A sequel to Top Gun — one of the most ’80s movies of all time — has been in the works for decades, although star Tom Cruise had initially expressed some reluctance at returning to the cockpit. But here we are, in the year of our Lord 2022, and Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is taking to skies once again.
However, the world is a very different place than it was when the original Top Gun, directed with style to spare by Tony Scott, arrived in theaters. Does a new Top Gun movie, with Cruise leading a new crop of gung-ho fighter pilots, make any sense? Does it offer up a good time at the theater, or is it just a shameless nostalgic retread? Is Cruise’s star power still in full effect, or does Maverick wash out?
Read on for a collection of critics’ reactions to Top Gun: Maverick.
A lot of consideration and calculation have clearly gone into this long-aborning blockbuster sequel, insofar as Cruise (one of the producers) and his collaborators have taken such clear pains to maintain continuity with the events, if not the style, of the first film. That’s no small thing, more than 30 years after the fiery young Maverick lost Goose, made peace with Iceman and rode off into the annals of fictional U.S. Navy history. And rather than let bygones be bygones, the director Joseph Kosinski and a trio of screenwriters (Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Cruise’s favorite auteur-wingman, Christopher McQuarrie) have resurrected those threads of rivalry, tragedy and triumph and spun them into uncharted realms of male-weepie grandiosity.
Is Top Gun: Maverick the movie that will mark a generation? No. Its predecessor will always hold that title. Is it a fun Hollywood film? Absolutely. Does it have substance? Not really. Does it move the bar higher for believable, tension drawing action sequences? Yes, which I fully expect from any Tom Cruise film these days. There’s no doubt the Navy groups will enjoy this film along with the civilians of the theater. Don’t expect anything more than top-notch action, and you’ll be fine.
Watching Cruise pilot a fighter jet 200 feet above the floor of Death Valley, corkscrew another one through Washington’s Cascade Mountains, and give one of the most vulnerable performances of his career while sustaining so many G-forces that you can practically see him going Clear in real-time, you realize — more lucidly than ever before — that this wild-eyed lunatic makes movies like his life depends on it. Because it does, and not for the first time.
The long-ago world that Maverick evokes and laments — the long-ago world of Cruise’s unblemished youth and of an influential era of pop filmmaking — also includes a happy national fantasy of freedom and certainty and goodness. Top Gun: Maverick isn’t unaware of this. The film isn’t political in any overt sense, but its hermetically sealed world suggests it knows it exists outside the margins of reality. Maverick makes quick references to Bosnia and Iraq but also notes that in a world where pilots are primarily called on to drop bombs or missiles from many miles away, dogfighting has become a lost art — one the movie will, of course, resurrect for one last ride, one last impossible mission against one last impossible adversary, threading the thinnest of threads through the tiniest of needles. The whole movie might be Cruise’s greatest stunt yet.
It’s a remarkable effort in an extraordinary film that evokes the iconography of its 1986 predecessor. But Top Gun: Maverick exceeds the original technically, while circumventing naked jingoism in an era when depictions of the military can (or maybe should) no longer be unambiguously celebratory. Joe Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) matches his well-established architectural precision with suitably nostalgic but never pandering emotionality, while Cruise commands the screen in a performance that leverages his multimillion-dollar star wattage to brighten the entire film.
Director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) revels in the sonic-boom rush of their many flight scenes, sending his jets swooping and spinning in impossible, equilibrium-rattling arcs. On the ground, too, his camera caresses every object in its view, almost as if he’s making a rippling ad for America itself: The unfurling snap of a boat sail; the gleaming Formica in a desert rest-stop diner; golden bodies playing touch football in the California surf while a magic-hour sun goes down.
Top Gun: Maverick is more than a nostalgia sequel or legacyquel; it is almost more than a movie. It is a manifesto and a monument, a defiant time capsule and a swaggering IMAX spectacle without precedent or peer. People will say they don’t make movies like it anymore, although they never did, and never could, and never would have, if not for the obsessive drive and visionary determination of Hollywood’s last action star.
In a different package, all the brouhaha jingoism and proud fist-shaking seen in Top Gun: Maverick could have been borderline insufferable. But fortunately Kosinski — whose underseen and underrated Only The Brave will hopefully find a second life now — seems to understand exactly what kind of movie he is asked to navigate. In his hands, the tone of Maverick strikes a fine balance between good-humored vanity and half-serious self-deprecation, complete with plenty of quotable zingers and emotional moments that catch one off-guard.
The film seems frozen in time, unwilling to confront the original Top Gun’s complicated political legacy (which Cruise himself noted in the early 1990s when vowing not to make sequels to what he called an amusement park ride-like portrait of war) or do anything that might challenge fans of the 1986 original. This is a minor annoyance for most of the running time. We didn’t need to have Rooster sitting at a piano playing the same song (“Great Balls of Fire”) that we heard in the first film. At its best, and it’s rarely less than entertaining, Maverick is a metaphor for Cruise himself trying to maintain his top-tier stardom even at the expense of the next generation.
Top Gun: Maverick is outstanding; the ultimate package of what you want from classic summer blockbuster entertainment. The movie has visceral thrills, massive peril, hard-fought and earned victories, but also captivating romance, searing drama, big emotional stakes, heart, soul, and poignant pathos. On some levels, it’s astonishing how seamlessly it works as a blockbuster. Yet, it’s the journey to getting there, and how all the humanity is embedded into the fabric of the tremendous action that is deeply impressive.
If there’s something worth salvaging from that era — and from Top Gun — it’s the sense of optimism that used to dominate ’80s action movies. That and the belief that the simplest, corniest story, if told with enough skill and conviction, can delight everyone in the world. Top Gun: Maverick has both these qualities in abundance. They’re embodied in Tom Cruise, who is the auteur of his own myth, and might be the last true movie star. He wants to show you a good time, and he will. But more than that, he wants to take off and never come back down.
If you haven’t already read a million things about how Top Gun: Maverick was made, and how solemnly Cruise accepted this mission, don’t start now. It’s not really worth it, and it could dull your joy in the fact that this is, at the very least, a feat of old-fashioned action moviemaking, light on CGI, and favoring human beings actually moving and planes actually flying… The flying sequences are divine, sometimes tense and sometimes rapturously freeing, and they feel realistic because they’re minimally touched by CGI.
Top Gun: Maverick arrives in theaters on May 27, 2022. Watch the trailer below.