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At the start of “Top Gun: Maverick,” Tom Cruise hops on his sleek motorbike, wearing Aviator sunglasses and a leather jacket with patches, and speeds into a time machine. No that’s not true. It’s actually us making a return trip.
More than 30 years after Cruise smirked to the arrogant heights of the ’80s as a maverick Navy pilot codenamed Maverick, he’s effortlessly reprising the character in a new chapter of “Top Gun.” which is an absolutely very enjoyable ride – a textbook example of how to make a sequel.
“Top Gun: Maverick” satisfies with a foot in the past by touching all the touchstones of the first film – the fast motorcycles, the song “Danger Zone”, the military fetishes, the humorless navy bosses, the sports of shirtless binding, “the hard bridge”, bar singalongs and hum of the tower – and yet stands on its own. It’s not weighed down by its past like the latest “Ghostbusters” sequel, but rather flies away using the second to respond and echo the issues with the first.
Cruise is, of course, back, taking over his rebel test pilot now based in a forgotten corner of the Mojave Desert, a mere captain when he should be an admiral because he continues to oppose the authority. The years have not calmed Maverick from his impulsive and impetuous style. Pilots do, he argues; they do not ruminate. “You think up there, you’re dead,” he declares. This is Cruise at its most Cruise-iest, coiled up, confident and arrogant, teeth glinting in the sun.
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His former Iceman rival – Val Kilmer – is also back, a huge Navy muckety-muck now. And even Goose is back, through his son, the same mustachioed Miles Teller, who looks surprisingly like Anthony Edwards, the actor who played Maverick’s doomed flight partner and wingman in life in the first film. This death looms large for Maverick, even 30 years later: “Talk to me, Goose,” he whispered to himself.
Some things have changed, of course. The F-14A Tomcats have been replaced by the F/A-18s and the arrogant all-male pilots of the first film have been infiltrated by a few arrogant women. Sadly, these seem to be the last days of the men and women pushing the boundaries of naval aviation; unmanned aircraft are more reliable and they are next. “The future is coming and you’re not there,” says Maverick by Ed Harris, playing a humorless admiral.
But Maverick, on the brink of extinction, has one last job for the Navy: to train a group of young elites for a dangerous bombing mission in Iran. One potential catch: The young stars he has to train include Goose’s son, call sign Rooster. Will Maverick be responsible for cooking another Goose? Can he outsmart John Hamm, playing an imperious officer with delicious calm fury?
Director Joseph Kosinski brings a visceral feel to the film, somehow making us feel claustrophobic in the wide open sky as the pilots zoom in and swerve. It alternates wonderfully between loud outdoor scenes with roaring plane engines and quiet indoor scenes with people almost whispering. It also transitions from bright sunshine to dark interiors.
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A welcome touch to the screenplay by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie is new love interest for Maverick. Jennifer Connelly plays a divorced bar owner who has a townhouse, a beach house, a sailboat, and a Porsche, so business is good. But neither is she a pushover for Maverick over and over again and, in one key scene, she’s the comfortable pilot of a boat and he’s the one with no clue.
It’s a more thoughtful, darker Maverick. “Top Gun: Maverick” is something of a meditation on what happens to gifted rebels later in life. He is wracked with guilt and in one scene he is picked up and roughly thrown out of a bar by the same hotshots as 30 years ago. Worse, it is called “Pops”. What’s remarkable is that Cruise seems to have indeed found a way to outwit time. His chiseled body and still boyish face are indistinguishable from pilots three decades his junior at a football game on the beach.
The movie deals with Maverick’s personal business — courting the waitress, mending his relationship with Goose’s kid — while fulfilling its promise as an action movie. There are jets firing 10Gs, the metallic sound of drawn cockpit sticks, epic dogfights and the whine of machines balking at the demands placed on them. The action even takes a few unexpected and thrilling turns. So hop on Maverick’s bike, hug him, and join him on the highway to the danger zone.
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“Top Gun: Maverick,” a Paramount Pictures release that hits theaters May 27, is rated PG-13 for “intense action sequences and strong language.” Duration: 131 minutes. Three and a half out of four stars.
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