Top Gun: Maverick

Top Gun: Maverick is a direct sequel to Top Gun and just like its predecessor, it’s an endorphin-fueled joyride of a movie.  Tom Cruise is back as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a gifted Naval aviator with a need for speed only matched by his penchant for taking risks.  Thirty-some years later, Maverick is still doing his thing, flying experimental aircraft.  He’s haunted by the death of his wingman Goose, a tragedy that he still feels guilty about.  (An official investigation cleared him, but, you know.)  A top-secret mission pulls him back into the TOPGUN program, where he’s tasked with playing the role of instructor to a bunch of hot-shot pilots almost as arrogant as he was way back in 1986.  In between training missions, Cruise alternates his free time between romancing bar proprietor Penny (Jennifer Connelly) and dealing with the anger from Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Goose.  Director Joseph Kosinski manages to recreate the spirit of the original, which is no small feat for a rebootquel.  Like its predecessor, Maverick is expertly made, very entertaining and features a performance by Cruise that makes him look a bit more mortal than usual.  If you liked the original, you’ll like this one.  Recommended.

Prior to seeing Top Gun: Maverick, I reflected on the original.  I remember seeing it in a theater with my dad, but I’ve never watched it from beginning to end since.  I’ve caught bits and pieces of it on cable while channel flipping, but it’s not a movie I’ve ever chosen to devote an evening to watching a second time.  I remember it vividly, though.  The plot is so simple, it could be contained within one of those Little Golden Books I used to read as a child.  

While the plot of Top Gun is nothing special, it’s one of those movies that has left an indelible impression on me.  It’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, and I wouldn’t even include it in my list of my favorite Tom Cruise movies (see below).  Simple as it may be, I enjoyed Top Gun because it is well made popcorn entertainment.  Its success is primarily due to director  Tony Scott, who took what was a thin slip of a story and turned it into a hugely successful moviegoing event.  

In place of story, Scott filled Top Gun with beautiful shots and scenes that are just plain fun to watch.  With the help of and DP Jeffrey L. Kimball the movie is always fantastic to look at and always has something worth looking at.  Editors Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber keep things moving at a pace not unlike an MTV video.  I’d actually argue that if anyone doubted the influence of MTV, they should look not just at Miami Vice, but this movie.  The movie also had a groovy new wave score by Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop) and songs by Kenny Loggins and Berlin.  Last but not least, the movie starred Tom Cruise, at the point in his career when his megawatt charm was just taking off.  Ultimately, Top Gun is an entertaining movie because almost everything about it is filmmaking at its best.  It is better than the sum of its parts because nearly everything about it makes up for the flimsy story it tells.

Top Gun:Maverick (or Maverick) definitely falls under the rebootquel category.  Just like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Trek it brings back members of the original cast and pairs them with young bucks who are primed to pick up the baton.  Rebooting a franchise is not easy.  Rebooting a franchise while making a sequel to the last entry is even harder (see Matrix: Resurrections).  A rebootquel can have a good cast, an interesting story, top-notch production value, but still not capture the spirit of the original.  Or if it does, it does so intermittently.  Amazingly, Maverick looks and feels like a direct descendant of the original throughout.  If the filmmakers had used computers to de-age Cruise and I saw this movie immediately after seeing the original, I would have thought the two were made only a year or so apart.

Part of this is due to Maverick’s reliance on old-school moviemaking.  The movie has a more realistic aesthetic to it, unlike most superhero movies that have come out in the past twenty years.  Much has been written about Cruise’s insistence on doing (some of) his own stunts.  I can’t say that that adds much to the movie itself, besides giving it the same air that Jackie Chan’s movies had.  (I refuse to believe that Cruise was in any actual danger while flying.)  Regardless, Maverick has not only managed to capture the spirit of the original, but of action movies of the Eighties and Nineties.

