'Top Gun: Maverick': Tom Cruise Perfects the Movie as Theme Park Ride (Review)

Top Gun: Maverick may have come 36 years too late, but it does not matter at all. The new movie, directed by Joseph Kosinski, flies far ahead of the original 1986 blockbuster in emotional power and thrills. If Tom Cruise perfected the stunt movie with Mission: Impossible – Fallout, he oversaw the perfect movie as a theme park ride with the new adventure of Pete "Maverick" Mitchell.

Over 30 years after the events of Top Gun, Maverick (Cruise) is still a captain thanks to his rule-breaking ways. Although his first attempt at teaching new pilots for the U.S. Navy was a bust, Admiral Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer) wants his old buddy to help train a new batch of Top Gun grads for a dangerous mission in an unnamed hostile country. One of those new pilots is Lt. Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick's late wingman Nick "Goose" Bradshaw. Maverick still blames himself for Goose's death, and Rooster has a deep-seated dislike for Maverick. They both need to put their differences aside to achieve their mission.

Unlike other legacy sequels that seek to just retell the story from the original movie, Top Gun: Maverick bests the original by adding more depth to its characters. Cruise still has that brash, charismatic kid inside him, but he embraces his age here. Top Gun: Maverick might include a shot of Cruise's famous running, but the movie itself does not run from the fact that there's a 36-year gap since Maverick's last onscreen flight. A lot has happened in that time span. Maverick didn't freeze himself and come out looking like 1986 was just yesterday.

The jump in time is perfectly represented by Jennifer Connelly's Penny, who replaces Kelly McGillis' Charlie as Maverick's new love interest. The script by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie (from a story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks) doesn't really care to go into much detail about Penny and Maverick's relationship, only giving us what we need to know to buy her as the person who can convince Maverick to care about someone other than himself. Connelly is also perfectly cast in this role, and her performance is proof that we need to see her on the big screen more often.

The most heartbreaking scene in the film is Iceman and Maverick's meeting. There's genuine love between Cruise and Kilmer on the screen, even though they only made Top Gun together. (How did two of the biggest '80s and '90s stars not work together more often?) It's a moving way to integrate Kilmer into the movie without asking him to do too much or relying on bizarre effects to make him do things he no longer can. The technology exists for Cruise and company to wipe away Kilmer's hard-fought battle with throat cancer, but that would simply be gross. Acknowledging the beloved star's real-life fight is a far better tribute than anything else the filmmakers could have done.

Kosinski and Cruise, who feels much like a co-director here because we know every shot must have been approved by him, find clever ways to work in references to Top Gun. There's the score from returning composer Harold Faltermeyer (along with Hans Zimmer and Lady Gaga) and beautifully composed shots from Kosinksi's cinematographer Claudio Miranda that reflect the work of Jeffrey L. Kimball in 1986. We get a shirtless game of football in place of volleyball. Maverick even still flies just like he used to, pulling off daring maneuvers. Kosinski and Cruise put the audience inside the cockpit like few other movies have since Grand Prix put us in race cars. It must be seen on an IMAX screen to feel the full power of these scenes. They feel like moments filmed for a theme park ride, and it wouldn't be surprising to hear if it's too extreme for some with weak stomachs.

Top Gun: Maverick is a wildly entertaining movie. The script isn't out to surprise anyone, and Cruise is too savvy to market this as a "last ride" for his character. It even works as a stand-alone blockbuster about a man coming to terms with the death of a friend by connecting with his friend's son. In that sense, it's surprisingly mature in a movie environment overrun by blockbusters designed to comfort audiences with good versus evil stories culminating in bombastic, CGI-filled action scenes. Cruise reminds us that great action movies and thrills can still be created with practical stunts. The sweat rolling down the pilots' faces is real and those G-forces really take their breath – and the audience's – away.