Top Gun: Maverick is a surprising film in more way than one. For starters, it’s something of an unlikely sequel, coming so many years after the initial film. In addition, Top Gun wasn’t particularly successful with critics, although its continued cult following, box office success, and pop culture relevance probably work to offset critical opinion. Ultimately, Top Gun: Maverick was not the sequel we expected, but the surprises don’t end there.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is just how engaging a film it really is. As someone who has never felt even the slightest inclination to watch Top Gun a second time, sitting down to watch Top Gun: Maverick felt unlikely to be a particularly enjoyable experience. After a brief cheesy montage that shows naval jets landing and taking off, Maverick hurtles into its story headfirst, with a thrilling sequence that proves its titular pilot still has something of a death wish when it comes to moving really, really fast.

Once all pretense that Top Gun: Maverick intends to coast on Top Gun nostalgia is dropped, the film continues at a steady pace, introducing ancillary characters and establishing their motivations and relationships. This works nicely, and fleshes out the decades between the original film and Maverick with subtle but solid storytelling, allowing the sequel to build upon Top Gun‘s foundation without resting on its laurels. Its supporting cast are sympathetic, well-written, and well-acted, but there’s no mistake that Maverick is Tom Cruise’s star vehicle, and he takes center stage.

As someone who has spent many years shamelessly dunking on Cruise for his eccentricity, it may sound strange to say, but Top Gun: Maverick proves not only his dedication to his very specific specialty but also to just how good he is at it. Death-defying stunts and the fearless pursuit of high octane thrills combine with Cruise’s leading man credentials and undeniable charm to deliver on every one of his strengths. He’s able to elicit emotion without ever overstepping his capabilities, and in that, he communicates that he knows his limitations. There’s something very human about Cruise’s performance that goes far deeper than acting, and it offers a fleeting glimpse into his baffling and utterly unique psyche even as Top Gun: Maverick‘s thrilling story unfolds.

Though it seems convoluted when written out, Maverick‘s minutely detailed narrative feels authentic and genuine enough that even the specifics are convincing. It’s a relatively straightforward story when stripped back to the bare bones, but its insight into naval aviation techniques and the immense skill required to pilot such an aircraft is thoroughly engaging, and helps Top Gun: Maverick feel fresh and relevant. Ultimately, it’s a story about moving on, growing as a person, and adapting to what we’re faced with, and in that, it feels far less like military propaganda than the first film.

After getting over the shock at how enjoyable Top Gun: Maverick is, it’s important to state just how many things it does right. Its soundtrack and score is used to excellent emotional effect, and the dizzying in-flight visuals add a raw authenticity to the film that puts the audience in the cockpit. That helps Maverick feel like a true blockbuster, which in turn leads to the inescapable feeling that cinema will soon be plagued with films attempting to replicate those thrills. Whether or not other films will succeed in quite the same way remains to be seen, but Joseph Kosinski’s excellent direction helps take Top Gun: Maverick to unexpected heights. Though it’s cheesy in places, it uses Hollywood sheen to gloss over its few weaknesses, making Top Gun: Maverick a truly enjoyable experience.

Rating: 85%

Summary: Not only does Top Gun: Maverick push the boundaries of cinematic action, but it tells a touching and powerful story that far outshines its predecessor.

Highlight: Top Gun: Maverick‘s climactic mission/dogfight(s) are genuine edge-of-the-seat stuff with an unexpectedly emotional pay-off.