‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Review: Will This Stuff Still Fly?

Every so often in “Top Gun: Maverick,” Pete Mitchell (that’s Maverick) is summoned to a face-to-face with an admiral. Pete, after all these years in the Navy — more than 35, but who’s counting — has stalled at the rank of captain. He’s one of the best fighter pilots ever to take wing, but the U.S. military hierarchy can be a treacherous political business, and Maverick is anything but a politician. In the presence of a superior officer he is apt to salute, smirk and push his career into the middle of the table like a stack of poker chips. He’s all in. Always.

The first such meeting is with Rear Adm. Chester Cain, a weathered chunk of brass played by Ed Harris, who has an impressive in-movie flight record of his own. (Without “The Right Stuff,” there would have been no “Top Gun.”) He seems to be telling Pete that the game is over. Thanks to new technology, flyboys like him are all but obsolete.

Based on this scene, you might think that the movie is setting out to be a meditation on American air power in the age of drone warfare, but that will have to wait for the next sequel. Pete still has a job to do. A teaching job, officially, but we’ll get to that. The conversation with Cain is not so much a red herring as a meta-commentary. Pete, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, is the avatar of Tom Cruise, and the central question posed by this movie has less to do with the necessity of combat pilots than with the relevance of movie stars. With all this cool new technology at hand — you can binge 37 episodes of Silicon Valley grifting without leaving your couch — do we really need guys, or movies, like this?

“Top Gun: Maverick,” directed by Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”), answers in the affirmative with a confident, aggressive swagger that might look like overcompensation. Not that there is a hint of insecurity in Cruise’s performance — or in Maverick’s. On the brink of 60, he still projects the nimble, cocky, perennially boyish charm that conquered the box office in the 1980s.

Back then — in Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” — Pete was a brash upstart striving to stand out amid the camaraderie and competition of the super-elite Top Gun program. He seduced the instructor Charlie (Kelly McGillis), locked horns with his golden-boy nemesis, Iceman (Val Kilmer), and lost his best friend and wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards). Ronald Reagan was president and the Cold War was in its florid final throes, but “Top Gun” wasn’t really a combat picture. It was, at heart, a sports movie decked out in battle gear, about a bunch of guys showboating, trash talking and trying to outdo one another.

Times have changed somewhat. Pete is the instructor now, called back to the Miramar naval base to train a squad of eager young fliers for an urgent, dangerous mission. The frat-house atmosphere of the ’80s has been toned down, and the pilots are a more diverse, less obnoxious bunch.

‘Top Gun’: The Return of Maverick

Tom Cruise takes to the air once more in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the long-awaited sequel to a much-loved ’80s action blockbuster.

Review: The central question posed by the movie has less to do with the need for combat pilots in the age of drones than with the relevance of movie stars, our critic writes.Tom Cruise: At a time when superheroes dominate the box office, the film industry is betting on the daredevil actor to bring grown-ups back to theaters.A New Class: Thirty-six years after Iceman, Hollywood and Cougar, a new team of colorfully nicknamed characters have suited up for the sequel.Filming Challenges: The aerial feats on show in “Top Gun: Maverick” look like the result of digital wizardry. They aren’t.

One advantage to the long gap between chapters is that the many credited screenwriters are free to fill in or leave blank as much as they want. In the last few decades, Pete has seen plenty of combat — Bosnia and Iraq are both mentioned — and pursued an on-and-off romance with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). Now he finds her working at a bar near the base and an old spark rekindles. She has a teenage daughter (Lyliana Wray) — Maverick is not the dad — and a world-weary manner that matches Pete’s signature blend of cynicism and sentimentality.

Other reminders of the past include Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Goose, and Iceman himself, who has ascended to the rank of admiral and kept a protective eye on his former rival. Kilmer’s brief appearance has a special poignancy. Apart from the 2021 documentary “Val,” he hasn’t been onscreen much since losing his voice to throat cancer, and seeing him and Cruise in a quiet scene together is as sad and stirring as something from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The first “Top Gun” unfolded against a backdrop of superpower conflict. There was a formidable — if mostly offscreen — real-world adversary (the Soviet Union, in case you forgot) and the hovering possibility of nuclear apocalypse. This time, there’s a real live-ammo skirmish with an unidentified foe, a mysterious entity in possession of super-high-tech aircraft who is building an “unauthorized” weapons facility in a mountainous region of wherever. No names are mentioned, just “the enemy.” The circumspection is a little weird. Who or what are we supposed to be fighting? China? (In this economy?) The Taliban? Netflix? Covid?

Cruise with Jennifer Connelly in the film, directed by Joseph Kosinski.Credit…Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

It doesn’t matter. We never see the faces of the enemy pilots once the mission is underway. Which only confirms the sense that “Top Gun: Maverick” has nothing to say about geopolitics and everything to do with the defense of old-fashioned movie values in the face of streaming-era nihilism.

Is the defense successful? The action sequences are tense and exuberant, reminders that flight has been one of the great thrills of cinema almost from the beginning. The story is a mixed bag. In spite of the emotional crosscurrents and physical hazards that buffet poor Maverick — his career, his love life and his duty to the memory of his dead friend, to say nothing of G-forces and flak — the dramatic stakes seem curiously low.

The junior pilots enact a kind of children’s theater production of the first movie. The cockfight between Maverick and Iceman is echoed in the rivalrous posturing of Rooster and the arrogant Hangman (an interestingly Kilmeresque Glen Powell). We are treated to a shirtless game of touch football on the beach, which doesn’t quite match the original volleyball game for sweaty camp subtext. There are some memorable supporting performances — notably from Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro and the always solid Jon Hamm, as a by-the-book, stick-in-the-mud admiral — but the world they inhabit is textureless and generic.

At times Kosinski seems to be reaching for an updated version of the sun-kissed, high-style ’80s aesthetic that “Top Gun” so effortlessly and elegantly typified. What he comes up with is something bland and basic, without the brazen, trashy sublimity you find in the work of genuine pop auteurs like Scott, his brother Ridley, James Cameron or Michael Bay.

Though you may hear otherwise, “Top Gun: Maverick” is not a great movie. It is a thin, over-strenuous and sometimes very enjoyable movie. But it is also, and perhaps more significantly, an earnest statement of the thesis that movies can and should be great. I’m old enough to remember when that went without saying. For Pete’s sake, I’m almost as old as Maverick.

Top Gun: Maverick
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes. In theaters.