So busy muttering “oh my god!” as Maverick’s plane emerged from under one of his pilots during the dogfight training that you missed some of the plot? Maybe, like my 10 year old, you had your hands over your eyes during “the kissing bit”? Check out my plot re-cap below. (If you’re after my five-star review, it’s here. Or check out my article Old Relics assemble! Age and obsolescence in Top Gun Maverick)
Peter “Maverick” Mitchell is living in a hanger in the desert and working as a US Navy test pilot. He’s part of a project testing a prototype warplane designed to reach speeds of Mach 10, but on arriving to complete the Mach 9 test is informed that Admiral Cain (“the Drone Ranger”) is coming over that day to shut them down. Maverick decides to take the plane up before Cain arrives, and test it to Mach 10, their contract completion speed. Taking off, he flies directly over the newly-arrived Cain. Maverick takes it to Mach 9… then Mach 10… then up to 10.4. The plane can’t cope with the stresses placed on it at that speed, and it spirals down out of the sky. He ejects out of shot, and we then see him walking into a diner, unaware how far he has travelled. “Where am I?” he asks the bemused clientele. “Earth” replies a suitably impressed small boy.
Admiral Cain is unimpressed with Maverick’s way of doing things, seeing him as old hat. Soon pilots won’t be necessary at all. “The future is coming and you’re not in it”, he tells Maverick brusquely. “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is heading for extinction”. “Maybe so sir”, replies Maverick, “but not today”.
Still, Cain informs Maverick he’s been summoned back to the Top Gun academy on North Island. (It later transpires Iceman, now Admiral of the Pacific Fleet, has been saving Maverick’s bacon throughout his career. Maverick is still a captain, as he doesn’t want to be promoted to a desk job, but he’s also a pain in the ass for many in the US Navy.)
Arriving at North Island, he meets with Admirals Simpson and Bates. Admiral Simpson is particularly unimpressed with him, and makes it clear he’s only been brought in because Iceman, whom Simpson hugely admires, requested it. Maverick is to do this job — his last one — or he’s out now. Maverick is told about the mission he’ll be working on: to destroy an enemy nation’s in-progress uranium enrichment facility that on completion would threaten the US’s regional allies. 12 top US pilots have been chosen, to be whittled down to six for the mission. Maverick gives his assessment of what will be required, thinking he’ll be mission leader — and is stunned to discover he’ll instead be teaching the 12. One of the 12 is Rooster, son of Goose, Maverick’s wingman who died in the first film. Both Maverick and the admirals are aware of Rooster’s antipathy towards Maverick, which we later find out is because Maverick pulled Rooster’s application to the Naval Academy, setting his career back four years.
The mission is technically incredibly difficult. The uranium facility is at the bottom of a crater surrounded by rocky mountains, with GPS jammed. The pilots will have to fly low to avoid radar, sneaking into the crater, attacking the target then flying out almost vertically while avoiding any enemy craft that find them.
That evening Maverick visits the local bar, which he is surprised to find is now owned and run by his ex-love Penny. The 12 top gun pilots are arriving from far-flung naval bases, curious as to the mission and who could possible teach them, when they’re already the best of the best; they also chuck various age-related barbs Maverick’s way. Two of them throw Maverick outside for being unable to pay his bar bill (if you leave your phone on the bar, you have to buy everyone there a drink), with a very deliberate and final shutting of the bar doors as they go back inside. He looks through the window and sees Rooster playing Great Balls Of Fire on the piano, as Goose did all those years ago.
Next day the 12 are shocked to see the man they threw out of the bar walk in to start teaching them. He’s carrying the massive manual for their F18 fighter planes, but throws it in the bin: they should know it inside out anyway, he says, and their enemies certainly will. It’s about the pilot, not the technology.
