Top Gun: Maverick

Initially I had no interest in Top Gun: Maverick. I saw the first Top Gun in the theater back in 1986 and found it corny machismo and rah-rah pro-military junk. Did we really need a sequel after thirty-plus years? Given Maverick's long release delay – only partly attributed to the pandemic – I could have sworn this movie was a turkey. Yet not only audiences but critics have gone ape over it. Was it a clever subversion of the original Top Gun's dumdum Americana? A thoughtful update for modern times? I figured I should cave in and see for myself.

In the end, it's the same corny machismo and rah-rah pro-military junk as in 1986. But the flight sequences are thrilling, and that's a good enough reason to catch the movie.

Tom Cruise returns as Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, the hotshot Navy pilot who holds the (fictional) record of being the only American pilot to kill Russians in a dogfight, back in 1986. Now well into his fifties, he's now a test pilot, hotshot streak intact. After destroying a billion dollar stealth fighter while trying to see how fast it would go, Maverick is saved from court-martial by his old rival, now his good buddy and a Navy admiral: Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (a post-cancer Val Kilmer in a cameo so poignant, you forget he was once one of the most hated actors in Hollywood). And so he's enlisted to teach advanced flying lessons to a new crop of hotshot Navy pilots on a top secret assignment reminiscent of the original Star Wars. (Whereas the Russians were explicitly the bad guys in the first Top Gun, the sequel is absurdly mum about its enemy's identity. It could be Russia or Norway or Goldfinger or Keith Urban.) Yet despite the tight two-week training period before the big mission, Maverick still has time to woo an old flame (Jennifer Connelly) and patch things up with the angry son (Miles Teller) of his slain 1986 wingman Goose. And ride his motorcycle without a helmet. And doff his shirt to display his muscles.

Throughout Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise – uh, that is, his character – is told over and over again that he's too old, that he's washed up, that technology is about to replace him. And so much of the movie is about Cruise – uh, Maverick – showing everybody that he's still the smartest, the sexiest, the coolest movie star – uh, pilot – the world has ever seen. Honestly, Maverick spends an embarrassing amount of time trying to convince audiences of Cruise's enduring relevance, as if we needed it. The whole thing plays out like the actor's midlife crisis.

Nevertheless, the film's editing and sound design are superb, and those flight scenes really are riveting, especially knowing that the cast was actually in those fighter planes. Naturally, since the secret mission must take place within a two minute window, you can't have a two-minute-long third act, so Kosinski and his screenwriters pad the finale with twists that eventually become preposterous in their contrivance. But whatever. Top Gun: Maverick aspires to be nothing more than good old fashioned escapist entertainment, nostalgia for Boomers and Gen X'ers who remember those 1980s blockbusters that never asked much of their audiences. And on that front it certainly delivers.