In Maverick, Maverick is still a captain, serving as a test pilot.  His current role is flying an experimental plane to mach 10.  Rear Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain (Ed Harris) wants to cancel the program in favor of drone warfare, which has earned him the nickname of “The Drone Ranger”.  Cruise manages to get the plane to mach 10.1 before it breaks up, in a sequence that reminded me of Chuck Yeager’s flight at the end of The Right Stuff.  (Instead of talking to demons, Maverick talks to Ghost.)

Afterwards, Cain chastises Maverick for never managing to climb the ladder.  He should be a two-star admiral by now!  Even though he believes that pilots like Maverick are dinosaurs, the Navy has a dangerous mission that can’t be done by drone.  At Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky’s insistence, Cain orders Maverick back to TOPGUN.  He’s the only pilot who’s ever flown a mission as crazy as the one coming up, so he will be in charge of training a young team of aviators to do it.  (Of course Maverick will eventually be more than just an instructor.  Did you expect to see Cruise in a command center surrounded by radar screens, sipping coffee during the big moment?)

Back in Nevada, Maverick faces his new nemesis, Adm. Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (a belligerent Jon Hamm).  Cyclone makes it clear to Maverick that he did not want him to be the instructor, and that the only reason he’s there is because of Iceman’s.  Maverick has never had a problem shrugging off authority, so Cyclone doesn’t bother him in the least.  After standing up to one Mad Man, Maverick bikes over to the bar with the bell.  He makes nice with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), the bar’s current owner with whom he’s had a prior relationship (or relationships).  You know the two will hook up later, but this being a later period Cruise movie, the term  “hooking-up” needs to be very loosely applied.

Maverick proceeds with training the young studs, who all have cool handles like Hangman, Fanboy and Phoenix.  (Except for Bob, who’s just “Bob”.)  Coincidentally, the trainees include Lt. Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Goose.  You can probably guess where the plot will go from here on out.  Maverick and Rooster won’t hit it off, and Rooster will struggle with training because of his animosity towards Maverick.  (Maverick pulled Rooster’s papers, setting his career back four years.)  In the end, Maverick learns to let go of his guilt over Goose’s death, and Rooster lets go of his anger towards his surrogate father.  The last act features Maverick and company flying at 100 ft through a canyon, flipping over and firing at a tiny ventilation shaft.  While Maverick was “doing the impossible”, I half expected to hear Alec Guinness’ voice speak from the great beyond.  Seriously though, if you’re going to rip the climax of a movie, Star Wars is a great choice.  Even Star Wars has no problems cribbing from itself, but I digress.

Maverick has almost all of the same elements that made Top Gun so entertaining, particularly those that feature Cruse.  Maverick buzzing a tower to get a rise out of the commander.  Maverick riding around on his motorcycle, sometimes chasing a jet.  Maverick and the (male) pilots playing volleyball on the beach in the sun, shirtless.  Maverick flashing his killer smile while putting the movies on a beautiful woman in a bar.  There’s also a scene where Rooster plays the piano in the bar and the pilots sing along, but the scene brings up some dark feelings for Maverick.

Maverick isn’t wall-to-wall Cruise, though.  The opening montage features jets landing and taking off from a carrier set to “Danger Zone”.  (I hadn’t thought of that song in twenty years.  Now I can’t get it out of my head.)  And the movie is chockablock full of training sequences that feature roaring jets.  The movie is expertly directed by Joseph Kosinski, who has absorbed every lesson possible by Scott and has put forth a movie that would make him proud.  Maverick is beautifully shot by Claudio Miranda, and editor Eddie Hamilton, and includes copious amounts of Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic score.  (Every time I knew the synthesized bell was going to ring, it still got to me.)  I was surprised that Berlin’s “Take my breath away” wasn’t included, but in all honesty, I didn’t miss it.  (It probably is my least favorite of their songs.)  The end credits do feature a powerhouse ballad by Lady Gaga, though.