Their training is fierce and fun; they try to out manoeuvre Maverick in their planes but he always manages to track and “kill” them, and once “dead” and back at base they have to do 200 press ups. During one practice, Rooster and Maverick are in a battle of wills and wits, and both plummet nearly to the ground, well below the ordered “hard-deck” altitude limit of 5000 feet, before climbing again. (The hard-deck is used in dogfight training and simulations, a designated altitude which represents ground level, while reducing the risk of crashes.) Maverick is summoned to see Admiral Simpson who is furious they broke the hard-deck, even though Maverick reminds him the pilots will have to fly way lower during the mission. It turns out that Simpson is less bothered about the pilots returning home than simply successfully bombing the facility. He orders Maverick to inform them each morning what he’ll be teaching the pilots that day, and Maverick immediately puts in a request to lower the hard-deck.
Maverick goes back to the bar with the money he owes Penny and finds her daughter Amelia there. He agrees to help Penny sail their boat to the yard for repairs as Amelia has to study. Later he takes Penny home on his bike but isn’t invited in.
In training, Maverick impresses on the 12 pilots that “time is your greatest enemy”. They’ll be flying at a maximum of 100 feet above the ground to avoid radar, going at least 660 knots. They will have two and a half minutes to complete their bombing mission and get out. To bring home how much the mission is dependent on pilots, and they on each other, when they analyse each other’s failures in training he makes them think about that they would tell their fellow pilots’ families if their colleague died.
Maverick goes to visit Iceman, whose wife tells him the admiral’s cancer is back and now untreatable. He “talks” mostly by typing on a screen. Maverick tells him Rooster isn’t ready and doesn’t want to learn from him. He asks Iceman if he can go instead. “It’s time to let go,” types Iceman, though Maverick admits he doesn’t know how. They hug before Maverick leaves.
Admiral Simpson can’t find anyone on the base, as they’re all playing “dogfight football” on the beach, with Penny in the background doing paperwork. This is Maverick’s attempt to build team cohesion.
Maverick stays at Penny’s and they end up in bed. Her explains to her why Rooster hates him: Rooster’s mother asked Maverick, before she died, to hold back Rooster’s naval academy application as she didn’t want him to fly. Maverick also didn’t think he was ready. Maverick doesn’t want to tell him it was his late mother’s request, as it is best if he only blames Maverick. Amelia comes home unexpectedly, and Penny makes him climb out of her bedroom window; he does, but tells her he’s never leaving her again. Amelia spots him escaping and demands he doesn’t break her mother’s heart again.
The mission is moved up a week as the facility will become operational sooner than expected; bombing an operational nuclear facility would mean radiation affecting friendly countries nearby.
During another training session, one of the 12, Coyote, passes out at speed, going into G-LOC (“gravity-induced loss of consciousness”), but comes to and is able to pull out and up just in time. A sudden birdstrike then causes Bob and Phoenix’s plane to catch fire; they manage to eject just in time before it crashes in a fireball. Afterwards, Maverick speaks to Rooster, who asks why Maverick pulled his application. Maverick tells him he wasn’t ready to trust his instincts. Rooster wants to believe in Maverick like his dad did, but can’t.
Iceman dies, and with him Maverick’s most senior supporter. Admiral Simpson calls Maverick in and tells him he’s off the project, and grounded forever. Penny later tells him not to give up.
Simpson takes over the teaching of the 12 Top Gun graduates. He tells them they will fly higher and have four minutes to reach their target, much longer than Maverick had given them. When they question him about these tactics, and how it makes them far more vulnerable to enemy fighters finding them, he says they stand a better chance in a dogfight than in crashing their planes against the steep-sided mountain. As he’s teaching, they see that on the practice simulation behind him — which tracks real life flying and maps it over the mission’s terrain on a screen — someone is actually performing the manoeuvres how they need to be performed during the mission: straight up the side of the mountain, down the other side, hit the target and fly steeply out in time to escape opposing bombers. It’s Maverick, and he manages to do it in two minutes 15 seconds, while reaching 10Gs.
