Did this Top Gun sequel really quote Enter the Dragon? Well, kinda. The mantra of the movie is “Don’t think, just do.” There are several moments where characters will let the first part linger with a powerful pause and my mind just fills in the blank with Bruce Lee’s “…feeeeeel.” But, hey, why not? It’s a good saying for a picture such as this which embraces the theatrics.
For many moments, the world washes away when watching jets go fast. If you’re going to make a film all about a mission of American fighter jets attacking an unspecified military force, give me some cool footage so I’m not questioning the DOJ-friendly staging. Top Gun: Maverick really does succeed at taking off and making this dad-core movie do one thing and do it well.
Tom Cruise returns to the role of the recluse Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, still causing trouble for the NAVY. He’s still going faster than he should (breaking Mach 10 when specified to go no further) and still pissing off an admiral (Ed Harris). This time, however, he’s being asked to not just follow orders but give them. He’s called back to Top Gun to train some of the best pilots for one of the most intense missions. If anyone can train them so that everyone will come back alive, it’s Maverick. And if anyone can go over the head of the stern Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), it’s Maverick.
Singing at the local bar, however, is taken up by the new recruits. Among them is a familiar face. Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) is the son of the late Goose, the pilot who Maverick was unable to save during a mission. Maverick can see so much of the past in Rooster, complete with flashbacks just in case you need a refresher. Perhaps this is a chance at redemption, to do for Rooster what he couldn’t do for Goose. Of course, that all depends on whether Rooster will accept the piloting and fatherly advice of an aged pilot seeking redemption.
The rest of the pilots all have their own distinct personalities and challenges. The cocky Hangman (Glen Powell) presents the biggest challenge as his callsign refers to his selfish tactics of leaving others to hang. Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) brings both grit and determination, able to match the sass of Hangman. There’s also a cute underdog dynamic to the nerdy weapons officer Bob (Lewis Pullman). They all build a genuine sense of comradery through both intense training flights and the obligatory beach sports scene.
A running gag with Maverick is that he has a resting recluse face, where everyone who encounters his staring silence remarks “Don’t give me that look.” Maverick merely smirks and retorts “It’s the only look I got.” In that same sense, Top Gun: Maverick keeps serving loads of flight scenes because it’s the only thing Top Gun knows how to do best. Thankfully, it’s the best part of the film that director Joseph Kosinski knows how to shoot so well.
The initial training scenarios are fast-paced and tightly edited to get one as pumped for the oncoming mission with the inspiration of a Rocky training montage. The dangerous mission is given just enough doubt and intensity that it’s easy enough to bite your nails about who will survive. It’s exciting enough that you may just forget that the film never specifically identifies the nationality or political intentions of the enemy.
This is certainly going to be top-tier of the dad-core movies given how just about everything in the picture is presented as a Popular Mechanics wet dream. Consider how Cruise forms a romance with the local bar owner Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a single mother with a kid from another admiral. They form a romance but mostly through rowdy drinks with pilots, drives on motorcycles, and an exciting trip on a sailboat. It works well enough that you can easily believe the two deciding to pursue a relationship.
There’s far more of an emotional story worth exploring here by embracing more of Maverick’s pathos than his playfulness. This is best showcased in how the film stages his former wingman Iceman (Val Kilmer) as an aged admiral with wise words about training the next crop of pilots. Kilmer’s health has declined over the years and he can’t really speak but the film finds just the right way to give him a big presence. He ends up becoming a key voice of reason for convincing Maverick to never give up on either reconnecting or having faith in the future.
Top Gun: Maverick easily steers out of the danger zone of retread sequels and finds something in the air that wasn’t there before. Everything about this picture has been improved over the original Top Gun: better characters, better arcs, and better flight sequences. It’s a dazzling picture to witness all the high-flying action in IMAX, no doubt, but it’s all the better for finding something more than just airborne eye candy in this long-awaited sequel that was worth the wait.