The better part of three decades since he conquered his intense feelings with rival pilot Iceman (Val Kilmer) and saved the day, hotshot ace Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is called back into action for his most dangerous mission yet. Heading a hothead crew of recent Top Gun graduates, it’s time to fly into the danger zone once again.
In this age of fractious and confusing geopolitics, the ‘enemy’ that Maverick’s team are going after is kept deliberately anonymous – a stark contrast to the Red Menace of the original. Better minds than mine will no doubt parse the politics of that one, but I’d argue it’s at least no worse than the Reaganite military fetishism of the original. In the grand tradition of the hyper-macho muscle flicks of the 1980s, the original Top Gun was never concerned with subtlety, both in its thunderous handling of both Reaganite Cold War politics and its homoerotic subtexts (does it even count as subtext when it’s this explicit?).
Sadly, it’s one of Maverick’s few disappointments that the glorious sexual tension of its predecessor has been stripped from this sequel. The tension here comes not from the barely-repressed desire between rivals, but the unresolved guilt that Maverick carries over former partner Goose’s (Anthony Edwards) death. This comes to a head (ahem) when Goose’s son, Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller) is selected as a candidate for the deadly mission. Embittered by Maverick’s part in his father’s death, Rooster is yet more resentful of Maverick’s scuppering of his naval career in a misguided attempt to keep his friend’s son out of harm’s way.
Teller is undoubtedly the bright spot of the film – channelling Edwards’ spirit and making it his own – and it’s an inspired choice to flip the posturing rivalry of the original into a father-son dynamic. Glen Powell’s Hangman amply fills the cocky asshole gap left by Kilmer’s Iceman, but his rivalry with Rooster plays second fiddle to the primary conflict. And while Powell does a fine job of making his pilot utterly punchable, the screenplay (with a co-writer credit going to Mission: Impossible’s Christopher McQuarrie) somewhat misses the fact that Iceman was never actually that much of a villain.
On the screenplay, its beats hew closely to that of the original, down to the thrilling training sequences and a sun and sweat-soaked ball game on the beach (sadly drained of any sexual tension this time around). The writing and presentation are saturated in nostalgia but largely avoid cheap, fan service moments, legitimising the film as an authentic sequel rather than a reheated reboot. Similarly, the original’s iconic soundtrack is given new life and is – dare we say it – better deployed by Hans Zimmer, as well as Lady Gaga’s anthemic Hold My Hand.
Jennifer Connelly’s bartender Penny steps in to replace Kelly McGillis’ Charlie, reigniting a relationship that apparently happened between instalments. It’s not quite as gratingly soppy as the original’s love story, but it’s far less connected to the A-plot and ends up feeling superfluous. Meanwhile, Kilmer’s brief return is something of a mixed bag. On the hand, it’s oddly touching seeing him and Cruise reunited one last time. But on the other, the incorporation of Kilmer’s real-life health issues, while understandable, feels uneasy.
A good two-thirds of Top Gun: Maverick is very solid, if unremarkable, but what really gets it off the ground are its top-drawer flight sequences, staged thrillingly by director Joseph Kosinski. Kosinski has worked with both Cruise and Teller on separate pictures, but sticking them in the same cockpit proves inspired. More than that, Kosinski finally cracks the pacing and structural issues that have often hampered his previous efforts, harnessing his knack for visuals into something thrillingly propulsive. The repetitive rhythm of the training sequences is reminiscent of the looping action of Edge of Tomorrow and play like a modern riff on that golden 1980s motif, the montage. But its giving his entire third act to the mission, an edge-of-your-seat trench run through a twisting canyon, where Maverick finally hits Mach 10.