A bruised dawn breaks over a US Naval test base somewhere on the American west coast. Inside a hangar basks a stealth jet, rippled and lean, and theoretically capable of hitting ten times the speed of sound. This record has yet to be reached, though – and an admiral nicknamed the Drone Ranger is on his way to decommission this wondrous instrument, so the leftover funds can be channeled back into his pilotless programme.
“Unmanned” is the term the crew wincingly use, though “unmanly” is more like it. Their own man – short, dark and farcically handsome – is hungrily eyeing the cockpit. The admiral isn’t due to arrive for another few minutes. “They want Mach 10?” he says, flashing a smile like a floodlight. “Let’s give them Mach 10.”
This moment in Top Gun: Maverick’s opening minutes feels like watching Tom Cruise tune up before a career-defining concert – a backstage sotto voce pledge on which he thunderously delivers. More than a decade has passed since Cruise’s reinvention of himself as an improbable but highly watchable cross between Paul Newman and Usain Bolt, and with this late sequel to 1986’s Top Gun – which turned the actor from a heartthrob to a household name – we have surely arrived at the Cruisiest film he’s yet made.
That might be the same thing as saying it’s one of his best – and it is unquestionably the best studio action film to have been released since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It is also Dad Cinema at its eye-crinkling apogee: all rugged wistfulness and rough-and-tumble comradeship, interspersed with flight sequences so preposterously exciting and involving they seem to invert the cinema through 180 degrees.
Today, the first Top Gun – directed with great style by the late Tony Scott – can feel like a bit of a cave painting. But in its time, it was instrumental in bringing the visual potency of advertising to Hollywood, and marked the point at which studios realized movies could be commercial for themselves. This follow-up, directed by Joseph Kosinski, deals in the same unexpected-itch-scratching bliss: it’s crammed with images you didn’t know you were desperate to see until the second you see them.