Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writers: Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Bashir Salahuddin
Cinematographer: Claudio Miranda
Editor: Eddie Hamilton
It's difficult to extricate Tom Cruise's real-life persona from his action-hero characters, men who scale the tallest buildings in the world, dangle off the sides of planes and break into underwater vaults without an oxygen tank, all while the actor playing them insists on performing these stunts himself, suffers broken bones and learns how to hold his breath for over six minutes. Maverick, a naval pilot who first appeared in Top Gun (1986), is the kind of man who can shrug off a near-death experience early on in its sequel, just as easily as Cruise shrugs on a jacket from a film he shot 36 years earlier. It's hard not to see the character, a man seeking to be immortalised by his exploits as he runs faster, flies further, pushes harder as an extension of Cruise's onscreen longevity. But Top Gun: Maverick is as much about the thrill of the moment as it is about the weight of the past. The film propels itself forward furiously, hitting Mach speeds higher than ever thought possible, but that doesn't mean it doesn't occasionally look over its shoulder at what it's left behind. For all the film espouses the act of letting go, it also understands why Maverick can't.
The familiar ghosts of regret and heartbreak return to haunt the character. Once driven by the "need for speed", his career has ground to a standstill as he refuses to accept either a promotion or retirement. If the first movie's turning point came as the idealistic young pilot was paralysed by the death of an old friend, the second follows a veteran pushed into action once more in service of the country's youth. Sent back to the Top Gun program, Maverick must train a group of pilots for a mission considered impossible to survive. While many of the group members play variations of the cocky hotshot pilot persona, the two standouts are Hangman (Glen Powell) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick's late friend Goose (Anthony Edwards). The Hangman-Rooster rivalry mirrors that of the Iceman-Maverick combo, just one of the many ways in which the film references its predecessor. At various points, the camera glides lovingly over old mementoes and splices in old footage. There's even a teambuilding game of beach football that echoes the volleyball sequence of the first film.
Top Gun: Maverick, however, isn't so much an exercise in nostalgia as a wistful comment on the passage of time. Maverick is repeatedly reminded he is obsolete. Iceman's words of support are now typed rather than said, the character's loss of speech resulting from actor Val Kilmer's battle with throat cancer. And while the film replicates past sequences, it also builds on them in meaningful ways. Director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed Tron (1982) sequel Tron: Legacy (2010), giving the franchise emotional heft by centering it around a complicated father-son relationship, returns to familiar themes here. There's a scene in which Rooster plays 'Balls of Fire' at a bar piano, the same way his late father did. Only this time, it evokes hurt rather than amusement, a reminder of the friend Maverick has lost and the surrogate son he might not be able to save. Another scene, in which Maverick flips his plane upside down to confront Rooster, is reminiscent of him performing the same maneuver to flip off a rival pilot in the first Top Gun. Only here, the gesture isn't performed and it doesn't need to be. The charged anger of the two pilots locked in a face-off is enough to underscore their fraught history.
Kosinski has always been adept at locating moments of humanity in the harshest of environments — the cold digital grid of Tron: Legacy (2010), the barren wasteland that Earth has become in the future in Oblivion (2013), the California landscape ravaged by wildfires in Only the Brave (2017) — and he does the same here, crafting a natural obstacle course for the pilots that's staggering in its difficultly level, even as he simultaneously excavates a more emotional terrain. "They might never come home," is a recurring refrain through the movie, though Maverick is also forced to confront the kinds of losses that aren't the result of planes being shot down.
The film piles on the mission stakes – a ticking clock, the punishing force of gravity, enemy missiles, narrow enclosures that the pilots must maneuver their planes through. The beauty and the ruggedness of the natural landscape spin into a disorienting blur until the only view that matters is the one from inside the cockpit. That the technical jargon doesn't fade into the background as gibberish is only because of how compelling the visuals paired with it are. The camera pushes into the pilots' sweat-slicked faces, their bulging eyes, choked gasps to convey the toll gravity takes on their bodies. It's a visceral experience. Every corkscrew that a pilot performs reverberates in the pit of your stomach. Every scene in which airborne planes flying at supersonic speeds come within an inch of smashing into each other will make your insides churn. There are stunts so breathtaking in their scope, all you can do is gasp in giddy disbelief at the audacity. It's exhilarating, and great fun as the film grounds its sky-high thrills with a dose of humour.
But if the stomach-churning aerial feats are a testament to the wonders of old-school, practical filmmaking – the actors learnt two years' worth of flight training in three months – the concession to modern movie trends appears in the movie's sole sex scene, a bland sequence that's nowhere near as erotic as the one from the first film. Jennifer Connelly, playing Maverick's former girlfriend Penny Benjamin, is a charming, if underutilised presence in a franchise defined by male bonding.
There are points at which the film hones in on the fragility of the human body, especially compared to the durability of the machines being piloted. By the end, however, people endure. The characters keep fighting, if only because they don't want to regret the consequences of walking away. And the film leaves you with the impression that as long as Cruise is around, those fights will be some of the finest to be captured on film.