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TOP GUN: MAVERICK: 4 STARS. “gives the audience the expected need for speed.”

It’s been thirty-six years, but movie goers can once again ride into the danger zone.

Kind of.

Hotheaded test pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) returns to the screen and sky in the high-flying sequel “Top Gun: Maverick,” which, despite the main character’s feats of daring do, plays it mostly by-the-book.

When we first get reacquainted with Captain Maverick, he’s still the hotshot, risky pilot we remember from the first film. His cocky attitude and bad boy behavior has kept him from being promoted. “I’m where I belong,” he says when asked why he’s not an Admiral after decades of distinguished service. He’s popular with his peers but not with the brass, save for his old friend and guardian angel, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer in an extended cameo).

“Your reputation precedes you,” says Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm). “That’s not a compliment.”

Called back to Top Gun, the United States Navy training program where he learned fighter and strike tactics and technique, Maverick is presented with a last chance for glory. “You fly for Top Gun or you don’t ever fly for the Navy again.”

Cyclone is obviously disdainful of the arrogant Maverick, but acknowledges he is the best person to train twelve of the brightest and best recent Top Gun graduates for a dangerous mission to locate and destroy an underground uranium enrichment site.

For Maverick, the job comes with baggage. It places him in the vicinity of on-again, off-again girlfriend Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a new character, referenced in the first film as the daughter of an admiral. Most dramatically, one of his students is Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late best friend, “Goose,” played by Anthony Edwards in the first film. Rooster holds Maverick responsible for his father’s death and is resistant to Maverick’s training. “My dad believed in you,” he says. “I’m not going to make the same mistake.”

Of the twelve recruits, half will make the cut, one will be the leader, if Maverick can teach them the precision and “Don’t think, just do” attitude needed to come home alive.

“Top Gun: Maverick” screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie keep the story simple; a splash of romance, a dash of remorse, some shirtless volleyball and a mountain of eye-popping aerial action. It’s a recipe that echoes the events of the first film to the point of déjà vu. Still, as an exercise in nostalgia, complete with callbacks to the original, and an emotional appearance by Kilmer, “Maverick” works because it blends old and new in a crowd-pleasing way. Unlike other recent 1980s and 1990s reboots, it salutes the original in tribute. Loud and proud, it wears its superficiality on its sleeve in an old fashioned, last century style that is unabashed fan service.

But what really sets the new and old films apart is Cruise. He was a movie star then, and he’s a movie star now, but with age, the stakes for his character are higher. Maverick has a lot to prove, regrets to be dealt with and while the actor doesn’t appear to have aged at all, that trademarked Tom Cruise Run can’t be as easy as it once was. Maverick is a still a hotshot, but here the character is tempered by the sins of the past and a real concern for the future. Cruise’s work shaves some of the hypermasculine edges off Maverick to reveal a more human and humane character than the first time around. It centers the movie with some earthbound emotion to counter the sky-high action.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is a sequel that plays it safe with the story, but lets it rip in the blockbuster action sequences, giving the audience the expected need for speed.

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