Not just the best of the best but now also the oldest of the old, Tom Cruise’s Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is back in the cockpit in a follow-up that will thrill every Top Gun fan. There’s a bit in the middle that sags, but, honestly, your neck will need the respite. The rest of the movie soars – a reminder of how good Hollywood can be at popcorn entertainment when it sets its mind to it (and Cruise is involved).
Maverick is three decades older and looks about one of them, but for all his still-boyish looks and perma-pearly grin he’s now a relic of a test pilot who’s about to be put out to pasture by Ed Harris’s A.I.-championing rear admiral, aka ‘the Drone Ranger’. But what’s that? There’s an illegal uranium processing plant in an unnamed rogue state and an impossible bombing mission to carry out? Soon Mav is reluctantly being sent back to Top Gun Academy to train a new batch of young F-18 hotshots. God help us, etc.
The opening alone – a rule-breaking test mission at Mach 10 – is eye-wateringly exciting: a homage to The Right Stuff that finds unexpected soul on the edge of space. From then on, the beats are very familiar: there’s a ball-busting ranking officer (Jon Hamm) itching to sack Maverick; a gun pilot with no sense of teamwork (Glen Powell with a scene-stealing grin); and a lot of bickering about hard decks. There’s even flashbacks to the first movie, a bar singalong, some sweaty ball games on the beach, and a blast of Kenny Loggins for the oldies in the crowd.
There’s a bit in the middle that sags, but, honestly, your neck will need the respite
But after about half an hour of fan-friendly reorientation (there’s even a pilot with the call sign ‘Fanboy’), it starts to break new ground. A smart screenplay, co-written by Christopher McQuarrie, brings freshness via Maverick’s spiky relationship with Miles Teller’s bitter Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw, the son of his old co-pilot Goose, and a sweet love story with Jennifer Connelly’s bar-owning single mum. Obsolescence never feels far away for this ageing hero, even if he still has the reflexes of a 21-year-old.
Most of all, Top Gun: Maverick works because with its insane aerial photography to the fore, and the style-forward Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski a smart pick behind the camera, it never lets go of that simple love of flying: of men and women stress-testing high-tech machines until bits start to fall off, and the machines testing them right back.
All this helps avoid any sense of it being another multi-million dollar recruitment ad for the US military. The mission is more of a McGuffin: a Death Star trench raid to let the characters show their mettle, while Maverick and Rooster’s testy relationship delivers additional tension. It’s pure escapism and just the right side of gung-ho, even in the present geopolitical moment.
You will want to high five someone on the way out
It is a shame that, for whatever reason, the female characters from 1986’s Top Gun are nowhere to be seen – Kelly McGillis’s flight instructor, Charlie, clearly opting for the ‘leave me forever’ option, and Meg Ryan killed off as Rooster’s mum – especially with such effort made to locate Val Kilmer’s Iceman in the story for a touching bromance with Maverick.
But minor grumbles aside, few Hollywood reboots can boast this blend of nostalgia, freshness and adrenaline. You will want to high five someone on the way out.
Out in the UK May 25, Australian cinema May 26 and US theatres May 27.