Rear Admiral: “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.”

Maverick: “Maybe so, sir. But not today.”

And therein lies the key to what sets TOP GUN: MAVERICK apart as an action/drama and top flight entertainment destined to be not only one of the best movies of the summer, but also one of the best sequels ever. In 1986’s TOP GUN we encountered not yet a superstar Tom Cruise as Pete Mitchell a young hotshot fighter pilot, call sign “Maverick.” Now 37 years and many pandemic-induced delays later, we encounter him again–as robust, fearless, not so cocky but just as determined as ever; Cruise is now a superstar, but he continues to play the kind of hero that made him so, and insists on the kind of film-making which may not be long for this world– but which got him there and keeps us engaged.

Let me be clear– this is NOT art; this IS a top notch entertainment which satisfies all of the requirements of the genre: it’s exciting, clearly told with a classic story arc–though not without surprises, and anchored in characters we recognize and care about, led by an indisputably charismatic, global, veteran and apparently ageless movie star who has much more acting range than he’s ever been given full credit for, and whose imprint is all over this film, including his on-camera introduction of the movie before it even starts!

Tom promises genuine thrills and delivers. He insisted on creating a tangible, and dare I say, analogue reality which I believe flesh and blood humans still instinctively respond to. According to IMDB, and at the insistence of Tom Cruise, “there are no green screen or CGI aerial shots in the film, and even the close up cockpit shots are taken during real in-flight sequences. This meant that much of the cast had to undergo extensive G-force training sessions, to withstand the physical demands of the G-force pressures during flights…. Tom Cruise personally designed a 3-month aviation training course for the new actors to become ready to handle riding in an F-18.”

We feel it. The looks on those actors’ faces captured by cameras in cockpits?  Real. They all had skin in the game, so I did too. Visceral reality pops right through the screen in a way that CGI does not.  Understand, I don’t care about speed, or fighter jets, and have little patience for macho swaggering. But this film held me because of the real life stunts daringly captured and the dramatic savvy with which the story is told. Director Joseph Kosinski and writers deliver with conviction and clarity.

The visuals courtesy of cinematographer Claudio Miranda are dazzling, as is the precision and logic of the celestial choreography of these jets which put me there! I knew where I was every second of these high-speed air chases. Then there was the accessibility of these characters, none of whom were invested with superpowers. They were simply called upon to test the limits of actual physical human endurance and strength of character,  tempered by self-deprecating humor; the writers took this material just seriously enough.

We find Maverick 30 years later, still a Captain having rejected career advancement and its trappings because he knows who he is and where he belongs: in the air. Nevertheless he’s suddenly grounded and ironically teaching at “Top Gun”(a real place–the Navy Fighter Weapons School) where he once tested the limits and patience of his instructors; now he stands before a class of the best test fighter pilots who are being trained for an extremely dangerous mission, and none of them think he has a thing to teach them. What a set up.

The politics and location of the mission are given short shrift; all we know is that there’s an impossibly located and defended enemy uranium mine that needs to be taken out. The film instead turns our attention to what achieving that goal will take logistically, physically, emotionally, psychologically. I was all in. While at Top Gun, Maverick encounters among this class of ace aviators, the son of his best buddy and wingman “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) who perished at the end of the original. Goose’s son, now all grown up and in the running for this near impossible mission, is well-played by Miles Teller, call sign “Rooster.”  He resents Maverick for reasons which eventually become clear.

There are many nods, overt and covert, to the original: the opening credit sequence of fighter jets revving up and taking off, propelled by Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone”; Maverick’s motorcycle and leather jacket; the beefcake beach volleyball turned football scene; Val Kilmer’s Iceman. This competitive class of daredevil pilots now includes one woman: Monica Barbaro as Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace who is wisely given an equal amount of screen attention as her classmates. Of course there’s a love interest in the lovely Jennifer Connelly as Penny who was briefly alluded to in the original. She’s given heft in the film by steering her own course, and captaining a different terrain; she’s a deft sailor who plucks the navy pilot out of the air and onto sea where she’s clearly in charge.  It was fun to see an evil Jon Hamm play Admiral “Cyclone” Simpson, a real pain in Maverick’s tail, and Bashir “Hubble Gotchu” Salahuddin as Wo.-1 Bernie “Hondo” Coleman who’s got Maverick’s back.

Naturally Maverick gets to show these young whippersnappers a thing or two, utilizing some “ancient” aircraft and experiential wisdom in the bargain, and I couldn’t wait. I have no idea if any of this was even possible, but Cruise through the sheer force of his personal engagement with the role onscreen and off made me believe it was. That’s movie star magic. Headed for extinction? I think it will stand the test of time.