The most noticeable difference between Maverick and its predecessor is how it presents the Maverick character.  Instead of a young, handsome, cocky, reckless and disrespectful pilot, we get an old, handsome, cocky, reckless and disrespectful pilot.  Gone is the bright, shiny, young flyboy of yesteryear.  This year’s Maverick may still smile widely from behind his aviators and flex a tanned and beefy bicep, but the face has lines on it and his eyes are puffy.  Time catches up to everyone, and Cruise has looked his age in the recent Mission: Impossible movies.  The difference with Maverick is that Cruise’s age is not camouflaged or obstructed with the blur of an action sequence.  In this movie, filled with scenes of Maverick talking, there are no opportunities to hide the obvious.  To his credit, Cruise lets the camera dwell on his visage, subtly delivering an undercurrent mortality to the proceedings.  Maverick was the first movie where I almost felt…sorry for Cruise.  Maybe sorry is too harsh.  He’s been so diligent about keeping himself in shape and doing his own stunts that I would feel sorry for him when the time comes when he can no longer be a human action figure.

Maverick also marks the first time I can remember Cruise taking on the role of mentor.  After Rooster and Cruise got past the perfunctory “I hate what you did to me” routine, the two had good chemistry.  The scenes with the two of them behind enemy lines were very good, and if there is a sequel, I can see the makings of a beautiful bro-tastic friendship.  Hopefully, Cruise and the filmmakers avoid making the obvious choice, where Maverick dies, leaving Rooster with “unresolved father-figure issues” to deal with. 

Like almost all movies that feature Jennifer Connelly as the leading lady, Cruise/Maverick can’t help but fall in love with her.  (I think the one exception to the Connelly Rule is Keanu Reeves in The Day The Earth Stood Still.)  While the original movie was no hot-bed of passion, it at least featured one slo-mo kiss between Cruise and Kelly McGillis.  Somewhere along the way, Cruise went from being a credible romantic partner to someone who you just don’t believe could be in a sexual relationship.  There hasn’t even a whiff of sex in a Tom Cruise movie in a long time, and Maverick is no exception.  The film cuts away just before Cruise and Connelly get physical, and the one kiss they share is shot from such a distance, there’s way of knowing whether they actually locked lips or not.  Not to belabor things, but if it weren’t for a few swear words, Maverick could be PG.

The other curious aspect of the movie is how weirdly generic its politics are.  The movie never states where the mission will take place, and unlike Top Gun, we never see the faces of the enemy pilots.  I don’t understand why they couldn’t make the enemy country Iran or North Korea, since those countries have been perceived as enemies of the US for decades and will likely never see this movie.  I wished the screenplay had a character refer to the villains as “evildoers”, but it was not to be.

Other than Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer is the only member from the original cast to make an appearance.  Meg Ryan’s character died long before the events in this movie take place, and no mention is made of Maverick’s previous love interest, played by Kelly McGillis.  Neither Tom Skerritt nor Michael Ironside make an appearance either.  I understand the inclination to not make a movie like a reunion of sorts, but a few cameos wouldn’t have felt out-of-place.  Aside from Glen Powell’s Hangman, the new gang doesn’t leave much of an impression.

Speaking of Meg Ryan’s character, I will say that I thought it was a cheat to have her be the actual reason why Maverick held Rooster back, and have her be dead.  I would rather Maverick had made a bad choice for what he thought was the right reason, instead of being completely let off the hook by a dead person.  A scene featuring Ryan and Teller hashing this out would have been very powerful, and it was a missed opportunity to not include one.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how incredibly moving Val Kilmer’s cameo was.  Given his health, his performance in Maverick could be the last one he ever gives.  If it is, I wish him the best.  He always gave interesting performances, with a star quality that always shone through, no matter the movie.

My Favorite Tom Cruise Movies (listed chronologically)

  1. Risky Business
  2. The Color of Money
  3. Rain Man
  4. A Few Good Men
  5. Mission: Impossible
  6. Jerry Maguire
  7. Edge of Tomorrow
  8. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
  9. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
  10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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