'Top Gun: Maverick' deserves the full theatrical experience

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

Nostalgia as escapism is ubiquitous. But what if nostalgia could be a force for good? Not an inelegant poke in the dopamine receptors, but rather, transcendent, even galvanizing, as it is in the case of Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” a legacy sequel that  allows the viewer to luxuriate in the glorious aura of the original “Top Gun,” while simultaneously reckoning with what Tom Cruise, The Last Great Movie Star, might mean after all these years.

Tony Scott’s 1986 “Top Gun” is a visceral experience: all sweat, Venetian blinds, power ballads, roaring jet engines and sunset silhouettes. Tom Cruise, in the role that made him an action star, drips with charisma as the unbearably cocky Navy fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a character that we like, begrudgingly, because the irrepressibly charming Goose (Anthony Edwards) likes him. He walks, talks and flies like he’s got something to prove.

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In “Top Gun: Maverick,” written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, with a story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks, Maverick still has a mind of his own and still doesn’t mind the hard deck, but he’s softened over the years, like a leather jacket that’s been beaten up, faded and wrinkled, and just might be cooler now that it’s vintage. Maverick’s still flying like he’s got something to prove, this time, his own relevance, and one can’t help but compare that to Cruise himself. In the same way that Maverick has to prove that fighter pilots are still necessary in a world of drones and robots, Cruise has set himself the task of proving that movie stars, and indeed the theatrical moviegoing experience, are still necessary.

Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise star in "Top Gun: Maverick." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movie 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Despite his reputation and tendency to disregard authority, Maverick is summoned by a scowling Cyclone (Jon Hamm) to the Navy’s San Diego flight school, Top Gun, to teach a new group of upstart young Naval aviators tasked with mastering an almost impossible feat of flying in order to blow up a uranium bunker in a hilariously unnamed rogue state. The pilots under Maverick’s tutelage include Hangman (Glen Powell), Phoenix (Monica Barbara), Payback (Jay Ellis), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Bob (Lewis Pullman Jr.), as well as the irrepressibly charming Rooster (Miles Teller), Goose’s son (we first met him singing “Great Balls of Fire” in the original). Unlike his dad, Rooster can’t stand Maverick, having simmered in years of silent resentment.

“Top Gun” is somewhat frustratingly apolitical, and “Maverick” is the same. Both are movies about the military that aren’t about war but use the apparatus and systems of war in order to tell an emotional story of friendship and heroism. They are less war stories than they are sports movies, following the formula of training, building the team and completing an objective. Ultimately, both films are about putting aside one’s ego in service of a greater purpose, and the sequel serves as a reminder that life’s most important lessons are usually the ones we have to learn twice.

However, nitpicking the politics, or lack thereof, denies one the pleasure of what “Top Gun” does best, and which “Maverick” delightfully reprises: pure cinematic aesthetics, from the breathtaking, heart-pounding cinematography, to the score that blends Hans Zimmer’s composition with the original music by Harold Faltermeyer and Lady Gaga’s theme song, “Hold My Hand.” It deserves to be seen as big and as loud as possible.

Tom Cruise stars in "Top Gun: Maverick." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movie 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

The bods remain buff and oiled, and the charisma and competition among the pilots crackles. Powell pops off the screen as the resident baddie, while Teller is undeniable as Rooster, espousing his father’s good-time energy as a way to mask the chip on his shoulder. Goose’s death remains devastating, and Maverick continues to grapple with the loss of his best friend. It permeates his instruction, which is always about the human within the machine: the opportunity for glory is equal to the risk of real death.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is the kind of nostalgia that delivers everything one wants in a “Top Gun” sequel, and more, but radically, it dares to show us the reality of the passage of time. Kilmer is incorporated beautifully in a role that shows the god-like Iceman aging into a weakened state, though reverently respected and surrounded by loved ones. On the other hand, Maverick realizes that the beloved machines he’s surrounded himself with over the years won’t love him back, at least not in the way an admiral’s daughter (Jennifer Connelly) might.

There might be new pilots on deck, but make no mistake, this is a Maverick movie through and through. Tom Cruise isn’t done with “Top Gun” yet, and he’s not letting go of big, emotional and deeply human blockbuster moviemaking without a fight. He’s indeed the hero that the movies need right now.

‘TOP GUN: MAVERICK’

4 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense action, and some strong language)

Running time: 2:11

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