Welcome to the danger zone.
Top Gun Maverick is a masterclass in epic blockbuster moviemaking, a fast-paced, enthralling, and wildly exciting sequel that achieved the impossible. This is a movie that has absolutely zero business being this good, let alone even existing in the first place. Yet not only is it a worthy successor to the 1986 classic: in many ways, it’s even superior. The famous catchphrase “the need for speed” is a massive understatement for a movie like this, and if it’s referring to anything, it’s probably my heart rate.
Taking place 36 years (yowza!) after the first movie came out, Top Gun: Maverick follows Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) long after his days at Top Gun. Now a test pilot for the Navy, Maverick is pulled back to Top Gun to train a new team of the program’s top graduates to fly a dangerous mission to bomb an unsanctioned uranium powerplant.
But there’s a complication thrown into the mix: his former wingman Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller) is also part of the class, and Maverick fears he might be dooming Rooster to the same fate as his father. Now caught between the lines of friend and fighter pilot, Maverick needs to figure out how to train his recruits and prepare them to face impossible odds.
Let me get one thing immediately out of the way: I hate legacy sequels. Hate them, hate them, hate them. They rarely ever work, and even when they do, they usually rely too much on the classic movie’s appeal rather than their own. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this. Creed, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Blade Runner 2049 are the immediate examples that come to mind that stand alone as their own stories while at the same time honoring their source material. There are, however, way more examples of movies that merely wallow in their own nostalgia like tepid water without bringing anything unique or exciting to the table. Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, and Space Jam: A New Legacy comes to mind as the biggest offenders. And don’t even get me started on Home Sweet Home Alone. There was nothing sweet about that dumpster fire of a film.
So when I heard that Top Gun was getting a sequel more than 30 years after the first one came out, my first thought was that it spelled out disaster. For one thing, Cruise is pushing 60, and you have to wonder how long his character Maverick could be flying before the government forces him to stay grounded. For another, its director Joseph Kosinski has an inconsistent track record (he previously directed Tron: Legacy, Oblivion, and Spiderhead), and I wasn’t sure how well he would handle yet another 30-year sequel. And lastly, Ehren Kruger penned the screenplay. Have you seen how awful the Transformers movies were? I rest my case.
Imagine my surprise, then, that when I went to see Top Gun Maverick, I was absolutely blown away in every single way imaginable. Top Gun Maverick isn’t just good: it’s great. It’s bloody brilliant, actually. It’s the type of raw, visceral, and lightning-fast moviemaking that is sorely missing in today’s blockbusters. While other movies are content with cashing in on their franchise name after editing a few of their best shots into the trailer, Top Gun Maverick pushes the limit to Mach 10 and doesn’t slow down until after the movie is over. Remember the stunt in Jackass 3D where Ryan Dunn is sitting behind a jet engine as it literally blows him out of his seat? You could replace that jet engine with Top Gun Maverick and achieve the same reaction.
Part of that is because of how the movie was filmed. Insisting that the film be as authentic as possible, Tom Cruise actually put the cast through a three-month boot camp to get them used to the aerobatics and G-forces while flying. That’s because during the film’s aerial dogfights, the cast members are actually in the planes filming themselves while in the air. This leads to action scenes that can only be described as legendary. When the pilots fire up their jet engines, you feel the impact blow against you. When their planes whizz past the screen, you feel the supersonic “boom” echo in your eardrums. And when they’re in a combat situation, you feel the bullets spark as they rip through the wings’ hull. There’s actually a scene where Maverick takes off in a plane and literally blows the roof off of a nearby shed. That scene wasn’t planned: he literally blew the roof off during the shot.
That type of authenticity really brings out the effect in the film’s aerial sequences and allows them breathe and come to life in their own way. But in that same vein, Joseph Kosinski does a brilliant job directing these actors and their performances from the ground. Since he obviously couldn’t be in the air with his cast while they were filming, he and his editing team had to review over 800 hours of footage after they landed. That’s as much as all three films in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Editing that had to be a nightmare, yet Kosinski and Eddie Hamilton make the whole film feel smooth and seamless: like a hot knife slicing through butter.
But the film isn’t just a technical marvel: it is also incredibly well-written and acted. This is especially surprising, because again, everything Ehren Kruger touches normally turns into cinematic poison. But I guess this screenplay, and Tom Cruise’s charm, is immune to it. That’s because at its heart, Top Gun Maverick is a story about trauma, loss, guilt, grief, and acceptance as this surrogate family learns to keep keeping on despite the most important people in their lives no longer being there. I was expecting this film to be a fun time at the movies. What I got was so, so much more meaningful than that, and that is perhaps the biggest surprise of all.
Top Gun Maverick is an unrivaled masterpiece — an epic, exciting, and action-packed dogfighting drama that puts you up in the air with the rest of its adrenaline-addicted pilots and asks you to buckle up for the ride. This is a movie that brilliantly utilizes nostalgia not as the destination, but as a vehicle for something much bigger, gripping and heart-racing. Just wait until it breaks the sound barrier.