‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Is a Military Movie Miracle

Tom Cruise returns in "Top Gun: Maverick." (Paramount)

Let's review and just get this out there. Movie fans had every reason to expect that a sequel to "Top Gun" more than three decades after the release of the original movie would be one of those legendary disasters. Too much time had passed, and the world had changed too much for a movie about Navy aviators to match up with the superhero pictures that now dominate popular culture.

The team behind "Top Gun: Maverick" defied all expectations to deliver one of the best popcorn movie experiences in years. Sure, the Navy's going to love this one, but "Maverick" is a movie for anyone who enjoys a two-hour experience that doesn't require intimate knowledge of 100 other movies and shows in a "universe" and doesn't spend half its running time setting up the next 100 sequels.

There's two movies working in parallel here. First is a moving story for adult people about the cost of pursuing a career at the expense of personal relationships and whether it's still possible to change enough to repair the damage. The second is a kickass war movie with a team of arrogant aviators who must learn to come together to complete a nearly impossible mission under the guidance of an arrogant aviator who must learn how to teach them what he knows.

Those parallel stories could make "Top Gun: Maverick" a huge success. No one's going to convince the world that the "John Wick" flicks are great date movies, but "TGM" delivers just as much action alongside a surprisingly effective love story between Maverick and "the admiral's daughter," Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).

RelatedHow to Get Yourself Ready to See 'Top Gun: Maverick'

Director Joseph Kosinski and producers Tom Cruise and Jerry Bruckheimer pulled off an amazing production, convincing the Navy to give them whatever access they needed and Paramount Pictures to give them the time and money to develop new camera systems that would allow the movie to film the actors in flight during the action scenes.

On first viewing, I was caught up in the story and the limited-but-effective callbacks the original movie and thought the superhuman efforts made to film the elaborate flight scenes weren't totally necessary. On second viewing, the incredible technical achievements were undeniable when I wasn't wondering about what happened next.

There are CGI artists who have spent decades developing technology that allows moviemakers to put actors in tight spaces and dangerous situations without actually risking death or injury. The force of nature that is Tom Cruise convinced the Navy and Paramount to let him take crazy risks on this movie, and we're treated to the kind of aerial action footage that we'll never see again.

Sure, there are some digital effects to round out the scenes, but the actors really are pulling Gs in the action sequences, and there's no way that mere acting could've made the faces that actual gravity forces made for the performers in those scenes.

As the movie opens, Maverick is still in the Navy, and he's still a test pilot working on a program to develop the Navy's next-generation stealth fighter called the Darkstar. Unfortunately, Radm. Chester "Hammer" Cain (Ed Harris), aka "the drone ranger," believes pilots are dinosaurs and plans to shut down the program, but not before Mav takes one last test run in the plane and hits Mach 10.

That should be it for Maverick, but Adm. Tom "Iceman" Kazansky is commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and needs his old wingman to help prepare young Top Gun graduates for a mission to take out a nuclear enrichment plant that's being built by a rogue state.

There's some baggage. Maverick tried (and failed) to do the right thing to help his late RIO Goose's son, Rooster (Miles Teller), and now Rooster is one of the aviators in the team tasked with destroying the enemy nuclear facility.

There are outstanding performances from the rest of the young aviators, led by Glen Powell as Hangman, the cocky-yet-brilliant aviator who gets inside of Rooster's head. Monica Barbaro (Phoenix), Jay Ellis (Payback), Danny Ramirez (Fanboy), Lewis Pullman (Bob) and Greg Tarzan Davis (Coyote) round out the cream of the young flight team.

Maverick knows that the mission can't be accomplished with the latest-generation fighter planes, so he retrains the team on the F-18 so they can potentially thread the needle and evade enemy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) as they attempt their mission.

Some viewers may be frustrated that the rogue state never gets a name. We just know that the U.S. has identified this country as a threat if it gets nuclear capabilities. If you had your money on China or Russia as the foe here, you'll have to let that go to enjoy the movie.

"Top Gun: Maverick" is designed to be enjoyed with a full crowd in a movie theater. If you've got access to a Dolby Cinema or IMAX screening, fork over the extra money to get the full audio/visual experience. "Maverick" is one of those rare movies that understands and fully takes advantage of the latest theater upgrades.

Will "Top Gun: Maverick" be the same kind of cultural phenomenon that the first movie became back in 1986? Probably not, but it's actually a better movie with more emotional depth and far more impressive action sequences than we saw in "Top Gun."

Paramount took some heat when it decided to wait out the pandemic to give theaters a chance to recover before releasing "Top Gun: Maverick." Both the "Fast & Furious" sequel "F9" and the James Bond film "No Time to Die" were relative disappointments when they finally came to theaters, but "Maverick" is a far better movie in every way. If you've been waiting to go back to theaters, this is the movie that should bring you back. Don't miss it.

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