Film, Reviews, Top Gun

TOP GUN: MAVERICK is heartfelt, old-fashioned, joyous blockbuster filmmaking (Film Review)

Though one of the staple examples of 1980s blockbuster filmmaking, nobody truly expected Top Gun to either have or need a sequel, especially not approaching forty years on.

The so-called ‘legacyquel’, coined to describe sequels to existing properties that arrive long after the original picture or films, has been in vogue over the last 5-10 years in everything from Terminator: Dark Fate to Bill and Ted Face the Music. The results have been frequently a mixed bag with some franchises unable to recapture the magic or flair of the original movies. One of the reasons Top Gun: Maverick—which at 36 years after its predecessor stands as one of the more distant examples of the form—works so well is that it doesn’t have a masterpiece to try and emulate.

You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who watched Top Gun and actively hated it or at least believed it was poor filmmaking. Aside from permeating popular culture to a degree only 80s pictures such as Back to the Future or Indiana Jones managed, Tony Scott’s original movie balanced kitsch 80s action, plenty of testosterone-fuelled coded homoeroticism, sun-kissed American landscapes and a brace of exuberant rock to deliver a picture built largely on Tom Cruise’s nascent charisma and a gung-ho celebration of American exceptionalism. While a staple of its era, Top Gun is not a great piece of cinema.

This leaves Top Gun: Maverick plenty of leg room to both evoke the beloved film before it and craft something contemporary. The fact it does this, and does it so well, is a testament to everyone involved. It is, easily, the finest ‘legacyquel’ to date ever made.

Love him or hate him, and he really is often that Marmite, TG: Maverick’s success heavily revolves around Cruise in the main role.

While intense spy Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible franchise is arguably the role Cruise will primarily go down in history for, there is little doubt that Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell was a key reason why his career launched in the mid-1980s as it did. Maverick was confident, charming, arrogant but equally brilliant at what he did; a hit with the ladies, as he romanced stiff-backed Naval intellectual Kelly McGillis (not brought back for TG: Maverick), and ultimately able to prove his worth to bitter rival Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer), Mav was the 80s American ideal. He was the rebel for a cause.

Maverick was the role that sent Cruise stratospheric, a few years after making a mark as a handsome, callow 21 year old in Risky Business. What followed was a balance of smooth, charm-fuelled roles (Cocktail, Days of Thunder) with deeper, richer pictures that displayed his acting chops (Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July), but none of them might well have happened without Maverick, his first iconic role. It therefore feels fitting that as Cruise settles into middle age (he is, remarkably, 60 this year), he would go back to the part that made him. What stuns a little is just how easily Cruise slips back into Mav’s shoes. This might well be his best screen performance, on a dramatic level, since Michael Mann’s Collateral in 2004, a very different movie.

Kosinski’s film—developed heavily with Cruise and the actor’s chief collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, who came in late on to develop the script—works because of Cruise’s inspiring, emotive performance. Around him, the narrative is both relatively simplistic and well-trod territory. Maverick, having never risen to the Naval heights his career should, is recalled to ‘top gun’ in order to train a new generation of brilliant fighter pilots for a mission in enemy territory to destroy a uranium-enrichment factory, against deadly odds. The wrinkle? One of the team is Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of his best friend ‘Goose’ from the first movie whose death Maverick has never managed to reconcile.

As you can imagine, here lies the heart of a fairly inevitable tale. Maverick must earn the respect of Rooster, who has long blamed him for the death of his father, while bringing together a rag-tag assortment of fighter aces to successfully pull off the near impossible mission. Throw in Jon Hamm’s officious Admiral Beau Simpson aka former ace ‘Cyclone’, who lives by the same book Mav quite literally early on throws in the bin, you have plenty of internal tension TG: Maverick builds itself on. Again, you can probably guess the beats and you probably wouldn’t miss your target too heavily. The predictability of TG: Maverick is not the point, however. That’s not why you’re going to show up. It’s a story you’re expecting. It’s a story you get. It’s a story, I would argue, we all want.

In no uncertain terms, TG: Maverick is a throwback to a different age of blockbuster filmmaking. In the same vein of Mission: Impossible, which has eschewed CGI and lots of complex franchise world building to drive home fairly familiar espionage stories on the power of Cruise’s relentlessness and a fine cast, TG: Maverick is about visual and emotional spectacle. Cruise literally drilled his cast in how to fly rigged up F-18’s that were pushed to the limits of what camerawork could achieve inside genuine aircraft, as he told it to Empire:

We had to make sure that physically, at a certain point, they could do it. If they couldn’t do it, they can’t make the movie. I didn’t have time to get them their pilot’s license, just get them comfortable in the plane. I developed a programme on how to educate everyone. We had to teach the actors about lighting, about cinematography, about editing. I had to teach them how to turn the cameras on and off, and about camera angles and lenses. We didn’t have unlimited time in these jets. If they were going up for 20-30 minutes, I had to make sure that we got what we needed.

