There’s a scene early on in Top Gun: Maverick where Ed Harris gives Tom Cruise’s Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell the business. He yarns about a future full of pilotless drones, and computerized replacements for good-ole-fashioned sweat and blood. No more hard-boiled decision making, no more human factor, just cold, hard algorithm. ‘Maybe, Sir,’ Maverick replies, ‘but not today, not yet.’

It’s a prescient piece of dialogue, considering this movie was supposed to come out two years ago, right before the tidal wave of pandemic streaming fully consumed our collective attention. Before the entire business of being a movie star, or at least the type of stardom Cruise has cultivated over the past 40 years, was teetering on the edge, threatened by its own form of algorithmic Goliaths.

Top Gun: Maverick feels like a piece out of time. A big, splashy picture, full of roaring F-18s that will turn your brain into mush at the sound of them. A glorious relic of some forgotten blockbuster landscape in a different 2020.  That’s not bad, though, and Maverick threads a particularly tight needle, managing to pull off its most daring stunt: being worthy of its 1986 predecessor.

Cruise returns as Maverick, who’s maybe been bumming around a naval flight center for 30 some-odd years. After a risky flight-test disaster reminiscent of The Right Stuff, he’s called back to the Navy Fighter Weapons School known as Top Gun to train a group of young, hot pilots for a next-to-impossible mission. It’s a down on his luck/last chance kind of premise that Cruise pulls off well, with his indelible rapscallion energy that makes you pull a crooked smile of your own.

Among those Maverick must train is Lt. Bradley Bradshaw, or ‘Rooster’, played by Miles Teller. He’s the grown son of Maverick’s friend Goose (Anthony Edwards) whose death in a training exercise with Maverick serves as the emotional apex of the first film. Teller and Cruise have chemistry, and the film gets to pull off another trick you didn’t see coming: a tender side-plot about fatherhood, and the need to process trauma so as not to carry it through generations.

A bevy of youngsters round out the cast, including Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, and Jay Ellis. All are good, but Lewis Pullman might be the standout as a meek RIO operator whose callsign is just ‘Bob’.

Jennifer Connelly is here too, as a long-lost fling of Maverick’s that the movie tries very hard to convince us was part of the original film, but I promise you, was not. The decision to exclude Kelly McGillis from Top Gun: Maverick is (how can I put this?) rude, but Connelly mostly makes up for it by being endearing, and balancing well on the short rope she’s given.

In contrast to the ear-busting flight scenes, some moments are played so quietly it’s as though a young Maverick is having a dream about his future, thirty-six years on. Particularly touching is a  meeting between Cruise and Val Kilmer, who played his adversary ‘Iceman’, in the original. I won’t spoil their reunion, but bring a handkerchief.

Still, all those years of anticipation can bring a heavy burden. Not everyone was clamoring for this film to exist, and any so-called ‘Legacy Sequel’ will unquestionably be saddled with the sins of its father. Maverick tries its best to take those expectations and turn them into gravitas, with lots of big, enunciative men like John Hamm saying ‘Maverick’ and ‘Legend’ a lot. It almost works, but not as well as when it just cranks up Harold Faltermeyer’s original theme and lets the magic of the ‘80s synth hit you full in the face.

What the film is truly missing, of course, is Tony Scott, who tragically died by suicide in 2012.  Top Gun was the director’s first US hit as well as Cruise’s, and Maverick feels more streamlined but emptier without him. Even though the 1986 film is, in some respects, barely a movie, it still remains an absolute classic, with all the shouting and adrenaline and messiness of Scott’s other great films. Though Maverick director Joseph Kosinski (Cruise’s collaborator on 2013’s Oblivion) is a completely steady hand, Maverick is simply less crowded, less sweaty, less… Tony. It’s sleeker. Why? I don’t know, probably because it’s 2022 and it just is.

You can see the mechanics of this at work. There’s a lot more explaining about call signs and technical jargon. Some of it has been slimmed down (e.g. ‘RIO’ changed to ‘Back-seater’) for ease and clarity. The faceless Bogeys they dogfight all fly something called a ‘fifth-generation fighter’. Though a real classification for a whole group of advanced, twenty-first century aircraft, the film uses the term to just mean ‘really good’. These things are small, but add up to a sense of distrust that the audience will follow along. The film shouldn’t worry. You don’t need a degree to understand the awesomeness of what you’re seeing; aerial combat that would make Howard Hughes salivate.

Maverick succeeds most when it takes its main character’s advice, “Don’t think, just do.” When the film lets go and has fun, it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. Boy, do those planes shine. Huge, hulking machines, scooped from the ocean floor and flung into the sky by gods. The synth flares and the seats in the theater start to shake, the loose popcorn on the floor starts to tingle and levitate, as though touched by static, and then… FRRRRRWOOOOOOOSSHHH.

Honestly, I personally had a lot at stake with this film. When I was six, my mother let me watch Top Gun, although she did cleverly VCR-to-VCR edit out the one, short sex scene. It’s a movie I’ve loved ever since, mostly because when I watch it, it still makes me feel six years old. Top Gun: Maverick does the same. It’s a simple formula: ‘big plane go fast’. But the mastery that Cruise and the gang have put into making this film is clearly on another level. It’s an achievement. A big roaring one, that’s FUN, light-hearted, and worthy of the type of movie star we still deserve.