It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that made me think “How did they do that?” That’s because in almost every case for the last 15 years, the answer to that question has been obvious: They did it with computers. With Top Gun: Maverick, here at last is a movie with images that defy easy explanation, where it really looks like Tom Cruise and the rest of the cast are thousands of feet up in the air performing dangerous aerial stunts for our pleasure. I assume some of those images were enhanced with digital effects (and a fair number were really flown by professional pilots). But the illusion is so convincing and so exciting it really does restore a little of your faith in the magic of movies.

The film finally arrives in theaters after being stuck in a holding pattern for over two years, even as most of the other movies made in the months prior to the start of the Covid pandemic got shifted to various streaming platforms. Both Netflix and Apple reportedly made offers to Paramount Pictures to buy Top Gun: Maverick, and the studio could have used it last year to help launch their own streaming service, Paramount+. All the while, Maverick kept on circling movie theaters, waiting for them to reopen and recover before it made its final approach.

The decision to keep postponing the film seems baffling — until you actually watch Top Gun: Maverick, at which point it makes total sense, and not just because the film is a shameless crowd-pleaser. Top Gun: Maverick is best understood as a movie about movies. The planes are there primarily to express Tom Cruise’s vision of the cinema as a place for jaw-dropping showmanship on the grandest scale possible, and for watching that sort of motion picture on the biggest screen possible. Dumping that on a streaming service would have been a betrayal of everything the movie stands for.

Top Gun: Maverick
Paramount
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While some audiences might wonder why, after 35 years, it was finally time for a Top Gun sequel, the material is the perfect vehicle for Cruise to express his filmmaking ethos and to test whether it still has value. The original film was a true blockbuster — the top-grossing hit of 1986 — made before the days of computer effects and Hollywood’s all-consuming obsession with “IP,” back when the notion of streaming movies was barely a twinkle in Reed Hastings’ eye. In its time, Top Gun was cutting edge, with the best aerial stunts and photography humanly possible. But that time was at least a generation ago. Today, Top Gun looks like a fossil excavated from a bygone era.

As luck would have it, so do daredevil fighter pilots in a U.S. Military dominated by drones and computers. And so the parallels between the film’s story and its old-fashioned Hollywood pageantry begin almost immediately. Cruise’s Maverick is reintroduced wearing his old Top Gun bomber jacket and aviator shades; still driving the same motorcycle. If Top Gun is a fossil, Cruise is like a mosquito frozen in amber. He looks great, but time has passed him by. Now working as a test pilot, Maverick disobeys orders and pushes an experimental aircraft far past its limits. The plane is destroyed; Maverick’s boss, a gruff admiral played by Ed Harris, is enraged.

Top Gun: Maverick
Paramount Pictures
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“The future is coming and you’re not in it,” Harris’ Rear Admiral Cole tells Maverick, warning him that one day soon the Navy won’t need pilots at all to fly its planes. “Your kind,” he adds. “is headed for extinction.”

“Maybe so sir,” Cruise responds. “But not today.”

At that point, it becomes clear that for Cruise, Top Gun: Maverick is not just a cash grab or a chance for a middle-aged guy to relive his youth. InsteadCruise appears to believe he has been called back to duty for maybe the most impossible mission of his career: To save the movies themselves.

Top Gun Maverick
Paramount
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Audiences will decide if he succeeded, but whether Top Gun: Maverick rivals its predecessor’s box office totals, no one can say Cruise didn’t give the film his all. As in most of his recent work, Cruise appears pathologically committed to giving his audience their money’s worth. In this case, that means subjecting himself to all kinds of incredible aerial stunt work. The dogfights, chases, and mid-air sequences are truly remarkable — far clearer and far more intense than anything in the original Top Gun. Director Joseph Kosinski, replacing the late Tony Scott, utilizes advancements in camera technology to put you right into the cockpit with Cruise on these visceral flights. (You can hear see him straining and hear him grunting against the force of multiple Gs, and it doesn’t look like he’s acting.)

The story isn’t bad either, as long as you’re already invested in Cruise’s character from the first Top Gun. Back then, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell was a cocky hotshot who went to the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (AKA “TOPGUN”) to train and compete with the world’s best fighter pilots. Three and a half decades later, Maverick looks a little older — as well he should, Tom Cruise is almost 60 — but he’s still a captain in the Navy. We soon learn he’s turned down countless opportunities for career advancement, possibly because he loves flying so much he couldn’t handle a desk job. It could also have something to do with the fact that he remains fixated on a tragedy from his past.

Top Gun: Maverick
Paramount
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After crashing that experimental plane, Maverick is called back to TOPGUN by his old rival Iceman (Val Kilmer), now the commander of the U.S.’s Pacific Fleet. The Navy needs a crew of pilots to carry out a strike on a heavily fortified nuclear weapons facility that’s buried in the middle of a valley ringed by missile launchers and patrolled by cutting-edge “Fifth Generation Fighters.” (As in the original Top Gun, the country holding these nuclear weapons is never identified, and referred to only as “The Enemy.”) Iceman wants Maverick to train the candidates for the assignment, who include a young Maverick-esque hotshot codenamed Hangman (Glen Powell, oozing charisma) and a more cautious aviator named Rooster (Miles Teller).

Maverick’s presence causes additional complications because Rooster is the son of Goose (Anthony Edwards), Maverick’s best friend and flight officer who died during a training accidentMaverick tried to play surrogate father to Rooster, but as the film begins the pair are estranged and Maverick is terrified that with Rooster up for this extremely dangerous mission, history may soon repeat itself. If he successfully trains Rooster for the airstrike, he could be sending him to his death. If he refuses to do so, Rooster might resent him forever. If life weren’t complicated enough already, Maverick also resumes a relationship with an old flame who was mentioned in the first Top Gun but never shown onscreen, an admiral’s daughter played by Jennifer Connolly. She owns the watering hole frequented by the TOPGUN pilots, which gives Maverick the chance for some callbacks to the memorable bar scenes from the original film.

Top Gun: Maverick
Paramount
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If Maverick was played by any other actor, Rooster would be Top Gun: Maverick’s main character and the film would be about his journey to honor his father and carve out his own legacy in the military while repairing his relationship with his mentor. That would be the way of more typical legacyquels like Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Creed. But Maverick is played by Tom Cruise, who remains deeply ambivalent with the notion of passing the torch to a new generation onscreen— just ask Jeremy Renner about that — and so Top Gun: Maverick remains focused on Maverick and his story, sometimes to the detriment of the young cast. We only really see and understand Rooster through Maverick’s eyes; Teller doesn’t have a single major scene of his own without Cruise in it. So that character’s journey and inner life feel a lot less convincing, and his evolution feels a lot less suspenseful, than they otherwise could have.

Where Top Gun: Maverick shines is in the action, and in the way the stunts underscore Cruise’s dogged determination to prove that old school spectacle still has value in a cinematic landscape dominated by ugly CGI, superheroes, and streaming content viewed on tiny screens. Throughout the film, characters repeat the line “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot,” and the screenplay (credited to five men including Ehren Kruger and Christopher McQuarrie) engineers a climax where Cruise gets to prove that philosophy literally and metaphorically in what is surely one of the most impressive plane-based action scenes ever committed to film, as Cruise squares off with those Fifth Generation Fighters.

In reality, Maverick would surely have no change against an enemy combatant like that. Who cares? Top Gun: Maverick has so much fun flexing the might of its practical effects that issues like logic go right out the window. That’s the magic of the movies for you.

RATING: 8/10

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