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'Top Gun: Maverick'

A thrilling ride and a worthy salute to the original

Top Gun: Maverick and Tom Cruise give us all we could ask for in this long-awaited sequel. Photo credit: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures Corporation

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Tom Cruise had his breakthrough moment in 1983's Risky Business and planted his flag as an A-list headliner with Top Gun in 1986, and he's never NOT been a major movie star (with a carefully cultivated image) ever since. Now comes the much-delayed, highly anticipated Top Gun: Maverick, and the 59-year-old Cruise proves he can still hit all the familiar and crowd-pleasing notes, from his willingness to throw his very being into a role, to knowing just when to flash the pearly whites, to the Tom Cruise Hug - you know, when he hesitates for just a moment and then comes in for the bro-embrace, complete with a dramatic shutting of the eyes and balling up of the fists, and you're thinking: Great hug, Tom Cruise. 

Top Gun: Maverick picks up the story some 35 years after the events from Ridley Scott's pop culture touchstone movie, and while it's even slicker, bigger and more action-packed, it's also a greatest-hits tribute, starting with the opening sequence that is virtually a shot-by-shot re-creation of the 1986 film, from the opening strains of Harold Faltermeyer's theme to the sounds of Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" as an aircraft carrier support crew prepares planes for takeoff. If it weren't for the A-6s and F-14s being replaced by F-18s and F-35s, you might wonder if you've accidentally wandered into a revival screening of Top Gun instead of the sequel. 

This is the kind of movie where you feel like you've seen it before you've even seen it, and you'd be right, as there are no surprises in Maverick, and many of the new characters are screenplay doppelgangers for figures from the original film, and we can see the big action twists and emotional reveals coming two scenes in advance - but that's all good. We're not looking for some sort of introspective, existential, dark drama with psychological underpinnings, we're anticipating a good old-fashioned summer movie experience, and we're expecting to feel our teeth rattle and feel our eyeballs pop as we enjoy the roller coaster ride and revel in all the familiar beats and callbacks. 

Maverick is a movie made for Top Gun fans BY Top Gun fans, including director Joseph Kosinski, who wisely follows Scott's directorial playbook nearly page-for-page and gives Cruise and the outstanding supporting cast breathing room to shine in alternating scenes of hotshot pilot banter and dramatic emotional impact. 

Cruise's Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell lives alone in a Mojave Desert airplane hangar (pretty sweet setup!) and still soars the skies as a test pilot for the Navy - but as the old-school yet forward-thinking Rear Adm. Cain (a perfectly cast Ed Harris) reminds Pete, drones are making his kind obsolete, and one day the Navy won't even need pilots anymore. Maybe so, comes the reply. But not today. 

Mav's former rival turned best friend Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who is now an admiral and the commander of the Pacific Fleet, taps Maverick to train the incoming class of elite pilots at Fighter Weapons School in San Diego, much to the dismay of the by-the-book Vice Adm. Beau "Cyclone" Simpson (Jon Hamm, continuing a decades-long string of playing detectives, FBI agents and uniformed authority figures).

Mav is still haunted by the death of his best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards), and wouldn't you know it, that toddler in the little cowboy hat who sat on the piano when Goose banged out "Great Balls of Fire" in Top Gun is now a pilot named Rooster (Miles Teller), and Rooster resents the hell out of Maverick for more than one reason. (We learn Rooster's mother, played by Meg Ryan, has passed away; there is zero mention of Kelly McGillis' Charlie, who apparently was not the love of Mav's life. Probably cuz he's a LONER and all.)

The class also includes the cocky, Iceman-like Hangman (Glen Powell), a female pilot with the call sign of Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), and a bunch of other thinly drawn characters mainly here to fill out the seats in class and participate in a torso-baring beach football scene with direct echoes of the homoerotic volleyball sequence in the original.

Maverick's job is to select the best team for a mission that involves bombing a uranium enrichment plant on enemy soil - a mission that will take at least two miracles, or so we're told, and looks to be something straight out of a Star Wars movie. Would it shock you to learn circumstances lead to Maverick being named as the team leader, even though he's supposed to be grounded? Come on, you didn't think Mav was going to be coaching from the sidelines as Hangman and Rooster and Phoenix et al. soared to glory, did ya?

The sublime Jennifer Connelly lends heart and warmth as Penny, a single mom who runs the local bar and once had a thing with Mav (it's referenced in the original movie) and she says they're not going to do that dance again, but of course they are. (The filmmakers miss an easy opportunity to show Maverick's emotional growth at one point, and I'll say no more about that.) Cruise and Connelly are wonderful together, and Cruise and Teller establish an involving father-estranged-son-type dynamic - and there's a genuinely touching scene in which Maverick and Iceman are reunited, with Val Kilmer's real-life battle with throat cancer reflected in Iceman's declining health. And of course, the airborne sequences are spectacular and especially impressive, given we are watching practical effects as opposed to CGI. Top Gun: Maverick is a visceral good time and a worthy salute to the original.

Top Gun: Maverick

Three stars

STARS: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly and Miles Tiller

DIRECTOR: Joseph Kosinski

RATED: PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some strong language

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