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'Top Gun: Maverick' review: High praise to the danger clone

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Heed the words of America's foremost action star/Scientologist in "Top Gun": "You don't have time to think up there. If you think, you're dead."

Speaking of dead ... that film's decades-later sequel, "Top Gun: Maverick," is a revivified mummy with a jet thruster strapped to its bandages, taking great pains to repeat all of the 1986 version's beats at maximum velocity. 

A mummy with a jet pack is, however, a fantastic thing.

So is this warm embrace of a blockbuster, which would crash and burn if it was at all concerned with the cerebral world. Instead, it's a celebration of the gut, and of the dazzling heights to which that can lead.

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in "Top Gun: Maverick," a sequel to the 1980s classic "Top Gun."

More than three decades after Tom Cruise's Maverick first felt the need (the need for speed), the sequel finds him in a state of arrested development. (Who would have guessed that a daredevil flyboy might have trouble moving on from the glory days?) After a decorated career flying impossible missions, he's still a captain, taking test planes to their limits in the Mojave Desert.

Military obsolescence — in the form of drone warfare and an admiral played by Ed Harris — comes calling for Maverick. Uncle Sam sends him to one last stop: the Pacific Coast, training a group of crack Top Gun graduates to run an impossible covert mission.

The man who's living in the past finds plenty of old ghosts. There's the command of former rival Iceman (Val Kilmer), and the feelings Maverick has for an old flame (Jennifer Connelly). There's also mission trainee Rooster (Miles Teller) — the angry son of Maverick's old wingman Goose, who died in the first movie.

As Maverick whips these young guns into shape, he grapples with the possibility of sending his friend's son behind enemy lines to meet a familiar fate.

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"Top Gun: Maverick" is a capital-M Movie. If you have any doubts about braving the theater for a nostalgia payload, see it for the breathtaking practical effects. The cast went up in F/A-18s with IMAX cameras after a grueling training regimen, according to interviews with the stars. Cruise, Teller and company shoot this way and that through blue skies and snowy mountains, acting through the punishing Gs. 

If you don't have doubts about nostalgia, then you're probably already oiled up for some beach volleyball come Memorial Day weekend. "Top Gun: Maverick" gives us beach football instead; it's far less homoerotic than the original's famous sport scene.

Miles Teller plays Lt. Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw in "Top Gun: Maverick." His character is the son of Maverick's late wingman, Goose.

That's this movie's M.O. Director Joseph Kosinski and a slew of credited writers guide the audience through echoes from the 1980s, which fly a little less high by dint of familiarity. Some are emotional bowties, like a really satisfying black-and-white epigraph of a group of pilots celebrating on an aircraft carrier. Others elicit an "OK, you can have that one," like those pilots carousing in a bar to the tune of "Great Balls of Fire."

It's all in good fun, though. This is Maverick's movie, as the title declares. As a character study of an iconic hero, Cruise and Kosinski do fine work, plumbing pathos and power out of a mythic One Last Flight.

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The rest of the cast get sucked into Maverick's plot turbine. Some characters do just fine, like Glen Powell's smarmy hotshot pilot Hangman, who's there to learn a lesson about teamwork. Most of the young pilots remain ciphers — even Rooster, tragically, whose narrative function for most of the movie is to wear Goose drag and glower silently at Maverick. Connelly's bar owner/romantic interest, too, exists solely as an accessory to the titular top gun.

The film's real love story should be between Maverick and Rooster, his surrogate son, but by all means, shoehorn in a chaste sex scene straight out of a Nancy Meyers movie instead.

Hangman (Glen Powell) plays a little beach football in "Top Gun: Maverick."

In some corners of society these days, a commercial for a tactical strike by the U.S. military is a tall order. Since the original "Top Gun" came out, endless wars, exorbitant defense spending and lost faith in government institutions have cast only longer shade on a Reagan-era fantasy tale.

One of the most fascinating choices in "Top Gun: Maverick," then, is to divorce its central mission from any recognizable reality. The enemy is nameless and faceless. Their planes are dark and bear no markings. Their country is snowy, piney and mountainous, and the viewer is forced to deduct that America must be at odds with Canada. (It was apparently filmed at Lake Tahoe.) That's one way to do it — "it' being to mitigate political criticism at home and box office conflicts of interest abroad.

But remember: A "Top Gun" sequel in this dream-battering time is not an occasion to reason. It's a paean to cinematic escapism. To a legacy of adrenaline. To crying at Lady Gaga power ballads. And yes, to the passion that drives some to fly multimillion death-birds at lethal speeds.

'Top Gun: Maverick'

Grade: B+

Starring: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Rated: PG-13 for some strong language sequences of intense action

Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes

Watch: In theaters