In the first opening stretch, the film prepares you for the worst kind of nostalgia cash-in experience. When we open Harold Faltermeyer’s score from the original, we see the same on-screen text that introduces us to the concept of the Top Gun program from the first film – before we cut to a nearly shot-by-shot update of the opening and closing credits Text font and use of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”. Thankfully, the film never quite cynically replicates sequences from the original again, with the only scene that comes close being an update of the first film’s famous homoerotic volleyball sequence. And it has to be said: the general lack of homoeroticism this time round might be the only area where the film has been significantly downgraded from that.
After those credits, we get to know Maverick (Cruise) in the present tense. In the time that has elapsed since the first film, his unlikely ability to succeed in missions that would have killed anyone else has effectively made him the Navy’s Han Solo, with at least one death-defying mission in this film being the equivalent around to do the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. One of these occurs quite stunningly within the first fifteen minutes, when Maverick is taken to a Navy test base to fly a jet capable of ten times the speed of sound that could be returned to service due to budget cuts. As someone notoriously in need of speed, Maverick hits that target, but pushes the engine too far, causing it to burn up and crash-landing back on Earth, where he’s been given a new job by his stressed-out superiors: return to the Top Gun Academy and teach a new generation of pilots instead of causing even more chaos on duty.
There are references to another classic action film trope that the film effectively pokes fun at. Maverick is back for “one last job” – but as his love interest, played by Jennifer Connelly, points out, most of the time that has passed since the first “Top Gun” has been spent with him getting back to the mission to fulfill which he vows will be his last. Connelly effectively brings personality and humor to a fairly signed romantic role, intended only to replace Kelly McGilli’s equivalent character from the original, who is never mentioned here. You’d be forgiven if you initially thought the role had simply been recast for a more familiar face. Comic relief aside, the story is treated with the utmost sincerity, which proves effective, although every final narrative punch in the film is discernible. There are no surprises as to whether Rooster (Miles Teller) will bury the hatchet with Maverick to continue the legacy of his father, Maverick’s former wingman Goose (played by Anthony Edwards in 1986), or whether Maverick will succeed the new recruits to educate and train him to complete his most life-threatening mission yet.
Somehow, “Top Gun: Maverick” overcomes these significant hurdles with ease; The third act in particular contains some of the best cinematic aerial warfare, staging the team’s mission so effectively that I was left on the edge of my seat despite the inevitable outcome. In the original film, the late director Tony Scott’s best-known but arguably one of his weakest films, the culminating overhead fights could become incomprehensible as they reach their final stages. Here, director Joseph Kosinski effectively explains the geography of the mission from the start, with the specific technical details that pilots must pay close attention to so they never become technical jargon. You’d have to leave the theater to Google just to know what’s going on. Kosinski clearly adores the original, but has studied it enough to understand how to improve it – the same tactics he employed in his 2010 debut film Tron: Legacy. He could very well become the filmmaker of choice when you need a sure pair of hands to helm a legacy sequel.