The phenomenon of Top Gun: Maverick isn't that it's an exceptionally good high quality summer blockbuster—it's simply that high quality summer blockbusters haven't existed for about five years. (And even then they were a dying breed.) Likewise, the magic of Top Gun: Maverick isn't that it's the greatest gap-sequel ever made—it's more that no other sequel made so many years later has ever been able to boast of having a worthy reason to exist.
And yet here we are, our socks knocked off by another one of Tom Cruise's filmmaking efforts. He may be the last person making movies who actually cares whether his products are entertaining or not. Here, he returns as his original character, Pete Mitchell, callsign Maverick, assigned back to Top Gun to train an elite batch of aviators for a specific, daring, and possibly deadly mission. One candidate, callsign Rooster (Miles Teller) is the son of Maverick's old co-pilot who died in the first movie, and tension rises between them as Maverick struggles between his job of picking the best team to risk their lives on the mission, and his own personal mission of protecting his friend's son.
It's a pretty sweet set up, ripe for drama, but not so complex as to take away time from the entertainment of training exercises, which range from aerial dogfights to playing football on the beach. For a side plot, Maverick takes up a romance with a former flame, Jennifer Connelly, and before you know it, I was wishing Tom Cruise wasn't in the movie so much—because the one thing left unfulfilled is the dynamics between the candidates. The loose definition of their unique personalities made me wish for more. And then Hangman, the Iceman equivalent, and his antagonistic relationship with Rooster is rendered pointless by Rooster's more convincing antagonistic relationship to Maverick—but even that is put on hold for too long. When it comes due is when the movie starts to really shine.
I would have liked the movie to split time between Maverick's antics and what the candidates are up to when he's not around, but at the same time I get it. It's the Tom Cruise show because the film wouldn't exist without him. You can't begrudge him taking the spotlight, or deny that everything he does is entertaining. I just can't help but wonder if it would have been better had it been more balanced. Just a tad. In that light, it was the third act that sold the film for me. When everything comes to a head, and it starts to feel like an equal character match-up between Maverick and Rooster. This section also has most of the thrilling flying action (on which a Tom Cruise movie will never, ever skimp) and the most real stakes and tension as they take on the deadly mission.
The whole movie builds to this point, and it doesn't disappoint in any aspect. It has the realness that Cruise is known for to make you feel it—the thrill that can only come when there's also a notable lack of CGI. I got a big kick out of seeing the actors react while inside actual, actually flying fighter jets. And because everything was set up previously, the whole act is a neat series of payoff after payoff after payoff, each one more satisfying and rewarding than the last. Character drama and fun action mix together to splendid results, and an old-fashioned magic of storytelling comes to life. It's all so simple and won me over so easily that I wonder how the art was ever lost in the first place.