I went into this movie equipped with two pieces of baggage:
For the first two thirds of the movie, I was a bit flabbergasted at the latter. It felt rote and plastic; yes, Tom Cruise was playing a twenty-year old at the age of fifty and clearly giving it his all, but — why? It felt like a cosplay of the previous film, down to replacing one inert love interest with another. And I so hate the tendency for these films to try and bridge the gap between "beloved old movie" and "hot new IP" by bringing back the star, having them mentor some folks, and then dying off or sailing into the sunset.
Where this movie turned the corner [^1] for me was the climactic two runs of what I'll call the "Top Gun Kessel Run". It was a very good choice to replace the "abstract competition with points" in the original film with a specific objective that the trainees fail in interesting and revealing ways, and then that choice is rewarded with both Tom Cruises' hypersonic completion of the run (it's much clearer to say "oh he did it in 2:15 instead of 3:00" than "uhhh he did a really cool maneuver"), but also the incredible action sequence of the live TGKR, which was just some of the best action filmmaking I've seen in my life.
This was not a mastery of film, and I think the critical gulf between reviews of this movie and reviews of the original is a bit of a make-up call for what was in retrospect a deeply odd and impactful bit of American mythos. But it was a better one, and it's certainly very fun.
Some stray observations: