A film review by Craig J. Koban June 4, 2022

TOP GUN: MAVERICK jjj
 

2022, PG-13, 131 mins.

Tom Cruise as Captain Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell  /  Miles Teller as Lt. Bradley 'Rooster' Bradshaw  /  Jennifer Connelly as Penny Benjamin  /  Jon Hamm as Vice Admiral Cyclone  /  Glen Powell as Hangman  /  Lewis Pullman as Bob  /  Charles Parnell as Warlock  /  Bashir Salahuddin as Coleman  /  Monica Barbaro as Phoenix  /  Jay Ellis as Payback  /  Danny Ramirez as Fanboy  /  Greg Tarzan Davis as Coyote  /  Ed Harris as Rear Admiral  /  Val Kilmer as Admiral Tom 'Iceman' Kazansky  /  Manny Jacinto as Fritz

Directed by Joseph Kosinski  /  Written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie
 

 

 

 

I know that I'm in the definitive minority for not coveting Tony Scott's original TOP GUN as many others have over the years.  There's no denying that this Jerry Bruckheimer produced action thriller became an iconic blockbuster juggernaut in the summer of 1986 as well as a landmark film for how it helped define - for better and perhaps for worse - the pop culture milieu of mass marketed cinema in the decade of excess in question.  TOP GUN imbued the summer film landscape with propulsive action, MTV-video-ified set-pieces, and catchy music tie-ins (soundtracks were a facet of movies before TOP GUN, but were blasted into the stratosphere in its wake).  

Oh, and yes...this film launched a then fresh-faced Tom Cruise on a path of superstardom that, astoundingly enough, he still successfully experiences to this very day. 

I think people have nostalgic ties to TOP GUN less because it's a great movie (it's peppered with an absurdly high jingoistic tone as a recruitment piece and the scripting and character dynamics never elevated themselves above woefully  contrived, cookie cutter soap opera melodrama) and more because it looked ultra glossy, the action was killer, and it cemented Cruise on the movie star map forever.  TOP GUN marked a seismic shift towards movies-as-mass-marketable-product through and through, and re-visiting it recently I was surprised by how antiquated it felt.  This long winded preamble brings me to TOP GUN: MAVERICK, a sequel nearly forty years in the making that sees the ageless Cruise return to the titular role of his cocky ace fighter pilot.  I can't say that I was blown away with an awesome wave of anticipation for TOP GUN: PART DUEX, but I will say this: This Joseph Kosinski (the terribly underwritten OBLIVION and TRON: LEGACY) led follow-up has no business whatsoever being as good as it is and this sequel marks a substantial improvement over its predecessor in many fundamental ways.  To be fair, TOP GUN: MAVERICK - on a story level - is as paper thin as its prequel and delves into remakequel, FORCE AWAKENS-styled fan servicing a bit too much for my tastes.  But on a pure level of technical showmanship, this film contains some of the most exhilarating aerial dogfight combat footage ever to grace the silver screen.   

TOP GUN: MAVERICK's opening is literally a plagiaristic swipe of the same opening from Scott's TOP GUN; beat for beat...shot for shot...sound for sound (we get the opening chords of Harold Faltermeyer’s theme and Kenny Loggins' immortal "Danger Zone" pummeling the soundtrack as we see a squadron of fighter planes take off from a massive carrier in the ocean, and it's so identical to what we got before that it becomes easy to worry early on that we're just getting the original regurgitated to us wholesale).  We then settle down into the basic nuts and bolts of the script: Set three-plus decades after the events of the first outing, TOP GUN: MAVERICK re-introduces us to the best of the best in Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, who we discover never achieved a high ranking placement in the Navy, mostly because he maintained that crass, authority defying attitude that he first displayed with reckless abandon all those years ago in TOP GUN 1.  He never attained a rank higher than captain, despite his piloting exploits and accomplishments being held to the highest legendary order by his peers.  Maverick now lays low and has become a test pilot for the military, but - in an early sequence in the film - gets into a lot of trouble when he pushes a top secret experimental craft above Mach 10.  He was told to not go above Mach 10 by his superior (a good, but underused Ed Harris), but because this is Maverick he has to push the need for speed that much further, regardless of orders. 

