Top Gun: Maverick Early Access Event (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: May 27th, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick is one of those rare breeds: a sequel that's better than the original. Due in part to the passage of 36 years in between installments, the second film arrives with a less glossy, more serious approach. Cold war rah-rah machismo has been replaced by a more reflective (although no less action-oriented) attitude. Tom Cruise, playing the title character, has supplanted toothy cockiness with a weathered, nuanced performance. In Top Gun, he was preening. Here, he's acting. The differences extend to the screenplay (credited to Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Cruise's current favorite collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie), which is less testosterone-drenched, to the tone, which is more grounded, to the technical elements, which are cutting-edge. The kernels in this popcorn crowd-pleaser frequently aren't as frequently scalded or unpopped as in the original.

Maverick is selling nostalgia while at the same time remembering that younger viewers might not care about a movie that came out when their parents were kids. Although it's possible to enjoy this movie on its own terms, it understandably works better for those who have seen (and remember) the 1986 box office king. Easter eggs and callbacks abound, even though only two actors - Cruise and Val Kilmer - have returned. At times, Maverick seems like a loose remake. The opening sequence, complete with Kenny Loggin's "Danger Zone," is a carbon copy, and many of the key notes are similar (although modernized). The shirtless volleyball game of the original has been updated to a shirtless football match (although the women are allowed to keep their tops on) and is edited in such a way as to tone down the homoerotic undercurrent.

Story-wise, the movie calls back not only to Top Gun but to a blockbuster from a decade prior: Star Wars. Maverick's climax, which features an attack by a group of fighters on a secure uranium processing plant, is taken almost beat-for-beat from the Death Star run in Star Wars, right down to the need to navigate a narrow trench and bullseye a shaft. One can be forgiven expecting to hear a ghostly voice intone, "Use the Force, Maverick" as the moment approaches.

When the movie opens, we catch up with Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in his current job as a test pilot for new and experimental aircraft. As Mitchell's current superior, Admiral Chester Cain (Ed Harris), tersely notes, drones will soon make pilots extinct. He then transfers the insubordinate officer to the Navy's fighter training program (a.k.a. "Top Gun") as ordered by the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer). Iceman believes that Maverick has the qualities necessary to prepare an elite group of pilots for a top-secret, potentially suicidal mission. Maverick's new bosses, Admiral Beau Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Admiral Solomon Bates (Charles Parnell), are skeptical. Complicating matters for Maverick is the presence of Lt. "Rooster" Bradshaw (Miles Teller) in the group. The son of the deceased "Goose" Bradshaw, Rooster holds a mammoth grudge against his new instructor. Maverick is also given cause to regret how he treated an old flame, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), but finds her willing to re-ignite the flame.

As was the case in the first movie, there are too many second characters for any of them to achieve anything resembling three-dimensionality but at least in this case they have enough defining characteristics to avoid them seeming like a lineup of doppelgangers. One, Glen Powell's "Hangman," is an Iceman clone. Another, Monica Barbaro's "Phoenix," is the first female pilot of the Top Gun universe. And Lewis' Pullman's "Bob" isn't just a nerd - he's a nerd who looks like a nerd, not a buffed jock who says he's a nerd.

One of my complaints with Top Gun was that the aerial scenes weren't as well-choreographed, shot, and presented as one might have expected. Director Joseph Kosinski has corrected these issues. Maverick's in-air sequences are always coherent, often exciting, and occasionally breathtaking. Some of this is the result of better technology but some is simply that Kosinski is a better fit for the material than Tony Scott was in 1986. The in-cockpit cameras give a you-are-there feeling and the decision to limit the use of computer effects avoids the artificiality that sometimes results from CGI reliance.

Still, as eye-popping as the dogfights and aerial maneuvers are, the centerpiece scene (and the one that will have the greatest meaning for Top Gun fans) is a simple one-on-one meeting between Maverick and Iceman. With the screenplay overlaying elements of actor Val Kilmer's real-life struggle with throat cancer onto the story of Admiral Kazansky, the movie achieves something powerful and deeply moving in that scene. The subtext makes it about much more than a reunion between two rivals-turned-friends. The appearance was meaningful enough to Kilmer to coax him temporarily out of retirement. If it represents the final punctuation mark on a remarkably successful career, it would be difficult to envision a better ending.

It remains to be seen whether Top Gun: Maverick will be able to attract new fans with a fervor to match the older ones who are approaching this movie with the eagerness of a 36-year buildup. Cruise, the A-list marquee-topper who never gives less than 100% to any production, once again illustrates how he has managed to remain relevant over an amazing four-decade span when so many of his contemporaries have faded away. And, although Top Gun: Maverick is surely relying on some of the alchemy that made the formula successful in 1986, the film's awareness of cultural and technological shifts in the interim has made for a more complete cinematic experience. This is unquestionably a production to be experienced on a big screen; resizing it for a television or tablet will diminish some of the most extravagant aspects, limiting suspense although not eviscerating the storytelling elements.

© 2022 James Berardinelli