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Top Gun: Maverick review – bravado sequel blows the original out of the sky

This follow-up to the 1986 classic surpasses all expectations, a slickly drawn adrenaline hit that reaffirms Tom Cruise's star status

There are few films less likely to be met with enthusiasm than the decades-after sequel, most of which are conjured by studios insisting on feeding our growing appetite for nostalgia after all other asserts have dried up. Top Gun: Maverick, then, had all the makings of the doomed “sequel nobody asked for,” while the original film is, by my (unpopular) weighing, an overrated but insistently iconic affair, adored mostly by those who saw it at a formative age, celebrated for its gay subtext and corny one-liners.

But Tom Cruise is, by many accounts, the Last Movie Star, and Maverick is further proof that few in the business of cinema are as committed in delivering entertainment that goes the extra mile as to be “authentic.” In Cruise’s eyes, authenticity means doing his own stunts, but it also goes deeper than that: Maverick shows a level of old-fashioned blockbuster craft that may not have been seen – and was taken for granted at the time – since the heyday of Jerry Bruckheimer (who produced the original Top Gun and co-produces here). It's the rare, belated sequel that lands with a real determination of purpose, mainly because the “well-oiled machine of a movie” – disciplined in script, visuals, performance, and (perhaps most importantly) pacing – feels like such a rarity in 2022.

As we catch up with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell after more than thirty years, he's working his magic as a test pilot. After a daring mission that literally takes him out of the atmosphere – arguably making for the film’s best and most daring set-piece – he's reassigned to “Top Gun” in order to train a group of ace pilots for a dangerous bombing mission against a faceless enemy whose nationality is never revealed and never matters. There, he is reunited with faces old and new, though quickly finds himself at odds with the son (played by Miles Teller) of his former wingman, Goose, whose death in the original film now casts a shadow over this one.

Stripped back and uncluttered in a way that is refreshing for any sequel, Top Gun: Maverick soars as a beautiful ode to the blockbuster itself, a grappling with notions of legacy that never pushes too hard on the nostalgia button. While the majority of franchises today are content to just give audiences what they want on a platter, Maverick accepts the inevitabilities of time as something not to be pandered to, but embraced and then built upon. In other words, it finds the ideal balance of fan service without overdoing the nods and mentions.

In look and feel, as helmed by Cruise’s Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski, this could accurately be described as the slickest sequel ever made. It's by no means perfect – the middle is ever-so-slightly saggy, Jennifer Connelly gets a dud of a love interest part, and the film's new faces are just that: faces – but it never stalls, preferring instead to show off its mastery of the blockbuster form. Of course, Maverick is subtitled as such for a reason, and that's because as much as Cruise allows his young cast to shine, the movie belongs to him. This is not a legacy sequel that sidelines the original hero and it's all the better for it.

Maverick's extensive and complex flight sequences, most of which were shot from within the cockpits of real fighter jets, are intense, polished, and chaotic, essentially acting as the epitome of Cruise himself: they explode with an unpredictable air that's counter-weighed by a deeper sense that, like Cruise, the film is always in complete control. And for all its leaning into blockbuster tropes and standards, Maverick opts for some late narrative choices that results in one of the most thrilling final acts in modern action movie history.

More than anything, Maverick is the movie that makes the case for Cruise as uncredited co-director – the man pulling the strings across multiple departments, using everything he has learned over the years to ensure the continuation of the theatrical tradition that has kept his career alive for decades. He has funnelled ideas of perfectionism and his knack for collaboration into honing the “perfect” blockbuster experience.

Top Gun: Maverick isn’t just another piece of IP being used to push an ancient commodity. Within its familiar framework there lies a personal statement from an artist – an equal lament and celebration of the sort of pictures that are difficult to come by in the present day, where each aspect has been carefully fine-tuned to ensure maximum entertainment value. Love him or loathe him, nobody in Hollywood is going as far as Cruise to preserve the theatrical experience. Maverick, indeed.

Top Gun: Maverick was screened as part the Cannes Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 25 May.

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