Because of his amazing, yet careless stunt, Maverick is ordered back to San Diego to the Naval Fighter Weapons School (or "Top Gun") by another superior officer (well played by a commanding John Hamm) as well as his old pal and now high ranking Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer, more on him in a bit), to teach a new squadron of up and coming pilots to take part in a highly dangerous mission to destroy an enemy's well guarded and nearly impossible to hit uranium supply.  Maverick is initially hesitant, but if he refuses his butt will be booted from the Navy.  He agrees and takes on his new class, which is comprised of Hangman (Glen Powell), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Payback (Jay Ellis), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), the hilariously boring sounding call sign Bob (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill), and - oh snap! - Rooster (Miles Teller), who's the son of - double snap!!! - Goose, Maverick's former wingman that died during a freak accident on his watch, something that the son has never forgiven Maverick for.  Maverick has just a few weeks to train this motley crew to be a well oiled team to achieve multiple miracles that this potentially deadly mission entails, and all while battling Goose's venomously resentful son and hooking back up with an old flame in Penny (Jennifer Connolly). 

 

 

One element that hurts TOP GUN: MAVERICK - as it did before - is that the team assembled here are mostly cardboard cutout stock character types and not fully fleshed out people (sans Teller's Rooster).  Hangman is essentially a poor man's Icemen that has an innate ability to get under the skin of the team's other potential alpha male in Rooster.  Aside from Barbaro's Phoenix adding some much needed girl power to this mostly sausage fest mix, not many of the other pilots here are afforded much depth (I did, though, like Pullman's Bob, who's a refreshing antithesis to the bulging muscle bound macho men that dominate these films).  Of course, egos are predictably bruised, some pilots seemed destined to flunk, and, of course, the teacher (this time Maverick himself) shows these younglings just how hopelessly unprepared they are to take on the enemy.  And speaking of enemy, it's kind of head shaking how both TOP GUNS really have nothing to say about the enemy they engage.  These films don't even acknowledge any nations by name (wouldn't want to offend anyone due to international box office concerns).  The "bad guys" in TOP GUN: MAVERICK (once again, like before) are abstractly and vaguely delineated, fly dark planes (without any country symbols on the outside), and have pilots that are obscured by black helmets and masks.  They're bad guys.  And they're stockpiling uranium to make bombs.  But, yay American imperialism, I guess.  TOP GUN: MAVERICK is politically and thematically inert and doesn't have much to say about the limitless complexities of modern global threats.

And let's talk about Maverick and his team's mission for a second.  They're tasked, as mentioned, to target and bomb the enemy's uranium enrichment plant and on their soil.  It's even more complicated.  The heroes have to attack this plant by flying down narrow mountainous trenches at ultra high speed and low altitude...and then hit an extremely small target at said high speed...and then make a shockingly steep incline to quickly escape to avoid enemy turrets and other enemy pilots.  If you're thinking that this is a carbon copy of the first STAR WARS' climax then you're not alone at all.  TOP GUN: MAVERICK is literally the Death Star run set on Earth, which made me chuckle on multiple occasions.  Hell, even one character decides to opt out of using targeting computers and goes manual and on pure gut instinct...not too unlike...say...a Tatooine moisture farmer.  Aside from this (and furthering the STAR WARS comparisons), TOP GUN: MAVERICK also plays remarkably safe when it comes to fan servicing: Like THE FORCE AWAKENS, we get a new generation being led by the old in a storyline being essentially appropriated from what's come before.  Other elements are painstakingly carried over from TOP GUN 1: We get ample magic hour sunset vistas; we get tempers flaring in the pilot's classroom; we get on again, off again romantic entailments with Maverick and a hard to attain love interest; we even get a shirtless (well, not for all) beach side football sequence featuring male/female team bonding (granted, before it was volleyball and was much more homoerotic).  Easter Eggs and callbacks abound here, which will undoubtedly placate die hard TOP GUN fans, but may irk those asking for something beyond re-heated leftovers. 

