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REVIEW – “Top Gun: Maverick”: Back Into that Big Screen Danger Zone

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

Around this time last year, I was waxing on about the movies themselves finding their way back into our prominence after 2020 shuttered the gathering places and altered the experiential landscape as well. 2022 has managed to usher in a revival of “the summer blockbuster.” That certain type of film is destined to widen the eyes, increase one’s adrenaline, raise spirits, and truly embrace the meaning of cinematic escapism. All encapsulated in an experience that must be overseen in a communal form of gathering, preferably on the largest and loudest screen available. All that reaches a louder echo when a certain film takes two generations, and two pandemic years to finally be unleashed on said large screens. Please leave it to Top Gun: Maverick to answer the callsign. A long-gestating sequel that, back in 1986 would’ve been an easy decision for Paramount. In the present day, it still makes an overwhelming amount of sense.

Though I could get why the late Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise wouldn’t be so keen at the time to capitalize on the initial success of its predecessor. A stirring, if not also corny, and heavily American spin on the heroics of underdog air force pilots in the middle of conflicts, both personal and on-the-job. What was a smash hit in its year of release with a killer soundtrack, eclectic cast, and then-groundbreaking cinematography that almost appeared unreal, has elevated in this continuation? A film supported well by a director carrying great compassion for that eighties nostalgia. And a keener eye on enveloping the viewer in dramatic gravitas, holding the throttle tight through its runtime.

Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Only the Brave) gets the assignment, reuniting with Cruise for an adventure where feet remain firm on the ground. Even when reintroducing viewers back into the world of Top Gun, in the very same vein as the first. The first five minutes is a blatant callback, complete with the errant strains of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.” After that, Cruise takes command. Once more, he plays Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a loyal naval aviator, serving mostly as a test pilot playing a bit too rogue for his superiors, even thirty years and change later. The last of his kind as drones slowly take over, he’s still too overconfident for real military work, overexerting the limits of Mach 10 on stealth craft. For his brashness, Mav is reassigned to his old haunts around San Diego’s Air Station Miramar.

There, he butts heads with Vice Admiral Cyclone (Jon Hamm) on how to effectively train a group of new Top Gun recruits, to covertly eradicate an underground uranium enrichment plant. Among them are Hangman (Glen Powell), Payback (Jay Ellis), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), and Phoenix (Monica Barbero). But the poster kid is Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Mav’s late co-pilot Goose. The most significant conflict he faces falls in not repeating similar mistakes. While challenged to instruct the unready hotshot, Mav is forced to tiptoe around residual grief, and a broken heart on the verge of healing when reconnecting with old flame Penny (Jennifer Connelly).

Therein lies the thematic differential tasked to Kosinski and a brain trust of writers anchored by Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) and Ehren Kruger (Dumbo). Incorporating a firmer grip on emotional maturity amid the eye candy and adrenaline-laced action. And that can be just as captivating in the right hands, if not more so. It allows the focus to be less on the bombastic, and more on actions of the heart, or motives of closure. No longer objectively corny or propagandist, Kosinski raises the upper hand to take the concept of a scrappy fighter squad seriously. There is a genuine trial of teambuilding in play, instead of only the glamour and the camaraderie. Yes, there are still jabs among recruits, Ellis and Barbero the experts in that field. And we see light dashes of horseplay, beach football for teambuilding instead of simplistic volleyball. It’s done with humor to break the tension, but we never lose sight of said concern or distress at any point. Kosinski has always been rough around the edges, making affairs of emotion stand out in a highly visual arena. His determination to combine those puzzle pieces when they almost should not fit is the same as adjunct wizardry, where the results defy the odds and still manage to spellbind.

I could say the same for what’s already familiar to the franchise. And yet adaptable with the times, mostly for the better. Cruise’s performance, for one. Time’s been rewarding, albeit uneasy for both the actor and the character. The disconnect between the two has shrunk significantly, making up for time and relationships lost while unable to shake off persistent habits as a military line-crosser. He finds a rough kindred spirit with Rooster, sharing in that open-window catharsis. Difficult not to see Teller a trifle sluggish to open the film, quickly warming up to his role with frustration unlocked and defenses lowered. And with Connelly (succeeding a prior one-note portrayal by Meg Ryan), a romantic angle that was once considerably inorganic suddenly takes on deeper, non-formulaic consequence, bordering on a mild lump in the throat.

The only aspect to rival the capability of Kosinski’s cast is what directly tickles the senses. Maverick is very much a showcase of sight and sound, not unlike its predecessor. That was Scott’s greatest strength, selling the style of action in play with very practical camera work and razor-sharp editing. All to leave the viewer guessing where we’re headed next. DP Claudio Miranda once more serves as Kosinski’s second set of eyes, moving a half step ahead of the other in framing every beat, regardless of tempo or scenario, flowing with the narrowing valleys of Eddie Hamilton’s scene cutting. Or of Lorne Balfe’s enthralling musical template, staying loyal to Harold Faltermeyer’s synth-heavy anthems, and complemented by the unwavering strains of a Lady Gaga original.

And as that sobering ballad plays over the end credits, one will inevitably feel something best experienced within the confines of a summer blockbuster. Joy, sorrow, triumph, sympathy, elation, celebration. That must’ve been how Top Gun: Maverick approached me with eyes wide open, and the sensation of an excited crowd echoing those sentiments. In the same manner, as viewers in the eighties would experience. It elicits all those subtle emotions pure cinema can hope to achieve. And Kosinski succeeds with nostalgic respect, and the breathing room to embark on his unique path. Even when all seems a bit indistinguishable, the tension he places on every highwire thread only leads to what will be the first truly must-see of the summer. One that requires the theater to effectively take flight. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)

Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters May 27; rated PG-13 for some strong language and scenes of intense action; 131 minutes.