Let me be clear: I don't like 1986's "Top Gun." I think it's macho-military propaganda with a schmaltzy script and a semi-good beach volleyball scene.
So when I tell you the sequel, "Top Gun: Maverick," is worth seeing in a theater, you know I mean it. Yes, it's still a propagandistic fantasy — a dogfight simulator preloaded with an unnamed enemy somehow possessing better technology than the U.S. military — made from a script melting with cheesy one-liners.
But the beach scene (football, this time) is pretty good. And the flying scenes? I've never seen anything like them. While F-14s and MiGs in the first one floated in empty space in vague proximity to each other, the jet fighters here feel dangerously close to canyons, trees, bridges and each other, and you can follow each move like a deadly dance.
Flight feels fragile here. Tom Cruise, the indestructible stuntman movie star, feels fragile as he races down canyons huffing like he's running every mile himself, eyes bugging as he feels the G-force, and we feel it, too. From the beginning of the movie, every flight feels like it could really end in flames and death. In an era of Disney franchise pictures where the stakes rarely feel real and any deaths are a business calculation, this movie flies in guns blazing like a relic aircraft from a bygone age.
In fact, if there's one issue with "Top Gun: Maverick," it's Maverick himself. I'll explain.
First, the basics: Tom Cruise's Pete Mitchell, aka "Maverick," is a weather-beaten test pilot with a stalled career. Two months after the events of the first movie, he was fired from Top Gun (the slang for the Navy's school for its best pilots), everyone in the Navy hates him now because he doesn't obey orders, and he's never married or had kids — just a broken romance with a bar owner played by Jennifer Connelly.
(It's as if Kelly McGillis, who played his astrophysicist love interest in the first movie, never existed; McGillis says producers never approached her to reprise the part. A whole other article could be written about how both of these movies are wholly uninterested in women but almost homoerotically fixated on sweaty men, their egos and their airplanes.)
Maverick is even estranged from his surrogate son, Bradley Bradshaw, aka Rooster, played by Miles Teller, whose main feat is looking a lot like his father, Maverick's old wingman whose death Maverick blames on himself. Through a favor from his only friend left in the Navy, "Iceman" (Val Kilmer, in a rare-these-days appearance due to throat cancer), Maverick gets a final job training the Navy's best pilots in a mission to destroy some unnamed rogue nation's uranium enrichment plant.
Minor spoiler that will make you say "of course": Maverick isn't just going to teach — he's going to fly that mission with them.
And therein lies perhaps the only issue with the movie: Tom Cruise flies so close to the sun he blots out anything that might illuminate a hypothetically talented cast of characters. And that's OK — it's a Tom Cruise movie, and Tom Cruise isn't really an ensemble actor.