Admiral Simpson tells Maverick he’s in a difficult position: court marshal Maverick and kick him out, or make him mission leader and risk his own career. Maverick is, of course, brought back into the programme, as mission leader. The night before the mission, Maverick visits Penny in his ceremonial white uniform, presumably to say goodbye in case he doesn’t make it back.
With Maverick flying in the mission, there are now only five places left. Maverick has chosen Phoenix and Bob in one plane; Payback and Fanboy in one plane; with Rooster as Maverick’s own wingman in a solo fighter. The others remain in support.
On the day, Hangman is left on the aircraft carrier. As they prepare to get into their planes, Maverick and Rooster have a conversation of sorts. Rosoter wants to speak to him but Maverick asks him to leave it til they return; he then calls out to Rooster “you got this”, acknowledging Rooster is finally ready.
The four planes take off, while Tomahawk missiles also launch, targeted on the airfield near to the uranium facility. Once that is hit, any undamaged bombers will be out looking for the US aircraft. Maverick and his team fly fast and low through the valleys, 100 feet off the ground, through viaducts, past ground-to-air missiles primed and ready to launch. Rooster is flying too slow, and falling behind, when time is of the essence. He’s losing his nerve, calling to his father, until he reminds himself to “think not do”, something Maverick often says. He, Payback and Fanboy manage to catch up and the bombings are successfully accomplished, including the two necessary “miracles”: the initial bomb to open up a way in to the underground complex, and the second bomb to blow it all up.
They then all have to pull steeply out, over the edge of the top of the mountain known as Coffin Corner. As they make it over the top, enemy fighters appear, and Maverick heads round to protect Rooster, who is out of flares. Maverick is shot down, while the other three planes are ordered back to base. Maverick ejects into snow in an open area when he sees an enemy helicopter coming for him. He’s shot at but isn’t hit. Just as he thinks he’s a goner, the helicopter is blown up. It’s Rooster, come back to save him. Rooster’s plane is then hit and explodes, with Rooster ejecting. Maverick runs through the forest to meet him, but when he finds him is furious, shouting at him and questioning what he did. They argue over who saved whose life. Maverick asks Rooster why he didn’t think and Rooster points out “you told me not to think!”
Maverick has a plan — to steal an ancient F14 plane from the bombed enemy airfield nearby, which is parked in a hanger and seems undamaged. The two manage to sneak over the partially-destroyed runway and get it going, though Maverick has to take off almost vertically along a taxiway; the F14 loses its landing gear as it clips a viaduct during take off. Maverick has flown them before (in Top Gun in fact, when they were considered high-tech!) Rooster is in the back, the position Goose used to take in his fighter plane when flying with Maverick. He’s baffled by the many switches but starts to work it all out so he can get the radio to work.
Two enemy planes come after them, and Maverick and Rooster try to pretend to be local fighters. They’re rumbled though, and the enemy fighters go into attack formation. Maverick manages to shoot one down, though they are soon out of ammunition and flares. Flying out over the sea, Maverick wants them to eject but Rooster’s ejector handles aren’t working. It looks like the end for them as the enemy aircraft locks on to them and prepares to fire. Suddenly it goes down in a fireball, and they see Hangman in a nearby plane, come up to save them. Both planes do a flypast, then come in to land on the aircraft carrier, though as the F14 has no landing gear the nets are set up to catch it as it lands and prevent it going over the far end into the sea.
Maverick, Rooster and Hangman exit their aircraft and are surrounded by cheering, hugging colleagues. Hangman and Rooster shake hands, while Maverick and Rooster hug. Standing higher up, Admiral Bates and even Admiral Simpson acknowledge to Maverick what he has achieved.
Maverick goes to the bar to see Penny but she’s gone on a sailing trip. He’s back in his desert aircraft hanger when he sees Penny’s daughter Amelia is watching him. Outside is her mum. Maverick and Penny go up in his small plane which flies into the distance. Rooster looks at Maverick’s photos of he and Goose in the hanger.