingly simple ‘Bob’ (Lewis Pullman); the dispirited fighter pilot whose main role seems to be saying “that’s impossible!” (Jay Ellis as Payback) whenever Cruise suggests something entertainingly bonkers. Amongst these recruits is Miles Teller’s ‘Rooster’, son of Maverick’s RIO, ‘Goose’, who died during the events of the first film. Rooster is a skilled but safe flier – he’ll complete his mission, but seems too scared to take risks and push himself the extra mile. From here, the plot almost seems to write itself. And yet, where the broad strokes are visible from the upper stratosphere, the third act in particular contains enough spirals, pitchbacks and splits that the ending feels anything but inevitable.
What is perhaps most impressive about Maverick is how it takes its simple premise, combines it with what might be one of the most famously superficial films of the 1980s, and produces something genuinely heartfelt. Entire sections, from the near-shot-for-shot identical intro to a gleefully indulgent shirtless beach-football scene, could have been lifted in their entirety from the first movie – but what in 1986 looked like a mega-budget music video is lent a powerful whiff of melancholy when cast through a 2022 lens. Harold Faltermeyer’s subtle reworking of the Top Gun Anthem heads up a soundtrack surgically designed to eke tears from the eyes of anyone even tangentially aware of the original, while the father-son dynamic played out between Maverick and Rooster feels both genuine and entertainingly melodramatic.
Still, as moving as Maverick is, these aren’t the things which will get bums on seats. Thankfully, then, the film’s flying sequences come thick and fast, and are nothing short of miraculous. The choreography is breathless and remarkably effortless to follow. There’s something indescribable about seeing Cruise pinned to the back of his cockpit and spotting the plane’s shadow flash across a nearby mountain, a fleeting reminder that everything in the frame was achieved practically. There’s a tactility and a physicality to these shots that simply begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, but whatever the size of your local cinema this is probably the closest you’ll get to a genuine 4D experience without funky glasses or strapping a recliner seat to an Alton Towers ride.
Beyond the stunts and the macho banter, however, what shines most clearly by the film’s end is surprisingly tender. After a particularly daring aerial chase sequence, Maverick is dragged before Jon Hamm’s stick-in-the-butt Vice Admiral for a proper grilling. Yet even while talking about codes of practice and air-base regulations, there’s a twinkle in both actors’ eyes that says they can’t quite believe they’re allowed to do this anymore. The whole film radiates admiration: for the first movie, for the art of practical filmmaking, and for the magic of cinema itself. Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t just fly over the head of the original. It soars.
Top Gun: Maverick releases in cinemas from May 25th.