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Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in "Top Gun: Maverick." Photo courtesy of IMDb.

REVIEW: ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ spectacularly soars above the competition

The list of legacy sequels that outperform the quality and craft of their original movies welcomed a new member memorial day weekend with Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” releasing in theaters across the world. With a careful story focusing primarily on character and relationships rather than franchise and easter eggs, Kosinski and screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christpher McQuarrie created a film that builds on and lifts the original to greater heights.

“Top Gun: Maverick” picks up over thirty years after the original film with Tom Cruise as Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell being forced to return to the United States Navy Special Flight School, also known as TOPGUN, to train and select a team of pilots from the best of the best — including Miles Teller as “Rooster” —  to fly a nearly impossible mission over enemy territory.

By making the dramatic action of this movie concern one mission and its danger, the final run is infinitely more tense and justified than in the original. By the end, you know the mission run by heart, making the final attempt even more terrifying. Our main concern, though, is Maverick’s strained relationship with Rooster, his late flight partner Goose’s (played by Anthony Edwards in the original) son.

The emotional core of this movie comes from their relationship as they struggle with their one-sided reckonings of each other. The script is careful in justifying the tension; where other legacy sequels might make the issue generational, Kosinski frames it more interpersonally, linking it not to misunderstanding, but to machismo, stoicism and duty.

Like the original, this movie floods the screen with masculinity to comment on, but this film is far more successful in its commentary, managing to justify everything along the way (even the required beach sport scene, sufficiently oiled-up and homoerotic). Though the movie doesn’t purport to make the viewer contemplate their own masculinity, there’s enough nuance there to justify and to spur those so inclined to.

In this way, the film compliments and deepens Maverick’s arc from the original. Rather than simply giving up his grief for Goose and sending his son to die in the name of stoicism, or keeping him out of duty at the behest of  his late mother, Maverick has to trust Rooster to become who he always was meant to be. Though the series has always offered surprisingly nuanced views on masculinity, this development still surprises due to incredibly strong performances by both Cruise and Teller.

They aren’t alone in filling out the cast with terrific performances; two standouts are Monica Barbado as “Phoenix” and Glen Powell as “Hangman,” with the latter serving a similar role to Val Kilmer’s “Iceman” in the original. Jennifer Connelly puts in valiant effort toward bringing life to Maverick’s love interest Penny, but just like Kerry McGillis’ character in the original, she’s written flat, focusing the viewer instead on the homosocial relationships between the pilots as they leave classic masculinity behind.

Of particular note in this sequel is the thoughtful way Kosinski handles the return of Kilmer’s “Iceman.” Rather than writing Kilmer off due to medical concerns, the movie gives him a send-off respectful of his difficulties, with the character also suffering from throat cancer just as Kilmer has in real life. As someone new to the franchise, I still cried at his one scene in the movie, not because of the weight of his legacy, but rather because of the respect afforded the great actor — this isn’t “Star Wars,” where CGI Ice would fly in at the last moment to save our heroes.

What makes “Top Gun: Maverick” so stunning in comparison to recent films is the way it takes itself seriously. Kosinski and Cruise never present their film as a joke, like blockbusters tend to do now, compelling the audience not to nitpick, but  to suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy the film. Even the humorous moments come from character rather than a place of Marvel-esque cheese.

Also stunning was the camera work.Though cinematographer Claudio Miranda loses the stylistically vivid color-grading that made the original (specifically the opening) so visually distinct, he makes up for it with shots that go far beyond the characterless modern strategy of total coverage. A personal favorite of mine was of Maverick on the carrier before launch, framing him in uncomfortable close-up so that we might see it all — age, wrinkles, stress — everything that proves Tom Cruise is a real man and that he’s getting older.

Overall, “Top Gun: Maverick” proves that there is still value to be found in the dying blockbuster and that, though revisiting dead movies or franchises is often a thoughtless cash grab, when done tastefully it can complement and rise above the original work. I highly recommend taking a break from the barrage of cinematic universes to give this excellent movie a chance, even if you haven’t seen the original.

Spenser Willden is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at culture@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @spenserwillden

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