Top Gun
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Hollywood has always dreamt of flying. The very first Oscar for Best Picture was given to 1927’s Wings, a World War I epic featuring groundbreaking aerial photography. Released three years later, Howard HughesHell’s Angels featured an aerial stunt so dangerous that no stunt pilot would attempt it. Hughes did it himself and crashed, fracturing his skull and rearranging his face.

Tom Cruise would have loved that. The megastar has made it a mid-career trademark to risk his life–and perhaps more importantly, his face—for the movies. Supposedly, he does all his own stunts, several of which involve flying in or around planes. For Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, he hung onto the side of a cargo jet as it took off. You might ask: Does he really do these things? The behind-the-scenes featurettes, strategically released by Paramount’s publicity teams, seem to prove that he does, and they’re an essential building block of his star persona. In an age of comic-book movie hegemony, that’s Cruise’s superpower: He’s willing to die to entertain us.

In the dizzying, dazzling Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise flies his own fighter jets. At least some of them. The Navy denied him permission to fly an F-18, but he does pilot a propeller-driven jet and a few helicopters in the film. No skulls were fractured, but it might have been worth it if they were. The film’s final 30 minutes stack exhilarating aerial sequences one after the other, each more armchair-gripping than the last. Director Joseph Kosinski puts you inside the cockpit—real ones, no green screens. You can feel the world rushing by as the planes fly at ungodly speeds, bending time and space as they corkscrew around mountains, dip into valleys, and accelerate like speeding bullets. In one scene, two diving fighter jets twirl around each other like copulating eagles in a euphoric death spiral. Yeah.

Best of all, the action in Top Gun: Maverick has real stakes and is actually legible. The screenplay lays out a clear mission for Maverick (Cruise, for those of you who somehow missed the first movie) and his students at the flight academy: Take out a uranium enrichment plant in some unnamed rogue country. The dangers of the mission are delineated repeatedly through dialogue, a computer simulation, and an immersive PowerPoint presentation. When it comes time to actually fly, the dogfights are meticulously choreographed and expertly edited. It’s a marked improvement on the original film, in which the flying scenes were edited so chaotically—this became director Tony Scott’s coked-up visual trademark—that they were impossible to follow, ultimately sapping the story of real drama and tension. 

“Rooster,” Miles Teller; courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It didn’t help that its characters were comically two-dimensional avatars of ’80s masculinity, boasting a machismo so aggressive that it actually became vulnerable, maybe even tender. Those are the combustible ingredients that led to a scene in which young, thoroughly oiled male bodies in blue jeans played beach volleyball like an ancient Roman ritual by way of MTV. Top Gun: Maverick returns to the volleyball scene, and, in fact, every memorable moment from the original. In a cringe-worthy attempt to tug heartstrings, Rooster (played effectively by Miles Teller’s mustache), the son of the dearly departed Goose, is seen playing “Great Balls of Fire” on a piano in a dive bar, just like his old man. Elsewhere, the film riffs on the original accidentally—in ways that reveal its core shortcomings. Top Gun is famous for having one of cinema’s most chaste, childish love scenes, with a silhouetted Cruise and Kelly McGillis engaging in unconvincing foreplay. This one has Cruise and Jennifer Connelly, in a painfully underwritten role, go straight from first kiss to postcoital bliss, before Cruise escapes through the window like a teenager trying to get home before curfew. We thought Hollywood’s idea of human sexuality couldn’t get any more puritanical, but we were wrong.

All in all, Top Gun: Maverick does as good a job as any legacy sequel in balancing reverence of its original film with a new story and visual language that viewers can invest in. The characters won’t compel you. Outside of Rooster, there’s Hangman, a walking embodiment of cocky charm brought to life by the preternaturally likable Glen Powell. There is a woman on the squad this time (Phoenix, played by Monica Barbaro), which I suppose represents some sort of progress, but the film doesn’t care about her enough to give her a single meaningful characteristic. There is also a milquetoast pilot with glasses who seems as certain to get blown up as anyone (I’m reminded of the character “Dead Meat” in the Top Gun parody Hot Shots); the fact that he survives the film is the closest thing it has to a surprising note.

“Phoenix” played by Monica Barbaro, courtesy of Paramount Pictures

And then there’s Cruise himself. As they say at retirement dinners, he’s the reason we’re all here tonight, but what does Top Gun: Maverick say about him that we don’t already know? He is just as charming and likable as ever, and he still looks kind of weird without a shirt on, and his teeth are still great, and, despite the entire film being explicitly about the need for him to grow up, let go of his past, and accept the realities of aging, you know it’s only a matter of time before Cruise has to strap himself into the cockpit and show these young men (and one woman) what real heroism looks like. As Maverick saves the world from an existential threat, so might Cruise. He’s a relic from another era of movies, when a single star could exert enough gravity to pull people into theaters. Top Gun: Maverick proves the formula still works, if you have a bright enough star, one who refuses to accept new realities, and will die proving it.

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Top Gun: Maverick is in theaters everywhere on May 27.