Soon after we catch up with US naval aviator Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) in the Mojave Desert, hair on fire as he attempts to become the first pilot to hit Mach 10, a flinty admiral nicknamed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) tells him extinction beckons for human pilots trained in the art of dogfighting. "Maybe so," replies Mav as the corners of his mouth twitch mischievously and his eyes gleam in signature defiance. "But not today."
Cruise has no doubt had similar conversations with studio heads. Hollywood doesn’t make films like Top Gun: Maverick any more, in which real actors in real danger serve up high-stakes action sequences. Pixels colliding like molecules is safer and cheaper, if much less thrilling for viewers sensing the absence of authentic jeopardy.
Cruise is the anomaly, rejecting CGI and stuntmen to give audiences a fix they can’t get elsewhere. We’ve seen the rewards in his last three Mission: Impossible pictures. Here, his kamikaze commitment allows for aerial combat sequences that deliver high-altitude action cinema, gasps guaranteed.
It was to be expected: Cruise knows there are no points for second place. That Top Gun: Maverick should also get most of its earthbound pleasures spot-on was more up in the air. How, after all, can you recreate the success of the 1986 original, a movie firmly of Reagan’s America that had the zeitgeist in missile-lock? It took our breath away then, but a belated sequel must realise we’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’. Original director Tony Scott is no longer with us, and everything else has changed, too; music, fashion, tolerances for unchecked levels of testosterone and jingoistic chest-thumping.
Or maybe not. From the moment the Top Gun theme chimes and a shimmer-shot montage unspools of jets landing and taking off from a carrier as silhouettes flick out hand signals and punch the orange air, it’s clear that fans will be serviced. Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’ kicks in and it’s not long before Mav’s hunched over a speeding Kawasaki motorcycle in bomber jacket and shades, his grin an explosion of enamel.
The callbacks are numerous – too numerous, to be objective about a movie that engages heart over head – but always offered with enough of a twist to keep things interesting. Likewise, Maverick’s maintained his cheek and chutzpah, but it’s now laced with a quiet mournfulness.
The real freshener, though, is the plot. Yes, Maverick is parachuted into the Fighter Weapons School, codename Top Gun, to instruct a new class of recruits, but this is no straight rerun. This time there’s a concrete mission to prepare for – an enemy, sensibly unnamed, is prepping an unsanctioned, uranium-enriched plant that must be destroyed before it’s operational – and the plant’s defence system and surrounding topography mean only dogfighting pilots in F-18 jets need apply.
It’s an impossible mission that makes for an electrifying against-all-odds, deadline narrative, albeit with enough time for topless football on the beach. And it’s delicious that Maverick, of all people, must train these hot-air hotshots to function as a perfect team.
The new batch of rookies is almost as engaging as the class of ’86. Shout-outs must go to Monica Barbaro’s Phoenix, who more than holds her own in a world that’s still a sausage party, and Lewis Pullman’s nerdy Bob. But the real battle to be Top Gun is between cocky, rule-breaking Hangman (Glen Powell, burning with charisma) and steely, by-the-book Rooster (Miles Teller). Their character traits and rivalry mirror those of Maverick and Val Kilmer’s Iceman in the original, though Rooster’s biggest beef is with Mav, with whom he still has issues stemming from the death of his father, Goose (Anthony Edwards).
It’s schematic, but it works, just as every callback works despite being one too many, and scenes of enemy kills being met by fist-pumping military brass (Jon Hamm’s Cyclone and Charles Parnell’s Warlock are both excellent) invoke not horror but jubilation – largely because the film is so clearly set in a universe removed from the real world.
Similarly, a rather unnecessary and frankly ludicrous set-piece that rides on the slipstream of the heart-stopping climax winds up inducing not sighs but more whoops. Buckets of hurled popcorn will have their own dogfight high above multiplex crowds.
“It all comes down to the man or woman in the box,” says Maverick of the importance of aviators, and Cruise is simply the best of the best when it comes to tentpole thrills. Along with director Joseph Kosinski and producer/partner/pal Christopher McQuarrie, he’s fashioned an expertly crafted, thunderously enjoyable and surprisingly emotional blockbuster. Turn and burn to your nearest cinema.