It’s time to let go.
Director Joseph Kosinski pays homage to the late Tony Scott by opening his thirty-plus-years-in-the-making sequel Top Gun: Maverick with the exact same music cues, similarly propulsive aircraft carrier b-roll, and text-based intro (adding “and women” to “the handful of men”) as Top Gun. Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” kicks in to whisk us back to the 1980s if only for a couple minutes before entering an aging Navy garage with Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise). His dogfighting days over the Indian Ocean are over. After three decades of service, he’s now test piloting prototypes to satisfy his need for speed. And as Hondo (Bashir Salahuddin) explains that Radm. Cain (Ed Harris channeling James Tolkan) pulled their current program’s funding, we learn he still doesn’t know when to quit.
The trio of screenwriters (not counting two additional story credits) Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie quickly explain how he hasn’t been grounded yet by fatefully saving Maverick again from his latest potential court martial with a new and familiar post. It appears Iceman (Val Kilmer) has been watching his back this whole time, rising the ranks and earning the respect to cajole everyone in the Navy into giving his old classmate an infinite number of chances. With Iceman’s health declining, however, it’s looking more and more like Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm) is correct calling this Maverick’s final post. And it’s by no means just a favor. From the looks of it, he’s been asked to swiftly prepare four elite officers for a guaranteed suicide mission.
As anyone who’s watched the original knows, Maverick won’t take losing a fellow pilot lightly. Not only does this attitude prevail because of what happened to his best friend Goose (Anthony Edwards), destiny has reared its head again by making Goose’s son, Lt. Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), one of the mission’s candidates. The kid already resents Maverick for sabotaging his career before it even got started, so now he worries he won’t even get the chance to prove what he’s made of before being dismissed. Luckily for him, Maverick doesn’t have the luxury of losing anyone until he sees where the others’ talents lie. If it were up to him, he’d lead the mission himself. Because he can’t, he’ll do everything to ensure they all return alive.
It’s wild what a plot can do. Where Top Gun succeeded on vibes alone, Maverick understands that the reason for getting all these characters together needs enough substance to sustain our interest in them as people. Because this is still a competition. These men and women are all vying to be team leader regardless of how impossible the mission seems. Whether it’s the contemplative Rooster, the cocky Hangman (Glen Powell), or the cool-headed Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), this is what they signed up for and why they worked so hard to be the best. Technological warfare has left them ill-prepared for this task, though. Not since Maverick and Goose’s day has actual dogfighting in the sky been necessary. And the former enjoys proving how much they must still learn.
Maverick has three weeks to teach these kids what makes him the best: namely controlled irresponsibility. That means pushing them to the edge by also pushing himself there (much to Simpson’s company man’s chagrin). It’s funny because he’s teaching them to be the perfect combination of his raw impulse and Iceman’s analytical precision. There’s no other way to complete what he and Admiral Bates (Charles Parnell) call the two miracles: flying below radar through a perilous canyon to hit a three-meter-square vent twice at high speeds. Then they still must escape over a wall of stone at 9Gs with surface-to-air missiles and enemy aircraft attacking them. If Maverick can turn them into a team—the very thing he struggled to do in his youth—they might survive.
That’s where the added drama enters. It’s not just him anymore. He’s experienced the pain of losing a “wingman” and found a way to pull himself back from the abyss to ensure he didn’t lose anyone else on his watch. To therefore listen as Simpson writes these men and women off as collateral damage is too much. Having to weigh whether to send Rooster to his potential death or ground him for no reason other than fear isn’t something he can confront lightly either. Add a rekindled romance with Penny (Jennifer Connelly‘s local bar owner who’s had an on-and-off, tumultuous relationship with him in the past) and Maverick has never had so much to lose. As he tells the others, though, the only option is to “stop thinking.”
This job is about confidence. It’s about ego. You must know you can complete the task to attempt it. And while Scott’s original had the stylistic flourishes to bring the experience of flying fighter jets to the masses, Kosinski’s additional technological prowess literally puts us into the cockpits to feel the rush and excitement from start to finish. Whether Maverick buzzing between two of his students as they wonder where he is during an exercise or them all looking with anxiety at static missile bays readying for them to fly above radar level as they improvise their route through unknown bridges, it’s an adrenaline rush like no other. Things get a bit over-the-top by the end with a climactic “behind enemy lines” escape, but the humanity never falters.
Not that Cruise didn’t bring humanity to the original and its effective (if reductive) look at PTSD. This time it’s more attuned to the moment’s promise of redemption. Can Maverick be the champion Rooster needs to excel? Can Rooster get out of his own way to reach the potential that guys like Hangman effortlessly achieve on a whim? Can the man who treated “Top Gun” like a “me versus the world” challenge be the leader to pull together a family willing to instinctually fight like hell to guarantee no one is left behind? Much like “Cobra Kai” flipped things to say maybe the hero was really the villain the whole time, we see the old Maverick from Iceman’s perspective through Rooster and Hangman. Reckless abandon does overshadow excellence.
It’s enough of a narrative to almost make you forget Maverick is as much of a propaganda piece as its predecessor. By working towards a mission, we’re able to look beyond mere exploitation towards motives. That it’s also able to integrate legacy plotlines and provide the ailing Kilmer a path back to the big screen only adds to its appeal via nostalgia. Doing it in a way that allows for growth shouldn’t be discounted either since Kosinski and company could have easily made this a hollow vanity piece. To trust the character and give him the opportunity for maturity—if he’s willing to accept it—is no small thing today. So, while it’s not making my yearly Top Ten like others have declared, it is a resounding success.
 Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
 MILES TELLER PLAYS LT. BRADLEY “ROOSTER” BRADSHAW IN TOP GUN: MAVERICK FROM PARAMOUNT PICTURES, SKYDANCE AND JERRY BRUCKHEIMER FILMS.
 JENNIFER CONNELLY PLAYS PENNY BENJAMIN IN TOP GUN: MAVERICK FROM PARAMOUNT PICTURES, SKYDANCE AND JERRY BRUCKHEIMER FILMS.