Having said all of that (and to get all of the bad out of the way), TOP GUN: MAVERICK gets an awful lot right as well,  especially when it comes to the main character himself.  Cruise has obviously benefited from decades of honing his thespian craft on top of becoming a crack producer as well, and here he's given so much more to do with Maverick than what was afforded to him in 1986.  Maverick was, more or less, all arrogant posturing in the first film (he had magnetic charisma, yes, but Maverick on paper was a pretty empty vessel).  This go around, Maverick is still egotistical to the max about his abilities and flipping the bird to authority, but this man is now more nuanced and melancholic, still haunted by the death of his BFF all those years ago and what that means to getting Rooster on his side.  Gone is the preening bad boy and in his place is a more grounded protagonist: still hyper confident, but more emotionally grounded and vulnerable.  Cruise is great here in a vastly expanded and frankly more interesting role, and I was pleasantly surprised by how sweet and poignant his relationship was with Jennifer Connolly, who's (a) still a stunner at 51 and (b) gives her part more layers than an obligatory love interest role usually affords.  Both stars (in their fifties) are sublime together, and I would even go as far as saying that - potential sacrilege to old fanboys - Cruise and Connolly make for a finer and more authentically developed item than what we got with Cruise and Kelly McGillis back in the day.  The relationship between flight instructor and student in TOP GUN 1 always felt forced and hammy (if not a bit icky in hindsight) and had the dramatic weight of an erotic cologne commercial.  Cruise and Connolly simmer with more low key and believable heat here.   

The real star of TOP GUN: MAVERICK is, clearly now as it was before, the action sequences in the air, and it's here where Kosinski and producer Cruise truly manage to up the ante in seismic ways from what we got all those years before.  Tony Scott, to his credit, crafted a then-cutting edge film made of impactful sight and sound fury, marrying actual footage with thanklessly good (and still good) effects work.  But (big but), I always found the editing and spatial relationships between jets in TOP GUN to be muddled and confusing.  Here, Kosinski has rectified that to a great deal with smooth and sinewy editorial flow, not to mention that the overall verisimilitude of the flying sequences achieved here dwarf just about anything that has come before in the history of cinema.  By Cruise's own mandate, Kosinski shot everything using IMAX certified 6K cameras, which gives the stunning imagery a massive detail pop (the director spent a year with the Navy to learn how to use these cameras on board planes).  Beyond that, over 800 hours of actual footage was shot for the film (eclipsing everything that was shot for the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy), much of it including Cruise and his co-stars in actual planes doing actual daring maneuvers in the skies above.  We've seen dogfight set-pieces faked before in movies (and married to real footage), but what we get in TOP GUN: MAVERICK is beyond next level.  The footage achieved here has a mind boggling veracity; there's rarely a moment in the film that feels like the product of computer tinkering or post-production makeovers.  In this heavily CGI-ified era of cinema, what this film attains is nothing short of incredible.  You feel like you're in the cockpit with these characters experiencing the facial paralyzing G forces.  If there ever was a modern movie that demanded audiences to tune away from their home theaters and smart devices and actively seek out large screen and sound formats in cinemas...well...it's most assuredly this. 

It's kind of remarkable, however, that the best moment in TOP GUN: MAVERICK isn't in the air, but on the ground and involves a long awaited reunion between Maverick and his once pilot nemesis, now career-long confidant in Iceman.  Watching Cruise and Kilmer share a scene for the first time in over thirty years is undoubtedly a giddy thrill, but it's also done so touchingly and tactfully, especially considering Kilmer's real life battles with throat cancer, which has rendered him voiceless and has placed the makers in a thorny position with regards to bringing Iceman back.  The scene could have been cheaply sensationalistic, but it's so moving in the way it's performed and handled, especially for how they needed to utilize Kilmer and not shy away from his real life health woes.  In the end, it's moments like this - as well as a host of other notable improvements - that's makes TOP GUN: MAVERICK work so well as a crowd pleasing sequel and a solid piece of pure summer escapist entertainment.  As highlighted, this new installment commits many of the same sins as its forbearer, but it course corrects on other levels to compensate.  

And one last thing needs to be noted while you're watching TOP GUN: MAVERICK: 

Cruise is one year away from 60.  

Yes.  60.  

He has been at this game through five decades of massive change in the industry, and he's still putting himself out there (while putting his body on the line and keeping up with actors half his age) for the sake of his art and to be the ultimate A-list ringmaster that wants to give 110 per cent with every film (and sometimes beyond) to simply entertain moviegoers.  

When it comes to movie stars maintaining relevance and dominance, Cruise just might be the best of the best. 

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