You will be hard-pressed to find a better movie to get you into the theaters this summer. Full of "How in the world did they do that" moments, TTop Gun: Maverick has logic-defying images to spare. The cast seems to be actually flying jets and performing dangerous aerial stunts. And while we know these moments have been enhanced by digital effects, the illusion is utterly convincing and creates a truly thrilling experience. The filmmakers held out for two years to get a theatrical release, despite many streaming offers, and it is clear why they wanted this to be a theatrical film.
While steeped in nostalgia and a satisfying extension of the original Top Gun, Maverick is best understood through the lens of Tom Cruise's career. Early on in the film, Ed Harris's Admiral Cole tells Maverick that "The future is coming, and you're not in it" to which Maverick retorts "Maybe so sir, but not today." That about sums up the subtext in the film. Cruise understands that the kind of movie-star showmanship that he has perfected, often doing his own life-threatening stunts, has no clear heir. Cruise has to be eyeing the retirement of these jaw-dropping action films. Top Gun: Maverick is about that, a movie that champions movies that feature truly stunning practical stunts. The film is a manifestation of Cruise's filmmaking ethos.
This element makes Top Gun: Maverick consistently interesting even when its crowd-pleasing plot veers into the silly and cheesy territory that the original created. Drone and computers are threatening to do away with the pilot as the film opens. Maverick is a symbol of old Hollywood in a way. Everyone tells him he is a fossil, an old man. As the film opens, he is working as a test pilot on an experimental aircraft. Against orders, he pushes the plane to its limits and crashes it, causing him to get assigned to teaching a new group of cadets at Top Gun.
Amongst those cadets is Goose's son Rooster. We learn that Maverick held Rooster back four years in his career, an act motivated by not wanting him to have the same fate as his father. Maverick has passed up many promotions to remain a captain, primarily so he can still fly. He sees the dangers of this mission and knows that someone may not come home from it. The screenplay does a nice job of making the mission and its risks clear. The goal is to fly low, undetected by radar, and pull off an incredible set of maneuvers to bomb a nuclear weapons facility. The enemy remains unspecified as it did in the original film. Maverick is the only one who can train them and possibly save Rooster from death.
Director Joseph Kosinski stages some chases, dogfights, and other ariel sequences with incredible clarity. Cruise gives it his all here as well. The scenes up in the air are intense and mind-boggling. The camera often puts you right in the cockpit, able to see the actors and the sky around them in one shot. You can even see the actors strain against the G-forces pushing against them. It creates a thrilling believability.
While the flight sequences are incredible, the story mostly works as well. We are treated to a touching moment with Iceman (Val Kilmer) and some satisfying moments with Maverick teaching these young pilots who he is. The story occasionally drags. This is partly due to the fact that the focus is squarely on Maverick. This means that the rest of the characters all get side-lined, especially Rooster. The film could have used a few moments that let us into his emotional and mental state. We understand why he blames Maverick for things and is conflicted about his father's death but we never understand the change he goes through. You can feel the film almost wanting to make Rooster the main character. Other conflicts among the team get resolved in an obligatory shirtless beach football game. These elements, while in line with the original film, are cheesy and rob the story of more depth.
Teller gives a strong performance as Rooster, able to channel Anthony Edwards in subtle ways. The rest of the cast is fine but the film belongs to Cruise. As Maverick, he gives a vulnerable and strong performance. I think this is the first time Cruise addresses his age in a role. However, the real star is the action. The final act of Top Gun: Maverick is perfection. The film has made the stakes and the mission clear. We understand what needs to be done and how difficult it will be. This creates one of the most memorable 30 minutes of action I will likely see all year. See this on the biggest screen you can.