High as You Can Go
The original Top Gun is not a great movie, but it is an iconic one. Despite its several risible elements, it’s outlasted conventionally better films in American pop culture by sheer virtue of being so damn memorable. It’s a factory of classic movie moments, from the orange-soaked, “Danger Zone”-scored opening to the impromptu bar serenade to, yes, the beach volleyball scene. That these highlights never add up to a fully-formed movie is beside the point; the fact that Top Gun has managed to spawn a sequel thirty-six years later is proof of its unique staying power.
And thirty-six years later is exactly where Top Gun: Maverick picks up, with the titular pilot (Tom Cruise) still flying for the U.S. Navy well into his middle age. After his insubordinate behavior results in the destruction of an expensive test plane, Maverick’s superiors give him an ultimatum: either agree to work as an instructor at his former flight school, or never fly for the Navy again. Despite his misgivings, Maverick agrees, and soon finds himself training a new generation of pilots for a near-impossible mission. Among the students are swaggering egotist Hangman (Glen Powell), no-nonsense female Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), and Rooster (Miles Teller), the resentful son of Maverick’s late best friend Goose, who died while flying with Maverick decades ago. As he finds unexpected satisfaction in his new role, Maverick rekindles a romance with his old flame Penny (Jennifer Connelly).
Top Gun: Maverick is appropriately reverent to the original, while at the same time accomplishing the unlikely feat of surpassing it across the board. Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski know that fanservice works best as a bonus, not a cudgel to beat over audiences’ heads, and the sequel’s callbacks to its predecessor are fun and clever. Much has been made of Cruise’s commitment to shooting as practically as possible, using real jets for many of the flying sequences. The choice pays off in spades: the scenes of aerial action are pulse-pounding and immersive, never sacrificing clarity for speed or vice versa.
Crucially, the movie never forgets that the best way to make action scenes thrilling is to fill them with characters we care about. Each member of the ensemble cast gets a chance to shine, with Teller in particular giving the story real emotional weight. Cruise once again imbues the title role with his legendary charisma, retaining Maverick’s winning confidence while making him more conflicted and human. Top Gun: Maverick’s script is conventional, but uses its tried-and-true tropes with such flair that it reminds us why they’re such standbys in the first place.
Between the killer soundtrack, gripping story, and supersonic action, Top Gun: Maverick is a movie packed with moments precision-engineered to put a big dumb grin on your face; a true crowd pleaser that reminds us what a joyful experience a great blockbuster can be. Finally, it’s a movie that flies in the face of conventional film wisdom. Sequels aren’t supposed to be this good, big studio releases aren’t supposed to be this good, movies from this decade aren’t supposed to be this good. But Top Gun: Maverick has no use for arbitrary rules. I think there’s a word for that…