‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Really Is That Good

Tom Cruise returns to remind us what a movie star vehicle truly looks like.
Top Gun Maverick

Let us cut right to the chase: what you have heard about Top Gun: Maverick is true. It lives up to the hype. Tom Cruise is back, baby. 

A lot has happened in the nearly four decades since the events of 1986’s Top Gun. Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) has lived up to his nickname and famous escapades. Higher-ups question why after all these years he has remained a captain. The answer, we learn, is that he just will not give up flying (and disobeying orders).

Maverick soon receives an assignment he cannot refuse and returns to the famous Top Gun flight school to instruct a group of star pilots in the lead up to a dangerous mission. The stakes of Maverick’s return are heightened when he learns that his class of students includes Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his deceased best friend and former cockpit companion Nick “Goose” Bradshaw. The coincidence may feel a bit too gimmicky to some, but the connection between the two men gives the film an emotional depth lacking in the original. Rooster blames Maverick for his father’s death and keeps him at an emotional distance. Maverick, for his part, must find ways to train Rooster and earn his trust. He must also ensure history does not repeat itself. 

Thankfully, Maverick has aged with the actor who plays him. Cruise brings to the role the kind of cool, cockiness that defined young Maverick even if he still has some growing up to do. But he also carries himself with a more measured, thoughtful demeanor apparently developed in the decades that have passed. Maverick is a guy who has seen some shit, who reflects on life as he slowly becomes a father-friend to the pilots he trains. 

While the new movie makes up for the lack of interpersonal depth in the original, Top Gun: Maverick still brings the kitschy, bombs-bursting action that will satisfy fans of Cruise and the first film alike. Audiences should appreciate how the new film, directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy; Oblivion), is not overly-steeped in nostalgia. Viewers who have seen the original will naturally smile and cheer a bit more, but one need not have seen Top Gun to appreciate Maverick. 

A cast of new and old characters give the film a fresh yet still familiar feel. Jennifer Connelly plays Penny, the local bar owner who dates Maverick. Jon Hamm plays Vice Admiral Cyclone Simpson, Maverick’s demanding boss who often questions his tactics. And Val Kilmer reprises his role as “Iceman,” Maverick’s old flight school friend, now a four-star admiral and commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Each of these characters find ways to push and challenge Maverick as he grows into the role of Top Gun elder statesman. 

Readers may remember the film’s tumultuous production history. Originally slated to be released in 2019, shooting delays pushed the film to 2020. The pandemic, naturally, then caused a series of further delays. Cruise, in his role as star and producer, has spoken publicly about his commitment to the theatrical experience. He insisted that Maverick not debut via streaming. We should all be grateful that he did. 

Maverick is a shot of adrenaline right to the eyes and ears. Even more so than the film’s enveloping visuals, the sound design and music seemingly simulate the experience of flying. Wind, explosions, enemy fire, and engine roars all pour over the viewer. Such audiovisual disorientation creates a sonic portrait of Top Gun piloting and flying when the stakes are at their absolute highest. The sounds of the naval air base are made all the more rich when paired with the film’s soundtrack, which features an original theme song by Lady Gaga

Perhaps the most admirable quality of Top Gun: Maverick is that it never pretends to be anything other than what its core audience wants it to be: a thoughtful, finely-crafted action film that will wow audiences with its sounds and images. The film is escapism at its finest. Audiences who have waited years for Maverick’s return will be more than satisfied with the end result.

The nostalgia audiences may feel while watching Maverick may have less to do with Top Gun and more to do with Cruise, who belongs to that dying breed known as “movie star.” To watch Tom Cruise, his faults and all, is to watch the living embodiment of film history. To witness a genre hero whose style of filmmaking may not ever exist again. 

The history of Hollywood is the history of the star vehicle and of making films that showcase the unique skill sets of its greatest artists. One cannot tell the history of film without mentioning Tom Cruise. Getting to see the man in his element, reprising and evolving in one of his signature roles, is cinema at its finest. And it’s also a damn pleasure to just simply watch.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.