When I was in high school, my mom constantly teased me about my refusal to watch “Top Gun.” She always talked about how good of a movie it was and knew that a young Tom Cruise in a military uniform would be a strong selling point for me since I had loved “A Few Good Men.” But I was a spiteful teen — the more she made fun of me not having seen it, the less I wanted to. One winter night, my parents cornered both my sister and I, and I will admit the movie was better than I had expected (though a small part of me isn’t too willing to say that out loud). A few years and one global pandemic later, “Top Gun: Maverick” is finally gracing our movie screens after being pushed back several times. This time around, I was much more openly excited to see a “Top Gun” film, and I’m happy to say that the reboot exceeded my expectations — and even the original movie. My sister and I are already itching to see the film again with the rest of my family in tow, and we’re even brainstorming our own call signs.
Tom Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who has spent the last few decades working as a Navy test pilot. He doesn’t appear to have grown up much since the ’80s — he’s still cocky and reckless, pushing the limits of both his ability and his commander’s patience. Just as Maverick is about to be grounded permanently, his old friend Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer, “Batman Forever”) calls him back to Top Gun as an instructor for an urgent mission: He must choose an elite team to destroy a uranium enrichment plant before it becomes fully operational. Among the younger pilots hoping to be chosen for the mission are Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell, “Set It Up”), Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro, “The Good Cop”) and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller, “Whiplash”) — the son of Maverick’s late wingman, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards, “ER”). Rooster still holds a grudge against Maverick, both for his father’s death and for setting back his own career as a pilot.
Right away, the movie lays the nostalgia on thick. The opening credits are almost identical to the original, from the iconic main theme to the title card outlining the real life Top Gun program to shots of planes flying off the runway while Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” plays in the background. But “Maverick” isn’t a total nostalgia grab, nor is it a reboot that completely copies the original material (looking at you, Star Wars). In fact, I’d argue that this film has more of a plot than the original. Instead of new Top Gun students competing to see who’s the best, the ensemble cast makes up Top Gun graduates, already the best, tasked with a mission that races against time and even gravity. The work that everyone does at Top Gun is dangerous, but the stakes are much higher when there’s an actual mission to complete — one that everyone may not come back alive from.
Going into the film, one thing I worried about was whether Cruise would still be the star of the show. After all, “Top Gun” is arguably one of the films that made him the movie star we know him to be today. In the first half of “Maverick,” he takes the back seat, still showing off but in a way that allows his students to properly train for the mission. But of course, it’s not a Tom Cruise Action Movie without dangerous stunts and last-minute rescues. In a move that’s completely expected, Maverick flies the mission’s simulated route in a record amount of time right after being grounded and removed from his post as instructor. Is he punished? Nope. Since he proved that the mission’s flight is actually possible, he’s chosen to lead the group.
The only time my suspension of disbelief was broken was towards the end of the film, when the nostalgia got briefly out of hand. Along with the enhanced planes that the unnamed enemy uses, there are also several old planes being kept on the uranium plant’s base — one of which is an old F-14 jet, just like the ones Maverick flew in the ’80s. Sure enough, when he and Rooster find themselves stuck on the decimated runway and have to escape, Maverick gets to quite literally relive the glory days. The entire sequence felt a little too “Mission: Impossible,” but the majority of the mission is a group effort, and the younger pilots get Maverick out of more than one sticky situation.
On top of the strong balance between the past and the present, “Maverick” gave its main characters greater depth. Thirty years after Goose’s death in the original film, Maverick still holds onto the guilt of not being able to save him. That guilt is only exacerbated by the fact that Rooster is one of the pilots hoping to fly the mission. He set back Rooster’s career in an attempt to protect him from meeting the same fate as his father, even though it cost him his relationship with the only living reminder of his old wingman. Seeing Maverick finally accept and let go of the past makes him a more likable character. At the same time, Rooster struggles to escape his father’s shadow. He’s constantly trying to prove himself, yet he’s a much more hesitant pilot than his classmates. As he overcomes his own fears of ending up like Goose, Rooster earns a well-deserved spot on the mission and is able to forgive Maverick in a way that wraps up emotional loose ends.
Cruise and “Maverick” producers deserve a lot of credit — the amount of authenticity that went into making the film elevated the viewing experience significantly. In a pre-recorded speech welcoming audiences to the theater, Cruise explained that a majority of shooting involved practical techniques: The actors went through flight training, filmed scenes in the cockpits of real planes and experienced real Gs. He wanted to be sure that this long-awaited sequel not only focused on the practical but also paid homage to the original, and he succeeded in both. With equal parts action and emotion, and just the right amount of nostalgia, “Top Gun: Maverick” is bound to be the movie of the summer.
Daily Arts Writer Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at email@example.com.