Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Fresh off a first viewing of 1986’s seminal classic, Top Gun, I went into this sequel with little knowledge about the actual plot this time around. Would it tread similar ground in portraying a group of elite fighter pilots in training mode? I had a plethora of questions, most primary of which was, why did the world need a sequel to the beloved 80s classic all these years later? Top Gun: Maverick is quick to prove me wrong, delivering big summer blockbuster energy. Bold exciting action sequences, Tom Cruise in peak form, and a stunning new ensemble cast make this Top Gun better than the original in every conceivable way.

Set in modern day, Maverick (Tom Cruise) is called back to his old stomping grounds after pulling a crazy stunt that pushes his piloting skills to the limit. “The future is coming, and you’re not in it,” Admiral Cain (Ed Harris, The Rock, Stephen King’s The Stand) tells him before sending him off to sunny San Diego, California. With Iceman (Val Kilmer, Batman Forever, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) now a legendary commander and Admiral Simmons (Jon Hamm, AMC’s Mad Men, Baby Driver) in charge of the Top Gun (aka Fighter Weapons School) program, Maverick is given a pivotal choice. Either become an instructor to train the new class of pilots for a vital mission, or never fly with the Navy again. For Maverick, the decision comes easy, yet is proven to be challenging due to the participants involved.

Maverick must step in with his expertise to prep this roster for surplus enemy aircrafts, an array of missiles, and to take down a Ukrainian radiation plant. The mission will require several miracles to pull off, including flying dangerously low, and could easily be a suicide mission without the proper training. Goose, Maverick’s best friend and co-pilot from Top Gun, has a son—call sign “Rooster” (Miles Tiller, Whiplash, Divergent)—who is one of the candidates to participate. Having made a promise to keep Rooster out of the Navy, Maverick still has to make the best calls for the mission to be a success, including narrowing the field down to just six.

Right off the bat, tensions exist between Rooster and Maverick. Miles Tiller and Tom Cruise play against each other with a determination and emotionality that vibrates with every second on screen. The rest of the cast is just as good, and each bring signature personality types. A stellar sequence in which Maverick urges them all to “show me what you’re made of” has Maverick absolutely smoking them all, continuing his reputation of being the best of the best. Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and her co-pilot, Bob (Lewis Pullman, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Strangers: Prey At Night), are both among the new blood, being a bit hollow and not as overly involved as one would expect. My favorite of the new characters was Hangman, played by the charming Glen Powell (FOX’s Scream Queens, fantastic rom-com Set It Up.) Hangman is very cocky and has already amassed one “air-to-air” kill, so he assumes from the outset he’s at the top of the class. Hangman’s vibe with Rooster definitely evokes Iceman’s conflict with Maverick in the original. 

Other supporting cast color the film, with Val Kilmer’s return as Iceman executed beautifully. The script reflects Kilmer’s real-life wellness struggles, while staying true to his previously established work. New love interest Penny (Jennifer Connelly, Requiem for a Dream, Dark Water) is a bar owner who shares a romantic history with Maverick, and their relationship gets rekindled as he has returned to town. At the end of the day though, Maverick himself is the lead, and Cruise proves he is more than up for the challenge of revisiting one of his most iconic roles ever. His skills may be legendary, but the film never makes the mistake of establishing Maverick as some type of godly untouchable figure. He is a flawed human with real conflicts and emotions, and a far more layered person than he appeared to be in the first movie.

Mostly gone is the homoerotic subtext of the original, replaced with a team-fueled camaraderie. That said, if one is on the hunt for eye candy, look no further than Top Gun: Maverick’s version of the iconic volleyball scene. This time around, we get “dog fight football” that allows every major cast member to show off their ripped physique. Getting into shape has really paid off, as its clear they had a great deal of shooting on the beach. In terms of nostalgia, Maverick delivers on this element in spades. It never feels like a repeat or as if trying to copy the exact beats of the first, yet it carries that tone of familiarity and pays respect to everything that came before. I was a bit surprised that Charlie doesn’t get so much as a mention, as she was the romantic lead in the original. However, nearly everything else is perfect. An array of brief flashback scenes and adoration for the Goose character couple with subtler nods to make for a satisfying watch that fans of the first are going to love.

The original film was directed by Tony Scott, and this decades-later sequel contains a sweet dedication to him at the end. The final act carries a surprising intensity, with the last hour in particular a masterclass on how to make a sequel work; furthermore, the closing moments when the new track “Hold My Hand” from Lady Gaga kicks in is practically magical. There are real stakes this time around, accented with sweeping mountains and breathtaking cinematography. Soaring visual effects and flight sequences capture both the beauty and horror of flying. Housing spectacular crowd-pleasing moments and 80s feels, Top Gun: Maverick is concentrated popcorn entertainment that wears its heart on its sleeve like a badge of honor. 

Top Gun: Maverick plunges you right into the “Danger Zone” when it premieres exclusively in theaters everywhere on Friday, May 27th.

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