Now and again in “Top Gun: Maverick,” Pete Mitchell (that’s Maverick) is summoned to a face-to-face with an admiral. Pete, in spite of everything these years within the Navy — greater than 35, but who’s counting — has stalled on the rank of captain. He’s probably the greatest fighter pilots ever to take to the air, however the U.S. military hierarchy could be a treacherous political business, and Maverick is anything but a politician. Within the presence of a superior officer he’s apt to salute, smirk and push his profession into the center of the table like a stack of poker chips. He’s all in. At all times.
The primary such meeting is with Rear Adm. Chester Cain, a weathered chunk of brass played by Ed Harris, who has a powerful in-movie flight record of his own. (Without “The Right Stuff,” there would have been no “Top Gun.”) He appears to be telling Pete that the sport is over. Due to latest technology, flyboys like him are all but obsolete.
Based on this scene, you would possibly think that the movie is getting down to be a meditation on American air power within the age of drone warfare, but that can have to attend for the subsequent sequel. Pete still has a job to do. A teaching job, officially, but we’ll get to that. The conversation with Cain is just not a lot a red herring as a meta-commentary. Pete, as I’m sure I don’t should let you know, is the avatar of Tom Cruise, and the central query posed by this movie has less to do with the need of combat pilots than with the relevance of movie stars. With all this cool latest technology at hand — you possibly can binge 37 episodes of Silicon Valley grifting without leaving your couch — can we really want guys, or movies, like this?
“Top Gun: Maverick,” directed by Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”), answers within the affirmative with a confident, aggressive swagger which may seem like overcompensation. Not that there’s a hint of insecurity in Cruise’s performance — or in Maverick’s. On the point of 60, he still projects the nimble, cocky, perennially boyish charm that conquered the box office within the Eighties.
Back then — in Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” — Pete was a brash upstart striving to face out amid the camaraderie and competition of the super-elite Top Gun program. He seduced the teacher Charlie (Kelly McGillis), locked horns together with his golden-boy nemesis, Iceman (Val Kilmer), and lost his best friend and wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards). Ronald Reagan was president and the Cold War was in its florid final throes, but “Top Gun” wasn’t really a combat picture. It was, at heart, a sports movie decked out in battle gear, a couple of bunch of fellows showboating, trash talking and attempting to outdo each other.
Times have modified somewhat. Pete is the teacher now, called back to the Miramar naval base to coach a squad of eager young fliers for an urgent, dangerous mission. The frat-house atmosphere of the ’80s has been toned down, and the pilots are a more diverse, less obnoxious bunch.
One advantage to the long gap between chapters is that the various credited screenwriters are free to fill in or leave blank as much as they need. In the previous few a long time, Pete has seen loads of combat — Bosnia and Iraq are each mentioned — and pursued an on-and-off romance with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). Now he finds her working at a bar near the bottom and an old spark rekindles. She has a teenage daughter (Lyliana Wray) — Maverick is just not the dad — and a world-weary manner that matches Pete’s signature mix of cynicism and sentimentality.
Other reminders of the past include Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Goose, and Iceman himself, who has ascended to the rank of admiral and kept a protective eye on his former rival. Kilmer’s transient appearance has a special poignancy. Other than the 2021 documentary “Val,” he hasn’t been onscreen much since losing his voice to throat cancer, and seeing him and Cruise in a quiet scene together is as sad and stirring as something from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The primary “Top Gun” unfolded against a backdrop of superpower conflict. There was a formidable — if mostly offscreen — real-world adversary (the Soviet Union, in case you forgot) and the hovering possibility of nuclear apocalypse. This time, there’s an actual live-ammo skirmish with an unidentified foe, a mysterious entity in possession of super-high-tech aircraft who’s constructing an “unauthorized” weapons facility in a mountainous region of wherever. No names are mentioned, just “the enemy.” The circumspection is a bit of weird. Who or what are we imagined to be fighting? China? (On this economy?) The Taliban? Netflix? Covid?
It doesn’t matter. We never see the faces of the enemy pilots once the mission is underway. Which only confirms the sense that “Top Gun: Maverick” has nothing to say about geopolitics and every little thing to do with the defense of old-fashioned movie values within the face of streaming-era nihilism.
Is the defense successful? The motion sequences are tense and exuberant, reminders that flight has been one in every of the good thrills of cinema almost from the start. The story is a mixed bag. Regardless of the emotional crosscurrents and physical hazards that buffet poor Maverick — his profession, his love life and his duty to the memory of his dead friend, to say nothing of G-forces and flak — the dramatic stakes seem curiously low.
The junior pilots enact a sort of youngsters’s theater production of the primary movie. The cockfight between Maverick and Iceman is echoed within the rivalrous posturing of Rooster and the smug Hangman (an interestingly Kilmeresque Glen Powell). We’re treated to a shirtless game of touch football on the beach, which doesn’t quite match the unique volleyball game for sweaty camp subtext. There are some memorable supporting performances — notably from Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro and the all the time solid Jon Hamm, as a by-the-book, stick-in-the-mud admiral — however the world they inhabit is textureless and generic.
At times Kosinski appears to be reaching for an updated version of the sun-kissed, high-style ’80s aesthetic that “Top Gun” so effortlessly and elegantly typified. What he comes up with is something bland and basic, without the brazen, trashy sublimity you discover within the work of real pop auteurs like Scott, his brother Ridley, James Cameron or Michael Bay.
Though it’s possible you’ll hear otherwise, “Top Gun: Maverick” is just not an important movie. It’s a skinny, over-strenuous and sometimes very enjoyable movie. But it’s also, and maybe more significantly, an earnest statement of the thesis that movies can and needs to be great. I’m sufficiently old to recollect when that went without saying. For Pete’s sake, I’m almost as old as Maverick.
Top Gun: Maverick
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes. In theaters.