Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
We’ve already lived through the era of sequels, remakes and reboots, but now we are living through the era of what’s called soft-rebooting (or rather, legacy sequels). These refer to films that are legitimate sequels to an original film, but they have come so long after that the filmmakers need to effectively treat it like a standalone entity. This approach is intended to equally accommodate dedicated fans and younger audiences who may not have seen the older classic. On the rare occasion, you’ll end up with genuine classics in their own right such as Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or Blade Runner 2049 (2017), yet most of the time we are given snoozers such as Jason Bourne (2016), or The Matrix Resurrections (2021).
Set more than 30 years after the first film, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is still flying planes for the Navy, doggedly avoiding rising up the ranks any further than ‘Captain’. Having moved from combat flying to aerial testing, Maverick continues to frustrate every admiral he serves under and is only saved by his friendship with his former rival Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). Despite Maverick’s best efforts, the past eventually catches up to him as he is ordered to return to the naval flight academy known as Top Gun and train a new generation of hotshot pilots for a top secret mission. Among the new crop is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s deceased best friend, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards). As such, the shadow of Maverick’s past mistakes hangs over him in ways he couldn’t have prepared for.
Top Gun is a dangerous film to attempt a belated sequel, as it’s a film which completely captured the imagination of an entire generation. Top Gun’s success was so prevalent that nearly every aspect of it has permeated popular culture, despite the fact that it’s a weirdly cheesy experience. Audiences on the whole love the film’s positives and negatives in equal measure, so how does a modern filmmaker satisfy the ironic satisfaction of fans while also delivering a dramatically genuine update? As it happens, star Tom Cruise, director Joseph Kosinski, cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the writing team initiated by Christopher McQuarrie have spun cinematic gold out of this seemingly impossible mission. Not only does Top Gun: Maverick honour the original, but also delivers a uniquely jaw-dropping thrill ride fit for both old and new fans.
Just when you thought that Cruise couldn’t prove his mettle as a stuntman any more than he already has, Top Gun: Maverick sets a new bar for cinematic spectacle with its utterly insane aerial sequences. We’ve seen Cruise climb The Burj Khalifa, hang off the side of a cargo plane, and break his ankle leaping from rooftop to rooftop, but now we get to see him (and the rest of the cast) take the unmitigated g-force from a real F18. Top Gun always held a weird place in the action film genre, but the groundbreaking flight combat is what held it aloft in that regard. Defying all sense of logic and reason, the ground has been broken again with Top Gun: Maverick, as the visceral aerial action takes us as close to the skies as we’re likely to get (next to actually stepping into the cockpit). Aside from the obvious technical advancement, what places Top Gun: Maverick‘s action above the original is how it bakes the dangers of flying into the main dramatic tension.
Whenever blockbusters start in fifth gear, they struggle to follow through with that momentum by the time the credits roll. However, with each new scene Top Gun: Maverick manages to exceed the heights of every preceding sequence, building to a climax as monumentally tense as the best in cinema history. The mix of excitement, emotion, shock, awe and elation is so extreme that it’s not hyperbole to say Top Gun: Maverick‘s third act matches up to the Death Star trench run in Star Wars (1977), the time travel jump in Back to The Future (1985), the Neo vs Smith fight in The Matrix (1999), or the battle for New York in The Avengers (2012). This also highlights the film’s incredibly tight structure, as the narrative is effectively designed to create this fist-pumping finish.
As an added bonus, Top Gun: Maverick does more than just rely on its spectacle, as it’s packaged with enough enjoyably heartwarming character development worthy of an entire trilogy of films. Given the amount of time which has passed since the original film, there’s certainly plenty of ground to cover, yet the script never buckles under the weight, instead feeling perfectly balanced with rich interpersonal relationships. McQuarrie and the writing team achieved this by keeping the characters themselves relatively simple, but ensured that the emotions at play were at the highest possible complexity. Sure, none of the heroes in Top Gun: Maverick are particularly complicated or hard to figure out, as all of them fit very neatly into pre-established archetypes. This isn’t a flaw in the film, instead being used as a means of communicating the genuinely touching arcs. There’s not a single set up that isn’t paid off in an incredibly satisfying fashion, regardless of whether that pay off made you smile or cry.
Ultimately, this is key to what makes Top Gun: Maverick such a triumph, as it works on nearly every level for every kind of viewer. Action fans and purists of technically stellar filmmaking will be on the edge of their seats during the aerial sequences, and narrative focused viewers will be hoping for the many character arcs to come to cathartic ends. These two elements are inextricably linked, thus ensuring action fans will also be hoping for emotional reconciliation, while story lovers will also be high-fiving during an F18’s 4G inverted dive. It’s not often that a film creates such a unifying cinematic experience for all prospective audience members, but Top Gun: Maverick does so with ease. Yes, Top Gun: Maverick is a widely enjoyable, mass appeal blockbuster, but that’s not a strike against its artistic credibility. In this case, it’s precisely the opposite.
All in all, Top Gun: Maverick is the kind of film which proves why the cinema is still the prime venue for visual storytelling. The cinema should be the place where we see the biggest and best stars, in the biggest and best stories, showing off the biggest, best, baddest and loudest moments that we can’t find anywhere else. Top Gun: Maverick’s place as a legacy sequel is about more than just reminding us of a classic, as it’s primarily here to remind us why we should go to the movies in the first place.
Best way to watch it: Back-to-back IMAX sessions.