It's perhaps damning Top Gun: Maverick with faint praise to suggest that it is a better film than its predecessor. For all that Tony Scott's 1986 original has undoubtedly achieved iconic status – due in part to a couple of memorable quotes and some admittedly enjoyable action sequences – it was always a slightly embarrassing display of '80s extravagance, a film whose cheesiness is so overbearing that it almost comes across as a parody.
But Joseph Kosinski's long-delayed sequel, which finally arrives in UK cinemas at the end of this month, is very much the real deal. Swapping the tone of the original for a more reflective, considered approach – that nonetheless doesn't skimp on the exhilarating action – it improves upon the earlier film in just about every way: from the genuine emotion behind the character dynamics to the pure adrenaline rush of the stunning aerial stunts.
From the moment we're re-introduced to Tom Cruise's title character, it's instantly apparent that Maverick's modus operandi hasn't changed one iota in the intervening 36 years. We find him skilfully but recklessly flying an expensive navy plane in his role as a test pilot, before he's sent packing back to Top Gun for a new assignment at the behest of his friend and former rival Tom "Iceman" Kazansky.
Before he leaves, he's warned in no uncertain terms by his superior (Ed Harris) that he's quickly becoming a relic of a bygone era. "The future is coming and you're not in it," Harris says, before adding: "Your kind is headed for extinction." Maverick's response – "Maybe sir, but not today" – seems to be as much Cruise speaking as his character. He may be approaching 60 years old, and filmstars of his ilk might be in relatively short supply these days, but – as the rest of the film goes on to prove – he's still got a lot left in the tank, and clearly has no plans to hang up his boots any time soon.
It comes as no surprise that Cruise is the star of the show from beginning to end. 36 years on from the original (although production on the sequel actually wrapped three years ago) he hardly seems less fresh-faced now than he did as a young 24-year-old, and his charm and charisma show no signs of subsiding. Cruise's willingness to try ridiculous feats in the name of entertainment, meanwhile, remains unrivaled – and the numerous stunts are made all the more thrilling by the knowledge that just about everything is done practically.
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The supporting performances, meanwhile, complement his star quality excellently, with Miles Teller's turn as Rooster – the son of Maverick's late wingman Goose– especially worth a mention. Elsewhere, Glen Powell is perfectly cast as the smarmy all-American stud Hangman, Jon Hamm delivers a fine performance as Maverick's more straight-laced superior Cyclone, and Val Kilmer reprises his role as Iceman to surprisingly emotional effect.
It's become increasingly common in recent years for films to use nostalgia as a cheap way of getting audiences onside – expecting plaudits simply for showing fans something they recognise from their childhoods, regardless of whether there's anything beyond the surface. And while Top Gun: Maverick hits some of the same beats as the original – including the new mission pilots being unaware that their future instructor is at the bar with them, Rooster's performance of Great Balls of Fire at the piano, and a topless game of beach football – the film manages to forge its own path alongside these callbacks.
Crucially, the nostalgia here is different in that it actually serves the story and its themes. Maverick is still stewing on the events of the original, still feeling guilt for Goose's death, and these feelings are made all the more potent by the fact he's back in familiar surroundings and coming face to face with his late wingman's son. These flashes of nostalgia work, then, precisely because they're echoing the character's own emotional state.
As in the first film it's the relationships between the men that are the most compelling – and indeed this film largely does away with the romantic melodrama aspect of the plot, with nary a rendition of Berlin's Take My Breath Away in sight. There is still a romance – Jennifer Connolly stars as a bar owner with whom Maverick has a complicated history – but their relationship always feels like a B-plot rather than the main thrust of the action, and it's Maverick's exchanges with Rooster and Iceman that will ultimately live long in the memory.
And then there are those aerial stunts – impeccable showcases of technical artistry that culminate in a white-knuckle ride of a final act, one which will produce all sorts of oohs and aahs from even the most hard-hearted cinemagoer. This is blockbuster filmmaking at its brilliant best and proof – if it was needed – that Cruise is still among the best we've got.
Top Gun: Maverick is released in cinemas on 27th May 2022. While you're waiting, visit our Movies hub for more news and features or find something to watch tonight with our TV Guide.
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