When Berlin sang Take My Breath Away in the original 1986 movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise clearly took it to heart.
As he’s got older, it’s a maxim he’s lived his entire career by, performing outrageous stunts in the Mission: Impossible series in particular, including scaling Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
But nothing will quite prepare you for the long-gestating sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. It’s pure unadulterated popcorn pleasure from start to finish, driven — or should that be piloted? — by Cruise, returning as Pete "Maverick" Mitchell.
The ace US Navy pilot is, obviously, older now, something that’s acknowledged in the story. Time has passed, and Maverick is still only a captain, but he’s not lost his penchant for the insane. When we first see him, he’s pushing his fighter jet up to Mach 10, much to the displeasure of the Rear Admiral (Ed Harris) who is in favour of drone technology replacing these pilots. With that in mind, he sends Maverick back to base with a mission in mind.
Overseen by a less-than-impressed, uniformed Jon Hamm, Maverick’s role is to train a dozen elite pilots for a mission in which the best six fly into enemy terrain to destroy a nuclear enrichment site. A virtual suicide run, it feels very similar to Luke Skywalker in his X-wing, attacking the Death Star in the first Star Wars film. “Show me what you’re made of,” says Maverick, as he arrogantly chucks the flight manual in the bin.
Among this group is Rooster (Miles Teller), whose father Goose flew with Maverick years earlier. There’s history between this ageing teacher and his pupil, too — involving Rooster’s time at the flight academy — although the tension is rather one-dimensional.
More appealing is watching Glen Powell as Hangman, as skilled and cocksure as Maverick once was (and armed with lines such as “The future is coming and you’re not in it”). While Kelly McGillis’s Charlie does not reappear, the script leans on the original, which referenced a Maverick former flame — Penny. Here she is, in the flesh, played by Jennifer Connelly — a single mother, the owner of The Hard Deck bar where all the pilots gather to drink, sing and be merry, and Maverick’s on-off love interest throughout. She even takes him sailing, leading to the immortal line: “I don’t sail boats, Penny, I land on them.”
Director Joseph Kosinski, who previously worked with Cruise on the sci-fi film Oblivion, had a dry run when it came to revisiting a beloved 1980s movie property. His 2010 film Tron: Legacy didn’t quite nail it either, but he’s seemingly learnt from that experience, crafting a film here that unashamedly calls back to the original Top Gun, whether it’s Penny clinging to the back of Maverick’s motorbike or a blast of Kenny Loggins’s Danger Zone on the soundtrack.
From the game of football on the beach, with the bronzed, buff pilots all topless, to Cruise breaking out that white naval uniform, you might call this fan service. But there’s real poignancy too — both in the dedication to the first film’s director Tony Scott, who died a decade ago, and with the appearance of Val Kilmer, reprising his role as Iceman despite struggling with his speech after throat cancer.
With the movie’s music ranging from The Who’s anthemic Won’t Get Fooled Again to Lady Gaga’s new belter Hold My Hand and score work from Hans Zimmer, it’s not exactly subtle, but it’s not meant to be. This is a film designed to get you whooping for joy and high-fiving your friends, and it will do — as long as you remember to let go of your armrests, such is the clammy tension of the final act.
Ultimately, the film lives and dies by the aerial sequences, which are simply stunning. Perfectly designed for the vastness of an IMAX screen, watching the acrobatic F-18s will cause your stomach to violently somersault. Quite who Maverick and his men are fighting is something of a mystery — they’re simply dubbed “the enemy” — but the fist-pumping emotion is all built around these heroes and their against-the-odds chances of survival.
Delayed by three years — partly because of the pandemic, but also so the production team could get the aviation scenes right — the wait has been truly worth it.