Review: Tom Cruise's excellent 'Top Gun: Maverick' takes to the skies, sticks to the formula

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The long-awaited aerial extravaganza “Top Gun: Maverick” knows its audience extremely well and wastes no time getting to business – which means cranking up Kenny Loggins’ classic “Danger Zone” and turning on the sweet sounds of fighter jet engines.

Gen Xers may get forgotten about from time to time, but Tom Cruise looks out for the 1980s kids who’ve been waiting 36 years for this thing. In the opening moments of director Joseph Kosinski’s excellently macho follow-up (★★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters May 27), you don’t know if you’re watching the original 1986 “Top Gun” or a new one.

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Unlike its title character, “Maverick” knows how to stick to a plan: This movie not just drips nostalgia but hoses fans down with it, doling out quality man hugs, shirtless beach sports, bar singalongs, snappy one-liners, an endless supply of Ray-Bans and Cruise reaffirming his status as an ageless wonder.

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Review: tom cruise's excellent 'top gun: maverick' takes to the skies, sticks formula

The iconic action hero returns as Pete Mitchell (call sign “Maverick”), an ace aviator and Navy captain who’s reminded he should be at least a two-star admiral by now but hasn’t changed his rogue attitude much in the last three decades. We’re reintroduced to Maverick pushing the boundaries of physics and his bosses’ buttons when his program as a test pilot is scrapped and he’s reassigned to San Diego’s Top Gun flight school as an instructor.

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Immediately, he rubs his new commander, Cyclone (Jon Hamm back in irritable Don Draper mode), the wrong way, yet there’s a very important task at hand: An enemy uranium facility is about to come online and Maverick needs to test and weed out the best of the best young Top Gun graduates to find a team to take the place out. (And like in the first film, it’s purposefully fuzzy which country we’re attacking.)

The seriousness of this rather impossible mission is made more personally fraught when one of the flyboys turns out to be Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late wingman Goose. Rooster has good reason to be irked at Maverick’s presence, and the only thing that wipes the usual smirk off Maverick’s face is the guilt he still holds over the death of his best friend, so those two need to work out a lot of their feels.

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Review: tom cruise's excellent 'top gun: maverick' takes to the skies, sticks formula

As insanely cool as the aerial dogfight scenes were in the original, the sequel’s action sequences level them up with unreal camera angles and nonstop tension. Kosinski aims to make moviegoers feel what it’s like to have your head squished by gG-forces and wonder where in the blue blazes the bad guys are coming from. Toss in the unmistakable Harold Faltermeyer theme and it’s like you’re 10 years old again, watching Maverick rule the air the first time around.

Cruise finds new ways to add depth to his signature character (sorry, Ethan Hunt) without sacrificing any of his essential qualities. Jennifer Connelly plays Maverick’s love interest, Penny, an old flame who grounds our hero, and Teller, with his best turn since “Whiplash,” factors in as a worthy emotional foil, though the movie falls probably one Maverick/Rooster conversation short of really nailing that core relationship.

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Original “Top Gun” star Val Kilmer returns in heartwarming fashion as Iceman – if there’s one scene that really takes your breath away, it’s his – though his spiritual successor arrives in the delightfully cocky Hangman (Glen Powell), a tanned and toothpick-chewing piece of work aiming to be mission leader. The rest of the young aviators – including Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and her co-pilot Bob (Lewis Pullman) – are a mixed bag of character development but at least everybody gets a moment in the air dogfighting and on the sand with a game of beach football, less a team-building exercise than a parade of sunglasses and ripped abs.

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Review: tom cruise's excellent 'top gun: maverick' takes to the skies, sticks formula

Sure, “Maverick” ideally would be less formulaic – and for the record, it doesn’t quite match the magic of the OG “Top Gun.” At the same time, this kind of movie isn’t made anymore, making it a novelty to younger eyes who haven’t had the gung-ho patriotic pleasure. But the template just works, even when throwing in a Lady Gaga song for extra dramatic gusto.

Whether you’re feeling the need for speed for the first time or haven’t lost that loving feeling since ’86, the Danger Zone is still a pretty spectacular place to visit.

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