Top Gun: Maverick is easily the best aerial dogfight movie made because it keeps its feet on the ground.

There are few green screens and little CGI ­– just a lot of military supervised training for the actors called on to play the best of the best, the top guns gathering in the desert for a stealth attack on a nuclear facility. In the cockpit, they are flying real F-18s (the exteriors were altered later); they grunt, their faces contort under G force, and in a steep ascent a pilot blacks out. It gives the film wings.

Maverick (Tom Cruise), 36 years on, is still a lowly captain, a flight tester with no career path who can still pull off Mach 10 but is a legend in danger of being forgotten. Then he gets the call. The special mission requires the pilots to do a closely timed dash through a canyon under the radar of the enemy whose guns are trained at the sky, pinpoint a 3m-wide access point to a nuclear target not once but twice, then – having by now alerted the enemy to their presence – fly out again. With luck, they may even make it home, although naval command seems to regard that as a bonus.

Maverick is asked not to lead the team but to train the pilots who have heard of his exploits but don’t recognise the middle-aged man in the bar whose credit card is declined. His return to the fold is steeped in nice history, with old photos of him with his friend Goose (who died in Top Gun). Now Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller), is a top gun and has a score to settle.

The emotional undercurrents lift the energy as the cocky recruits try to match themselves to Mav in breathtaking manoeuvres in the clear desert skies. There’s Hangman, Fanboy, Phoenix, Rooster with his grudge, and the Admiral running the show (Jon Hamm), who is not a Maverick fan.

The mission is closely defined and doesn’t get caught up in who the enemy is or even which nation is under attack. There is less disbelief to suspend when it’s kept this simple and the more ludicrous developments are over before you have time to fret.

The story is cheesy and predictable but the details play out cleverly and at a gripping pace. Drones might one day be able to pull off the same flight paths but they won’t be thundering down out of the heavens in time to save their wingman.

The casting is impeccable and Cruise is a walking miracle. Nearing 60, of course he has aged, but his energetic commitment to being a major star who can lead a film of this calibre – a movie, after all, not a moon flight – is jaw-dropping.

Top Gun: Maverick is a thundering blockbuster made by professionals who understand the art and craft of movies, which includes a bunch of ripped pilots bonding at the beach. It is very well played.

Top Gun: Maverick is showing in cinemas nationally from today.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.