Top Gun Maverick (2022) — Now here’s how you do a sequel

“It’s not the plane. It’s the pilot.”

Justin’s rating: I feel the need… for an extra-large tub of popcorn with caramel drizzle.

Justin’s review: As of the writing of this review, Top Gun Maverick’s already cleared $1 billion in box office revenue — and still climbing. It’s also one of the best-reviewed movies of 2022, so much so that you probably don’t need to read what I’m writing here to know that both critics and audiences kinda like it. (But hey, I appreciate you sticking around.) It’s probably going to cream a lot of other sequels this summer, including the sixth Jurassic Park flick, and by a long shot. So what is working so well with this 35-year-removed sequel?

We could point to the enduring star power of Tom Cruise in an era where movie stars are fast becoming extinct as a thing. We could ooh and ahh at all of the admittedly gorgeous airplane maneuvers on display. But I think the real answer is that this is a no-nonsense blockbuster that seeks to entertain like they used to in the ’80s and ’90s. That’s the real connection between Top Gun and Maverick — both are uncomplicated, straight-forward adventures with lots of heart, comedy, action… and nary a “message” in sight to be shoved down our throats.

Decades after the first movie, Maverick (Cruise) is still a captain in the Navy thanks to his reckless behavior. But gosh darn it, he’s so dang talented that they can’t get rid of him either! So what to do with the guy? Why, send him back to the Top Gun training school, this time as a teacher to help prepare a team for an impossible mission. (No, not Mission: Impossible. That’s the other thing that Cruise sacrifices his body for with all of the outlandish stunts).

Maverick brings a whole lot of baggage back to his old stomping grounds, most notably his guilt over Goose’s death. With that hanging over his head like a black cloud, Maverick’s got to deal with a cocky bunch of fighter jockeys, a vice admiral (Jon Hamm) who doesn’t like him that much, an old love interest (Jennifer Connelly) who might be carrying a torch, and a short time frame to get ready for the mission at hand.

Putting Maverick in the role of the instructor is a deft role reversal, especially because he doesn’t exactly want to do it. But he’ll suck it up anyway, because his old friend Iceman (Val Kilmer, in a brief but incredible role) is pushing him to let the past go and make amends with Goose’s son Rooster (Miles Teller). Cue some “Danger Zone,” training exercise montages, sand football, and even a new opportunity to buzz the tower.

With Top Gun such a cinematic milestone in our pop culture, creating a sequel this late in the game had to be such a delicate balancing act between nostalgia and a fresh take. There are so many ways that Maverick could’ve gone wrong, yet at almost every turn, the filmmakers chose rightly. They kept it uncomplicated. They conjured a perfect mix of the old and the new. They liberally sprinkled it with comedy and then absolutely doused it with some of the best jet fighter sequences in the last act that have ever been recorded on film. And they gave Maverick an interesting arc as he finally faced his responsibilities and relationships instead of joking his way out of them.

I could nitpick a few small things, such as a rehashed soundtrack that doesn’t add anything better or the preposterous amount of photographs of the first film that seem to be plastered everywhere, but that’s all it is — nitpicking.

From start to finish, Maverick is a whole lot of fun. There’s a terrific supporting cast, especially all of the Top Gun students, many of whom have a good rapport and strong personality notes. The movie actually surprised me toward the end, and in a good, punch-the-air kind of way. And I loved that it proved that the well-crafted summer blockbuster of old still exists — and is being recognized as head and shoulders above the rest of the dreck that Hollywood’s been pumping out these days.

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