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Tom Cruise returns to the danger zone in 'Top Gun: Maverick'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been 36 years since Tom Cruise first took to the skies as Pete Mitchell with the call sign Maverick, you know, the hotshot jet fighter pilot in "Top Gun."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN")

TOM CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) I feel the need.

TOM CRUISE AND ANTHONY EDWARDS: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell and Lieutenant Nick "Goose" Bradshaw) The need for speed.

CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) Ow (ph).

CHANG: Now Cruise is back in the cockpit in "Top Gun: Maverick." The sequel premiered last week at the Cannes Film Festival, and critic Bob Mondello says it's the same but sharper.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The opening credits sequence is identical, almost shot for shot, as if to reassure audiences the filmmakers haven't forgotten what worked the first time - airmen readying sleek jet fighters in predawn light on the deck of an aircraft carrier, planes silhouetted against a sky just starting to glow orange as the sun burns off the mist, then the whine of jet engines as one plane fires up, then another and another and a roar as each one rockets into what Kenny Loggins is about to remind us is the danger zone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANGER ZONE")

KENNY LOGGINS: (Singing) Revvin' up your engine, listen to her howlin' roar.

MONDELLO: Having seen the original "Top Gun," what about the recruitment ads modeled on it after the 1986 Navy saw a 500% spike in enlistees wanting to be aviators?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANGER ZONE")

LOGGINS: (Singing) Highway to the danger zone.

MONDELLO: We are in the zone here, going straight to shots of a still seriously fit, almost 60-year-old Tom Cruise revving up his Kawasaki Ninja, roaring down a highway to what looks like a gigantic arrowhead that he's supposed to fly to Mach 9. But, I mean, seriously, 9 with Ed Harris about to shut down the test? How about 10? How about 10.2, just so they'll have something to talk about when he's called on the carpet?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

ED HARRIS: (As Rear Admiral Chester "Hammer" Cain) Thirty-plus years of service, combat medals, citations, only man to shoot down three enemy planes in the last 40 years, yet you can't get a promotion. You won't retire. Despite your best efforts, you refuse to die. You should be at least a two-star admiral by now, yet here you are, Captain. Why is that?

CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) It's one of life's mysteries, sir.

MONDELLO: Maverick gets assigned to train new blood in the Top Gun pilot program, much to the annoyance of Jon Hamm, his immediate superior.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

JON HAMM: (As Admiral Beau "Cyclone" Simpson) I have everything I need to have you court martialed and dishonorably discharged.

MONDELLO: Yeah, well, Maverick has a guardian angel. His rival ace, Iceman, is now an admiral, still played by Val Kilmer, whose offscreen battle with throat cancer brings significant resonance when he shows up here. There is a mission. Call it impossible, if you must. Certainly, it's a risky business flying 30 feet off the ground at 500 miles an hour between cliffs. You get the impression Cruise could do this with eyes wide shut, but they've given him a few good men to work with...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

GLEN POWELL: (As Lieutenant Jake "Hangman" Seresin) What do we have here?

MONDELLO: ...And one good woman...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

MONICA BARBARO: (As Lieutenant Natasha "Phoenix" Trace) Fellas, this here's Bagman.

POWELL: (As Lieutenant Jake "Hangman" Seresin) Hangman.

BARBARO: (As Lieutenant Natasha "Phoenix" Trace) Whatever.

MONDELLO: ...All with descriptive call signs they've earned in flight.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where's he going?

BARBARO: (As Lieutenant Natasha "Phoenix" Trace) That's why we call him Hangman. He'll always hang you out to dry.

MONDELLO: Others include...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) Rooster.

MILES TELLER: (As Lieutenant Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw) Phoenix.

BARBARO: (As Lieutenant Natasha "Phoenix" Trace) We've got to move, Coyote.

GREG TARZAN DAVIS: (As Lieutenant Javy "Coyote" Machado) Who are your friends?

JAY ELLIS: (As Lieutenant Reuben "Payback" Fitch) Payback.

DANNY RAMIREZ: (As Lieutenant Mickey "Fanboy" Garcia) Fanboy.

BARBARO: (As Lieutenant Natasha "Phoenix" Trace) What do they call you?

LEWIS PULLMAN: (As Lieutenant Robert "Bob" Floyd) Bob.

ELLIS: (As Lieutenant Reuben "Payback" Fitch) No, your call sign.

PULLMAN: (As Lieutenant Robert "Bob" Floyd) Bob.

MONDELLO: OK, from my perspective, that's a cheap joke - just saying. Director Joseph Kosinski has clearly studied what the original "Top Gun" did, but he has a far better script to work with - not more plausible, exactly, but one that puts an adult Cruise in charge of all that free-range testosterone the film's unleashing that lets it channel emotions the first one couldn't, as when Maverick tells Rooster, the grown-up son of his wingman, Goose, who died all those years ago, to follow his instincts.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) You think up there, you're dead. Believe me.

TELLER: (As Lieutenant Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw) My dad believed in you. I'm not going to make the same mistake.

MONDELLO: Rooster is played by Miles Teller with a mustache nearly as big as the chip on his shoulder and ripped abs that he and his fellow airmen display in team-building beach football rather than beach volleyball this time, all of which is designed to help the film barrel right past your plot objections before they quite have time to form in nerve centers overstimulated...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What the hell?

MONDELLO: ...By vertigo-inducing...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) Good morning, aviators.

MONDELLO: ...Aspect-ratio exploding...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) This is your captain speaking.

MONDELLO: ...IMAX flight sequences. Cruise insisted that these be filmed with the actors actually in flight, and they are nerve-scrambling in ways digital trickery on screen just isn't. I'm not going to say "Top Gun: Maverick" takes my breath away, exactly, but it's one hell of a ride. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.