‘TOP GUN: MAVERICK’ Review: Tom Cruise & New Squad Soar in Superior Sequel

0

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

TOP GUN: MAVERICK

Rated PG-13, 2hr 11min

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Val Kilmer

TOP GUN didn’t need a sequel, but we can praise the heavens it got one – and an extraordinarily compelling, capably crafted one at that. Its lega-sequel TOP GUN: MAVERICK sees our favorite cocky fighter pilot Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell coming to terms with his personal and professional next phases. It builds on the groundwork laid by its predecessor, delivering riveting character drive as well as breathtaking, indelible, big screen Movie Moments. Blessedly, rather than relying on fan-service for fan-service’s sake, the new crew fuses the past with the present, making it a poignant, powerfully potent thrill ride.

When we reunite with Maverick, he’s a content loner, but still doing what he loves: pushing the boundaries flying high-powered jets at their top speeds. He’s stuck, coasting on his captain rank all these decades later with no ambition to climb the ladder. However, his self-determined path pivots when he’s asked to teach a fleet of elite recruits for the Top Gun program. Facing the threat of career extinction and obsolescence courtesy of encroaching technological advancements, he takes the gig, pushing him out of his comfort zone and into another danger zone.

His headstrong students, all of whom are the best of the best, include arrogant, competitive Hangman (Glen Powell), tough talent Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), stealthily quiet Bob (Lewis Pullman),  jovial Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), playful Payback (Jay Ellis), and brash wiseacre Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). Rooster is the son of Goose, Maverick’s late partner from the first film, and Maverick looks after him as if he’s his own, ocassionally at a detriment to Rooster’s career ambitions. Their top secret, possibly deadly mission will have them called behind enemy lines. Yet it’s Rooster and Maverick’s contentious relationship that stands to ground them both.

MONICA BARBARO, LEWIS PULLMAN, JAY ELLIS AND MILES TELLER IN TOP GUN: MAVERICK FROM PARAMOUNT PICTURES, SKYDANCE AND JERRY BRUCKHEIMER FILMS.

Director Joseph Kosinski wisely doesn’t try to emulate Tony Scott’s signature sexy swagger and flashy style, despite the opening credits being beat-for-beat lifted from the original and the training montage rivaling the deceased auteur’s playful aesthetic bravura. He innovates and evolves. He and screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie heavily layer in nostalgia-infused callbacks to the original in their inspired sequel. Yet those callbacks are not used as a distractive device, and don’t take away from the absorbing conflicts of the sequel. Rather, they’re complementary, augmenting characters’ internal and external struggles. These moments are constructed to root us in familiarity, and then promptly shatter us in a new way.

Inventive riffs on the original abound, coursing through the craftsmanship’s inner-workings in all the detailed edges – like composers Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer’s fusion of Harold Faltermeyer ’s legendary theme, and Maverick’s iconic Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses juxtaposed with the contemporary models on new characters. Moments that hit on specific story beats, like the “Great Balls of Fire” or “Playing With The Boys” sequences in the 1986 film, have been re-engineered with brighter luster and deeper emotional resonance. Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), whose character herself is a real IYKYK reference, is positioned as Maverick’s love interest, riding on his motorcycle, taking his “breath away,” and even sporting some wardrobe from costumer Marlene Stewart that’s evocative of the original film.

Cruise, a consummate perfectionist and performer, clearly still feels the need for speed and we all come out the victor in this. He instinctively finds the sweet spot balancing the epic spectacle of aerial acrobatics, showing off how far he pushes his body for his craft (and for our shared benefit of an adrenaline rush), with insularly motivated dynamics, keying into the heart and psyche of his character’s evolution. His maturity works wonders for expanding on the picture’s commentary – the meta subtext being his own career as an aging action star hangs similarly in the balance. There’s a nuanced sense of vulnerability, tapping into new facets of this character. A superb solo flight sequence near the end of the second act places his character at the forefront of the action, mounting to a gripping third act climax.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

Not only do the filmmakers capture pilots’ passionate drive in the narrative, they also replicate the tangible look and feel of flight, placing us in the cockpit. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s work is assured, highlighting the beautiful magnificence and magnitude of these characters, both human and aircraft. The flight segments and dogfight sequences are incredibly spectacular, especially in IMAX. In concert with the carefully-crafted vision, sound design is impeccable and exhilarating. When those F-18 jet engines roar, it’s hard not to feel the impact and be swept up in the afterburners’ blast. Sending us off on a high note, Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand” is exquisite, hitting a dramatic tone perfectly harmonized with the picture’s themes and timbre.

While these films continue to explore men getting caught up in their ego and bravado, then ultimately navigating toward the right thing, this second chapter also shows a greater understanding for the way satisfying blockbusters, specifically sequels, can be elevated to meet the needs of discriminating audiences. With its touching tribute to foundational characters like Iceman (Val Kilmer) and Goose (Anthony Edwards), respectful evolution of story, and reverence for craftsmanship, this takes flight.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5

TOP GUN: MAVERICK opens on May 27.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.