Has it really been 36 years since “Top Gun” came out? Boy, did that movie ever capture a cultural moment. With its fever-dream Reaganism, the way it brought MTV visuals to the big screen, and how it sealed the deal on Tom Cruise’s superstardom, it epitomized an era. “Top Gun” wasn’t a great movie. Instead, it was something rarer: a defining one. It did for flight decks and Ray-Bans what “Saturday Night Fever” had for discos and white suits.
Trying to make a sequel for something like that sounds crazy. Better to re-investigate Iran-Contra or slap big shoulder pads on every jacket of every man’s or woman’s suit ever made. Yet a sequel is what “Top Gun: Maverick” is; and in its calculatedly mindless, muscularly shameless way, it may work even better than the original did. The movie is its own genre, techno-testosterone nostalgia. Is it exciting? Sure, though so’s being hit on the side of the head with a 2x4.
“Top Gun: Maverick” opens in theaters May 24.
Joseph Kosinski, the director, has worked with Cruise before, on “Oblivion” (2013). In that movie, he showed an affinity for wide vistas and horizontality generally. He puts that to attractive use in various magic-hour shots of jets in flight. Tony Scott, who directed “Top Gun,” wasn’t so much making a movie as a set of music videos. Kosinski is making a series of video games interrupted by scenes of people talking. That’s not a complaint, or only partially. The editing of the action sequences — and let’s face it, they’re the heart of the movie — is terrifically effective. Speed is one thing. Clarity is another. “Top Gun: Maverick” has both.
In the original, you will recall (or maybe not — 36 years is a long time), Cruise played hot-shot Navy fighter jock Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, tearing it up at the Navy’s Top Gun flight school, in San Diego. In the sequel, he’s still on active duty and still flying. “You can’t get a promotion,” says a disapproving admiral (Ed Harris). “You refuse to retire. Despite your best efforts, you haven’t died.” Maverick shrugs. “I’m where I belong, sir.”
That means riding his motorcycle, disobeying orders and taking a plane to Mach 10 (that’s 7,612 miles per hour, for those of you keeping score at home), and generally being “the fastest man alive,” as an admiring subordinate puts it. When Maverick says “C’mon” to coax beyond its limits the jet he’s flying, said aircraft will consider itself coaxed. Of course it will. Maverick is The Jet Whisperer. Cruise turns 60 in July — yes, you read that right — and Maverick remains the Tom Cruise-iest of his roles.
Maverick may not have risen above captain, but Ice, his rival from the first movie, now commands the Pacific Fleet. Clearly, some guns are more top than others. As Ice, Val Kilmer returns for a cameo, and he and Cruise have a surprisingly affecting scene together. This is one of the keys to the two movies’ appeal, how their worship of speed and noise gives them cover to wallow in macho sentimentality.
In the sequel, the wallowing crosses generations. Maverick’s best friend in “Top Gun,” Goose, did not, let us say, end well. So who should show up at Top Gun but his son, Rooster. Rooster sports the same woofy mustache as his father, but Miles Teller has none of the amiability Anthony Edwards did as Goose. That makes sense, since he’s so bitter toward Maverick.
This bitterness poses personal problems, obviously. How would you feel if the son of your late best friend hated your guts? “My dad believed in you,” Rooster snarls at Maverick. “I’m not going to make the same mistake.” That’s a tough nut to crack, even for Tom Cruise. It’s even more problematic professionally. Rooster is one of a dozen fliers Cruise is assigned to train for a super-secret, more or less suicidal mission — yes, yes, a mission impossible, ha, ha — and then he has to decide which six of them will carry it out. “What the enemy doesn’t know is your limits,” Maverick announces. “I intend to find them.”
So there’s a lot going on: flight training, classroom arguments, homoerotic beach touch football (”dogfight football,” Maverick approvingly calls it). He clashes with his superior officers, most notably a dyspeptic Jon Hamm. Fortunately, he has a love interest. There’s only so much whispering that can be directed at jets.
In “Top Gun,” she was a physicist played by Kelly McGillis. In the sequel, she’s a bar owner played by Jennifer Connelly. It’s hard to say which is the movie’s more notable nod to proto-feminism: that one of the suicide-mission candidates is female (Monica Barbaro); or that in their one love scene Cruise is shirtless and Connelly is not. A slightly rueful tone helps Connelly maintain her dignity throughout. This is no small accomplishment, considering how negligible Penny, her character, is. She’s isn’t so much plot device as plot distraction. The real love interest are the F-18s.
TOP GUN: MAVERICK
Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Peter Craig, Justin Marks; based on characters created by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. Starring Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Val Kilmer, Jon Hamm. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 131 minutes. PG-13 (intense action, some strong language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.