Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, now in his 50s, is brought back to teach a new band of Top Gun academy graduates how to run a dangerous mission to destroy a uranium facility.
There’s only so many years a man can continue climbing on his emotional support motorbike and racing himself at 80 along a deserted highway.
“The end is inevitable Maverick, your kind is headed for extinction,” says Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) to Pete Mitchell, who has just taken a new fighter plane to Mach 10, a plane Cain thinks will soon be as obsolete as Maverick. The future is pilot-less, a different kind of fighting where no one takes to the skies.
It’s also a nod to the often heralded end of the blockbuster, though this film’s very existence proves they can change and thrive, shedding 1980s bombast and Berlin for 2020s uncertainty, humanity and Lady Gaga. Top Gun: Maverick is superbly thrilling, witty and crowd-pleasing, but also thoughtful — the kind of movie that demands in-cinema rewatches (I’ve now seen it twice, once with my 10 year old who was rapt throughout).
Tom Cruise, a man who has navigated a 40-year career and various personal controversies, must surely know that the only wisdom age brings is that we don’t know anything, or if we do it’s only long after knowing it would be of any use. His Maverick is now a middle-aged, anchorless hero, hugely experienced but still searching the skies for a message from his wingman Goose, who died in the first film (helpfully, Maverick talks out loud to himself a lot while flying solo). A paradoxical genius (“don’t think, do,” he instructs young pilots, while teaching them to push their planes to the edge of their technological limits), no one is quite sure what to do with him, so better to hustle him out the door.
His continued work within the military is thanks to Iceman (Val Kilmer), now Admiral of the Pacific Fleet, who can often be found parachuting Maverick into some new role just as another admiral wants him kicked out. (Iceman is dying and Kilmer’s appearance — he too has battled cancer — is particularly moving.)
In a sequel coming out a whopping 36 years after the original, it’s appropriate that story, characters and even the planes themselves are in a battle between past and future, old and young, intuition and technology, rigid rules and a human touch — until Maverick somehow manages to navigate a way through two hours of standoffs, generational mockery and equipment failures to some kind of reconciliation, with himself as much as anyone.
His new mission, which he has no choice but to choose to accept, is to train the Navy’s best Top Gun graduates to bomb a nameless country’s uranium enrichment facility that poses a threat to the US’s regional allies. It’s been built in a crater in the middle of a steep-sided mountain, with victory dependent on split second timing, extreme flying techniques and movie blockbuster-levels of luck. There are 12 pilots for him to train, with six spaces available on a mission that Maverick is stunned to discover he isn’t leading but teaching.
Throughout their training (which takes place over a few weeks) Maverick has skirmishes of his own, with new boss Admiral Simpson (John Hamm) and with Rooster, Goose’s son and one of the 12 pilots. Rooster (Miles Teller) blames Maverick for a stalled career, while nerdy navigator Bob (Lewis Pullman) hides his light under a bushel and the over-confident Hangman (Glen Powell) rubs everyone up the wrong way. Meanwhile the capable Phoenix (Monica Barbero) rises above it all while aiming perfectly-timed barbs at her scrapping colleagues. (Why do so many call signs sound like the names of ITV’s Gladiators? Obviously not Bob.)
The aerial work is staggering. There’s a dizzying yet sublime artistry to those early desert training dog fights, and later the planes’ travels through the snowy, rocky valleys of “nameless country”, spinning through viaducts, almost at ground level. We’ve been teased on our way there: first online simulations, tiny planes moving up and down into the crater on a giant screen; then a superb scene where Maverick attempts the feats necessary outside in the skies above, while his awestruck students watch what he’s doing mapped onto the real target in the simulator inside; then of course the mission itself.
Yet despite the noise and spectacle, heart-stopping aerial exploits and sudden disasters, Top Gun: Maverick is shadowed by a cloud of melancholy. Maverick is a man trying to hold on to the past even though he knows that’s impossible. “Time is your greatest enemy,” he implores his students, to save their lives; but it may also get under the skin of those Generation Xers watching, intruding into the rosy glow of nostalgia.
That’s not to say the past is cast off. Maverick is constantly calling back to the 1986 film, and is affectionate in acknowledging its ridiculousness. Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone soundtracks our first shots of aircraft preparing for take off; later Maverick’s pilots play “dogfight football” on a beach that glows golden in the early evening sun, the men muscled and shirtless. Even Rooster has grown his own ‘tache, just like his dad’s.
If Maverick has called a bumpy truce with his own mind, Rooster is still engaged in a paralysing war with himself. Teller certainly brings out the small boy sitting on the piano in the film’s Top Gun flashback. Many of the pilots are trope-ish, even if updated to the 2020s, or thinly drawn; though I thoroughly (dis)liked Hangman (Glen Powell), who oozes delicious self-satisfaction.
Jennifer Connolly is Maverick’s age-appropriate, relatively recent ex-girlfriend Penny (no Kelly McGillis return here). There’s not much for her to do beyond offering Maverick occasional wise words, though her teenage daughter Amelia and Rooster lay bare Maverick’s mistakes at being a father figure. Amelia is hostile after his previous treatment of Penny; Rooster openly loathes him.
This is a film set in the US Navy but their opponents are secondary to the generational wars that thread the film. Not naming the country they attack shifts the focus from the political to the personal, but it also sidesteps ideological questions about morality and American imperialism. Even the enemy pilots are so covered up in their uniforms and helmets we have no clue as to who they are.
The ending is obvious, though enjoyably so; it just comes at us so fast. Though if time is the enemy it’s appropriate that Top Gun: Maverick‘s 131 minute runtime speeds by at Mach Whatever. Cruise’s social media bios may wittily state “running in movies since 1981” (perhaps he should add “Quizzically head-bobbing and…” to the start of that), but despite the closure Pete “Maverick” Mitchell achieves, he certainly doesn’t look like he’s come to the end of the taxiway. As he replies to Admiral Cain when he’s told his kind will soon be extinct: “Maybe so Sir, but not today”.
Watch the trailer now: