‘Top Gun’ is back. Will it take moviegoers’ breath away?

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
Paramount Pictures/AP
Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise star in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the sequel to the 1986 film about an elite group of Navy fighter pilots.

The arrival of “Top Gun: Maverick” is being greeted not only as the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 Tom Cruise smash hit but also as a return to the kind of high-style popcorn movie audiences presumably still crave seeing on the big screen. It also shamelessly draws on a nostalgia, however fuzzy and selective, for that ’80s Cold War era – a time when Hollywood could pump up the heroics with glossy visuals and thumping pop soundtracks.

“Maverick” is stylistically all of a piece with its predecessor. The director, Joseph Kosinski, and his team of writers don’t waste any time placing us in the cockpit, as test pilot ace Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise), takes a supersonic stealth bomber to Mach 10 against the orders of his crusty superior officer (Ed Harris), who tells our hero, “Your kind is headed for extinction.” His response: “Maybe so, but not today.”

Because of his old-school orneriness and love of pulling G’s, Maverick has turned down loads of opportunities for career advancement in the Navy all these intervening years. He’s like a sky-high version of that hallowed Hollywood archetype, the aging Westerner – once the fastest draw, he sees his time ebbing away. Except there isn’t much ebb in “Top Gun: Maverick,” since the whole point of the theatrics, almost as slick and pumped up as ever, is that Maverick is still tops. When he’s reassigned to his old San Diego stomping grounds as chief instructor of the legendary Top Gun air combat school, which now includes one female pilot (Monica Barbaro), it isn’t long before the young, dismissive hotshots shed their smirks.

Why We Wrote This

Almost 40 years after “Top Gun” debuted, its sequel is roaring into theaters, banking on a formula that worked in the 1980s: Swaggery hero, slick visuals, catchy music. But is that enough to woo today’s audiences?

All this intergenerational razzing would make more sense if anybody but Cruise, pushing age 60, was playing Maverick. But he looks fit enough to shut down the naysayers. Not that he brings a great deal of gravitas to the part: His character never has any real moments of self-doubt or world weariness. If he did, we’d be in a different movie, one where the people resemble more than action figures in a retro jamboree. Maverick is provided a love interest, an admiral’s daughter (Jennifer Connelly) with whom he shares some history, but the steam never rises. (Kelly McGillis’ Charlie, his romantic partner in “Top Gun,” is MIA in the new film.)  

Maverick’s only note of regret is prompted by the appearance in the Top Gun school of Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s wingman Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) from the first film, whose death he feels partly responsible for. No love is lost between these two, which, of course, means they will end up bonding.

The propulsively filmed climactic battle, for which the Top Gun squadron is being trained, is an extremely dangerous secret mission to take out a Death Star-like enemy uranium plant facility high in some unspecified mountain range. Guess who ends up leading the charge? Not surprisingly, the enemy itself is never named. In “Top Gun,” at least we were told the bad guys were flying Soviet bloc MiGs, which limited the list of likely candidates. Here, presumably for commercial reasons – don’t want to alienate any potential overseas markets! – the villains are generic. With the Cold War reheating, it will be interesting to see if Hollywood feels free to once again bash “Commies.” Back to the future.

The only pull from the past I responded to in “Top Gun: Maverick” was a brief scene between Maverick and his old rival “Iceman,” now admiral of the Pacific Fleet, played, as in the first film, by Val Kilmer. He offers up a near wordless cameo that gives this wingding whatever grace it has.      

But grace isn’t what’s being sold here. More like bam, boom, and whoosh. “Top Gun: Maverick” is a perfectly tolerable time-killer, and I enjoy popcorn as much as anyone, but I just hope these won’t be the only kinds of movies that bring audiences back to the theaters. 

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Top Gun: Maverick” is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and some strong language.  

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