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'Top Gun: Maverick' review: Exactly what you'd expect, for better or worse

Have we scared Tom Cruise out of taking risks?
By Kristy Puchko  on 
Tom Cruise in "Top Gun: Maverick"
Tom Cruise is back, but what of the fun of the original "Top Gun?" Credit: Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films

How do you bring an action hero from the '80s into the 2020s without him feeling like a fossil? Incredibly, the team behind Top Gun: Maverick has managed it.

The hotheaded pilot as cocky as he was captivating has returned to the big screen and the skies for one last mission, alongside a new band of call-signed cohorts. Over the 36 years since we first met Naval Aviator Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise), his arrogance has been finely honed into a cutting confidence. His concern for others has bloomed to the point where he'll risk his own neck (and career) for them without a second thought. While he hasn't lost that signature smile and leading-man charisma, he has lost his edge.

Sadly, this high-flying sequel is far more interested in safe choices than danger zones.

On the surface, Top Gun: Maverick is the Top Gun you know and love

Despite decades in the navy and that smoking hot romance with Charlie (Kelly McGillis) in the first film, Top Gun: Maverick begins with its titular pilot flying solo and hanging onto his career by his fingernails. Though often distinguished, Maverick still bucks against the rigidity of the navy. So, after a high-speed bout of insubordination, he's sent packing to his last chance: teaching at Top Gun, the school where the best of the best learn to take to the skies for missions impossible. There, Maverick will have to confront the ghosts of his past, and the son of his long-dead best friend, who aims to fly in his father's footsteps. 

Goose's boy is called Rooster. And while Miles Teller doesn't look anything like Anthony Edwards, a bit of hair dye, a push-broom mustache, and some clever angles from cinematographer Claudio Miranda transform him into Goose's flesh and blood. Teller, to his credit, lands the look by carrying himself with the affable swagger that Edwards did decades before. But in confrontations with Maverick, his intensity mirrors Cruise. Together, they provide the earnest macho drama that fans of the original expect. And director Joseph Kosinski delivers the high-flying action sequences that fans demand. 

Top Gun: Maverick is a retread, but a fun one

Miles Teller in "Top Gun: Maverick"
Credit: Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films

There are chases, dog fights, and hotshot moves that'll have even those of us who know nothing about planes in awe of their daring. The sound design is so intense that the engine's roar literally shook me in my seat. The immersive cinematography takes us into the cockpit, then the shrewd edit pitches us into the sky, giving us a god-like view of every beat of danger, defeat, and victory. It's thrilling stuff, exactly why many of us go to the movies. But this sequel doesn't stop there. 

Top Gun: Maverick also retreads the original pretty intensely. Maverick is once more awing and irritating his commanding officer (this time played by a joyless Jon Hamm). He'll once more have a hot ladylove of the take-no-shit variety (Jennifer Connelly, who was 15 when Top Gun came out). There's a new rivalry between young guns. This time instead of Maverick versus Iceman (they're friends now, and Val Kilmer is back for a small but poignant appearance), it's Rooster versus another sharp-jawed bully, Hangman (Glen Powell). Naturally, the pilots will also play sports on a beach, bare-chested and ripped. But it's football, not volleyball. And despite the generations between Maverick and his students, all the songs they know and love would (or did) fit cozily into his first movie, like "Slow Ride," "Danger Zone," and "Great Balls of Fire." 

Do I need to rewatch Top Gun to enjoy its sequel?

Naval pilots in uniform line up
Credit: Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films

A revisit of the original will help you pick out some of the subtler callbacks in Top Gun: Maverick, like Connelly playing the infamous "Admiral's daughter" mentioned in a long-ago bar scene. However, a rewatch is not required, as flashbacks and photos from the 1986 film provide a solid refresher on the essential plot points that are relevant in this journey. And actually, you might be better off keeping the original Top Gun a bit foggy in your brain. Because if you watch them back-to-back — as I did — it's impossible not to notice what this sequel lacks: risk. 

Screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie were tasked with resurrecting a macho '80s man and making him accessible to a modern audience. As such, the rough edges of Maverick's character have been smoothed over by self-sacrifice and a radiant concern for others. Other changes feel cosmetic and strategic. The band of pilots who were once dominantly strong-jawed white men now include people of color and even a woman…in supporting roles without character arcs. So, there is inclusive casting, but not in any of the lead roles.

Similarly, their mission is to destroy a weapons cache in a foreign nation. But perhaps to avoid politics altogether, the nation is unnamed and its pilots' faces are hidden behind reflective glass masks. (You can't be accused of taking sides if it's unclear who's being targeted.) Such elements show the seams of this sequel's construction, stretched to cover as many audience demographics as inoffensively as possible. Maybe this is also why Top Gun: Maverick is lacking anything in the way of sex appeal. Or maybe we're to blame for that. 

Top Gun: Maverick should be sexier

Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly in "Top Gun: Maverick"
Credit: Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Sure, there is a romance in this movie, and even a love scene, albeit one that is so brief and chaste you might think you're watching a TV edit. I'm not just talking about the chemistry between Cruise and Connelly, which reads as intimate but platonic. I'm talking about how the original Top Gun was so sweaty and sensual that the opposite-sex romance wasn't all that viewers crowed about onscreen. The homoerotism between Maverick and Iceman was something, arguably unintended, considerably of its time, undoubtedly hilarious, but nonetheless mesmerizing to watch. The volleyball match. The teeth snap. The way you weren't totally sure if they were going to fight or fuck. Maybe Cruise, who is also a producer on this production, wasn't interested in repeating such a response or resurrecting its discourse — because it's not just his character who lacks a lustiness. Even the new cache of young, hot pilots is remarkably lacking in a passion that translates to steaminess, even as they tackle each other in the sand. It's fun, but not remotely flirty.

In the moment, Top Gun: Maverick is a fun action movie that leans heavily on an audience's love of the original to carry it through. It's not only callbacks and returning characters, but repeated beats and soundtrack rehashing that make this not so much a sequel as a victory lap for the character and Cruise too. And honestly, that's pretty comforting entertainment. But should a movie about a life-or-death mission play it so safe? Nostalgia is one thing, but rerunning the same plotlines, resuscitating the same archetypes, and coasting on the relics of pop culture past makes for a movie that feels sanitized instead of sensational, safe instead of sexy. Essentially, this franchise has lost that loving feeling. And with it gone (gone, gone), so too is a bit of the thrill. 

Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters May 10.

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