Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie and David Ellison   Director: Joseph Kosinski   Screenplay: Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie   Cast: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Charles Parnell, Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Greg Tarzan Davis, Jake Schumacher, Manny Jacinto, Kara Wang, Jake Picking, Raymond Lee, Lyliana Wray, Jean Louisa Kelly, Ed Harris and Val Kilmer   Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Grade: C+

The fake drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, aka John Bloom, used to say that the secret to a successful sequel was just to make the same movie over again.  That’s hard to do when the original is more than thirty years old and its star is reprising his role (and producing), but the makers of “Top Gun: Maverick” have done their best anyway.  The sequel follows the trajectory of its 1986 predecessor with near-comical fidelity, transforming the young hotshot into one of the authority figures he infuriated the first time around and surrounding him with a bunch of new young hotshots who can now infuriate him, while providing him with a new romance and ending with an even more seemingly impossible episode of aerial derring-do than the one that capped the first film. 

Tom Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, still as cocky as ever, and as a result never having been promoted past captain.  His by-the-book superiors, led by Admiral “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris), aren’t even comfortable with his continued presence as a test pilot in a program to develop a new supersonic fighter; in fact, they’re trying to shut the project down and get rid of him.  But in a showy, visually stunning prologue, Pete takes the plane to greater speed and altitude than it had been able to achieve before, stunning his team and aggravating Cain—while unfortunately destroying the prototype.

But Mitchell’s career isn’t over, despite Cain’s fury.  He’s assigned as a special instructor at the Top Gun school by order of his old rival-turned-friend Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now an admiral and commander of the Pacific fleet.  His mission is to train the best of the best Top Gun graduates for a super-secret, and extraordinarily difficult, assault on a uranium-enrichment facility being operated in canyon protected by mountains and missile batteries.  The only possible approach is at low, radar-avoiding altitudes through narrow, winding valleys to the canyon, where the facility must be destroyed with two precisely-dropped bombs before the attacking aircraft can pull up sharply to avoid crashing into the cliffs and return safely to the carrier from which they launched.  (The country in which the facility is located goes unnamed, though Iran is the most likely suspect.)

What follows is awfully predictable.  Initially dismissed by his students as an over-the-hill relic, Maverick puts them all to shame in training exercises that earn their grudging respect.  He takes time from his duties to romance an old flame, spunky bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of an admiral and a widow with a protective daughter (Lyliana Wray).  And most importantly, he builds a relationship with one of the trainees, “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Pete’s deceased wingman “Goose” (Anthony Edwards), who holds a grudge against him no so much for his father’s death but for delaying his career progress out of a protective, paternalistic impulse.  To mirror the old Maverick-Iceman rivalry, Rooster gets an arrogant fellow student in hotshot Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell). 

Teller and Powell’s characters don’t progress much beyond one-note sketches, though of course in the end Rooster has become Maverick’s wingman in the mission (which, needless to say, he’s taken over because only he has proven himself able to master its elaborate maneuvers). But that’s even truer of all the other trainees, despite their colorful nicknames, and it’s the case with such stalwarts in the supporting cast as Jon Hamm (as Cain’s subordinate Vice Admiral “Cyclone” Simpson).  There is poignancy, however, in Kilmer’s scene as Admiral Kazansky, whose frailty mirrors the actor’s own.

Instead the screenplay basically pays homage to Cruise, who is unambiguously the centerpiece of the film.  He looks remarkably fit and flashes his charismatic smile with aplomb, though his ability to express deeper emotions remains iffy.  He gets plenty of opportunity to show off not only in the cockpit but on a motorcycle, which he handles like a pro, and exhibits a chink in Maverick’s athletic skill only on a jaunt in Penny’s sailboat, where he’s not entirely at ease.  But overall he’s the same boyish man’s man of the original, and Cruise embodies that to a T; his willingness to commit himself to many of his own stunts is also notable. 

As might be expected, the production is a top-of-the-line affair.  Director Joseph Kosinski shows that he knows his way around such a glitzy Hollywood blockbuster, and with cinematographer Claudio Miranda and editor Eddie Hamilton, delivers action that’s propulsive and exciting (Ryan Tudhope served as visual effects supervisor and Kev LaRosa II as aerial coordinator), even if watching a good deal of it on computer screens gets rather tiresome (as do the endless cockpit closeups).  One could wish, though, that the protracted assault on the nuclear site were less obviously inspired by the attack on the Death Star in the first “Star Wars” movie; the similarities are frankly so heavy-handed that one might expect the departed Goose to whisper to his son at an especially fraught moment “Use the Force, Rooster!”  That would also have allowed a real cameo by Edwards, even if only a vocal one; as it is, he’s limited to clips from the first film, occasionally inserted to recall its plot points for those who might have forgotten them. 

One might also have wished that the makers had reconsidered adding what amounts to a gratuitous “behind enemy lines” final act, which cements the father-son bond between Maverick and Rooster but does so in a fashion bereft of even a scintilla of plausibility.  Of course, that’s a criticism that probably shouldn’t be directed against what’s really nothing more than a super-patriotic wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the big finale, bolstered by the bombast of the score jointly credited to Harold Faltermeyer, Lady Gaga and Hans Zimmer, will probably feed the testosterone-driven demands of most of the audience.  It is pretty absurd, though. But then so’s the entire movie.            

Cruise’s star wattage remains undimmed, but while “Maverick” has been cannily manufactured to meet audience expectations, its familiar “Top Gun” mixture of jingoistic claptrap, macho posturing and formulaic excitement feels as mechanical as its military hardware.