Hollywood is still going through its nostalgic phase, which may no longer be a phase at this point. Nostalgia might be here to stay, although it’ll probably be a while until we get legacy sequels to films originally released in 2020. For now, there are still plenty of 80s artifacts to dust off. It was only a matter of time until Hollywood got around to a Top Gun sequel, but it sounded about as necessary as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. People either think Tony Scott’s 1986 blockbuster is a decade-defining classic or a cheesy relict that hasn’t aged gracefully. For me, the soundtrack remains iconic and the aerial sequences continue to impression, but the characters and story never took flight.
Top Gun: Maverick might not have the same impact on pop culture, but it arguably surpasses the original in almost every department. The flight sequences are a revelation of sound, editing, and cinematography, making the audience feel as if they’re in the cockpit alongside Tom Cruise. While the practical effects will be the main talking points of most articles, Maverick is also stronger on a thematic and character level. That’s partially because Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is older now, walking a fine line between the hotshot we all know and the stern instructor responsible for the safety of his students.
To an extent, Maverick’s character arc mirrors Cruise’s career trajectory. Over 35 years after the original film, Maverick/Cruise is still pulling off crazy stunts and refusing to slow down. Of course, there comes a time when every daredevil is forced to evaluate their mortality. Maverick is confronted with the notion that he might be part of a dying breed. Likewise, Cruise is among the last of his kind, an actor who can sell a picture based on star power alone. Maverick is forced to face the future as he finally makes good on his decision to be a Top Gun instructor. Even as Maverick teaches a team of young pilots, he looks to the past for inspiration.
Like The Force Awakens, Top Gun: Maverick follows many familiar beats, but director Joseph Kosinski’s execution feels fresh. For all the callbacks, the sequel builds upon Maverick’s character as his greatest failure resurfaces. Miles Teller, who’s been oddly MIA from cinema for five years, makes a comeback as Rooster, the son of Goose. Rooster seeks to follow in his father’s footsteps, which brings out Maverick’s greatest fears. It seems like only yesterday Cruise was playing the protégé in The Color of Money, another legacy sequel. Now Cruise is in the Paul Newman role. Along with Rooster, Maverick’s class includes a cocky SOB called Hangman (Glen Powell), the sequel’s answer to Iceman. Thankfully, the OG Iceman isn’t left out.
In the film’s most touching scene, Maverick reconnects with his rival turned wingman. Rather than tiptoe around Val Kilmer’s real-life tragedy, it’s effectively and tastefully weaved into the story. Even as someone who never got that into their bromance in the original film, Kilmer’s reunion with Cruise is genuinely tear-jerking. For anyone who’s been waiting 36 years for them to kiss, though, keep waiting. However, there is room for a romance between Maverick and Jennifer Connelly’s Penny, who has a clever connection to the first film. The cast is rounded out by Jon Hamm and Ed Harris, who bring surprising gravitas to the no-nonsense commanding officer archetypes.
While Lady Gaga turns in a sweeping original song, Top Gun: Maverick’s soundtrack never quite reaches the heights of its predecessor’s. Right off the bat as Danger Zone plays, it’s evident that the music lives in the original’s shadow. The flight sequences exceed everything we’ve seen before, however. Ironically, Joseph Kosinski kicked off his career in CGI with Tron: Legacy being his directorial debut. Top Gun: Maverick isn’t without CG, but the stunts and practical effects are on par with the best Mission: Impossible movies. I dare even say you could call this the flight school equivalent to Fury Road. Although the spectacle demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, it’s our emotional investment that makes the stakes feel larger than life.