In the opening of the entertaining "Top Gun: Maverick," a fighter pilot played by Tom Cruise gets reassigned for being a rule-breaking hotdog and his new gig doesn't make sense: He becomes a teacher, showing the next generation of pilots how to be as big of a rule-breaker as him.
You have to swallow several things in "Maverick," which comes 36 years after the blockbuster original. Another biggie is that the foreign target Cruise is training his charges to sneak into and bomb is only referred to as "the enemy," probably because "Maverick" doesn't want to annoy any countries that would be willing to put it in theaters. It's snowy and mountainous, so maybe it's that bastion of evil, Switzerland?
The first half of "Maverick" resembles the original: Cruise's Pete Mitchell romances a woman who's onto his tricks (Jennifer Connelly). He plays shirtless beach sports with his fellow pilots. His superiors keep yelling at him for not following orders, then giving him more orders to not follow (Jon Hamm qualifies as the movie's villain when he all but says he doesn't care if the pilots survive their mission). There are aerial sequences, full of swoops and swirls, in which director Joseph Kosinski and editor Eddie Hamilton pull off the trick of thrilling us without disorienting us.
One difference is there's a female student in "Maverick" (called Phoenix and played by Monica Barbaro). The presence of one woman in the Navy is so specific that it underscores the fact that literally everything else in "Maverick" could be out of a gay porno movie: a bar called Hard Deck, characters named Rooster and Fanboy and Hangman, a training program called Top Gun and, other than Connelly, no love interests whatsoever.
Pete is Cruise's usual character: the brilliant mind whose principles get in the way of career success. That Jesus-in-a-helmet situation can be annoying but it isn't in "Maverick," which balances Pete's near-sainthood with a sense of humor, an acknowledgment that years have given him wisdom in some areas but not in others and a lovely, tender scene with another character from the original, Val Kilmer's now-sidelined Iceman. There's also Pete's fraught relationship with one of his charges, Rooster (earnestly appealing Miles Teller), the son of Pete's wingman, who died in "Top Gun."
I don't know if "Maverick" filmmakers have used the pandemic to tinker with the movie, which was filmed more than three years ago, but it's very well crafted. I particularly like how scenes in the middle use training exercises and video simulations to show the pilots (and us) exactly what they'll be doing — so that, when we reach the climax, it feels almost like we're executing the hairpin turns and sideways swoops along with them.
Don't expect any surprises. "Maverick" probably is exactly the movie you'd guess, based on the trailer and on Cruise's career, in which he rarely takes risks. But the flipside of that is that "Maverick" satisfies by delivering exactly what it promises.
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for language.
Where: Area theaters.