This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Cruise and his work ethic. What he seeks in his pictures is both old fashioned and resolutely unique and contemporary. TG: Maverick is not built on twists and turns or shocks and controversies. It aims for the heart and soul of big budget cinematic filmmaking. Cruise intentionally made sure that the film was held back for release, delayed much like everything thanks to Covid-19, in order for audiences to watch the film on as big a canvas as possible. And he’s right. TG: Maverick is mounted completely for a large scale canvas, with Kosinski’s set pieces designed to thrill and enrapture on a big screen, as they largely do. The g-force is 10x the power of what Scott managed in the 80s, thanks to what cinema is now capable of.

There is no doubt in my mind that Cruise is the one responsible for this, however. Taking his personal eccentricities off the table, he is a truly unique screen presence. He is the last great movie star, for my money. There are figures older than him whose careers have spanned even further back, such as Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood, who are still playing iconic roles or making pictures, but even they don’t have the all-encompassing gravity Cruise displays in every frame of his work or the pervasiveness he has over mainstream filmmaking. There are plenty of movie stars these days, of course, but how many have their name emblazoned above the door anymore in the age of the franchise? Cruise, conversely, is the franchise. He is Mission: Impossible. And he is Top Gun.

What he represents in these films, and Cruise seems to be incarnating in his consistent screen presence over the last decade, is a bulwark against change. Ed Harris’ cameo as gruff Admiral Cain decries Maverick’s existence as a pilot in an age of advanced machinery that won’t need humans to fly. “The future is coming and you’re not a part of it” he barks. The rest of TG: Maverick feels designed to prove him wrong. Equally, Mission: Impossible’s recent and future films are driven by Ethan Hunt as a symbol of the greater good, of protecting the status quo, of safeguarding a world of freedom. “You’re fighting to save an ideal that doesn’t exist. Never did” he is told by Henry Czerny’s Kittridge in the upcoming MI: Dead Reckoning Part I. The same is true of Maverick. He, and Cruise, are fighting for not just the present, but the past.

It is partly why TG: Maverick seeks to retain a direct narrative and visual link to the 1980s. Kilmer, unable to speak these days thanks to cancer, is given a touching cameo as Iceman. The film opens with the same legend, credits and visual stylistics as Top Gun, and closes in precisely the same regard; Kosinski matching Scott’s sun-dappled orange hues in how he shoots the machinery. Jennifer Connelly’s love interest Penny is ported straight out of 1986; she is perfect casting really, herself an icon of that era but who matches Cruise in looking fantastic for her middle age but equally retaining a timelessness in the romantic ideal she portrays. Mav & Penny’s relationship is sweet and itself of another age and underpins his emotional arc beautifully. It is another part of the direct tether the sequel has not just to the film before it but the era of that film.

Rarely has a modern piece of cinema managed to both evoke a very different, and in some ways distant, era of cinema while establishing itself as modern and kinetic as TG: Maverick does. There is real care in how this has been crafted across the entire picture and it very early on manages to exceed the film it follows. It manages to soar in terms of visuals and filmmaking acumen, the last act in particular a thrilling combination of aerial power and dramatic weight, while never losing sight of Maverick and Rooster’s emotional journeys. Teller hasn’t been this good since Whiplash, avoiding arrogance and conveying vulnerability, while as previously stated Cruise brings so much heart I defy you not to have a lump in your throat by the end. Even as someone who didn’t grow up with Top Gun in my life, this hit me right in the feels.

While often modern cinematic moviemaking, in all of its franchise baiting glory, can be genuinely exciting and thrilling, TG: Maverick is the kind of mainstream entertainment we just don’t see that often anymore. It is deliberately, pointedly, apolitical (the enemy is never named and just exists to be defeated), as was in many ways the original, and it doesn’t necessarily lionise American naval and aerial power in the same way. They might be the best of the best but they still have a lot to learn, they can’t take anything for granted, and Cruise’s Maverick stands as the bastion of a world being lost – a world where you “don’t think, just do”, a world of the kind of instinct Maverick and Cruise have built themselves on. It is muscular, brave but also sensitive in a way many action films aren’t. It’s a male weepie more than it is a bro movie.

There will be enormous replay value in Top Gun: Maverick, a film one senses will rank among not just the best sequels or legacyquels, but perhaps one of the finest populist American pictures of the decade. It certainly left me with that kind of lovin’ feelin’ many pictures don’t.

★ ★ ★ ★

DIRECTOR: Joseph Kozinski

WRITERS: Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer & Christopher McQuarrie

CAST: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Jon Hamm, Val Kilmer, Ed Harris

STUDIO: Paramount

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