Review: Top Gun: Maverick

One of the fun quirks of being known as the film nerd among friends and family is that when there’s a blind spot in your watch history, people are always shocked. Top Gun was one of those blind spots until last year, and I was only too familiar with how much a lot of people I know loved it. So I watched it and… I was underwhelmed. It had a cool vibe, all 80s music and dramatic sunsets, but I didn’t really care that much.

So you’re probably thinking: “why go and see the new one then, tool?” To which I’d like to respond that trailers sometimes do the job of raising expectations, and that reading a lot of reviews by writers I trust got me reconsidering. Not to mention knowing that latter-day Tom Cruise is hell-bent on risking his life to keep realistic action cinema going – Mission Impossible: Fallout rewired my brain with how insane it was.

So yes, I went – and I wasn’t disappointed. With confidence, I can say that those who worship the original (who’ve probably already seen it, let’s be honest) will absolutely love this. It’s a really clever marriage between the nostalgia and cultural event of Top Gun, and the modern day leaps in filmmaking and technology, with Cruise as the freakishly-youthful, slowly-aging bridge between the two.

35 years after Top Gun, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is still flying, this time experimental aircraft at hypersonic speeds. With this part of his career under threat, he’s abruptly thrown into teaching back at Top Gun, taking on a group of young hotshots like he once was, including the son of his late friend “Goose”, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). With the clock ticking on an important, dangerous and borderline-insane mission, Maverick has to balance his instincts and ability to improvise with teaching, as well as the safety of his friend’s son.

Director Joseph Kosinski has a track record, with films like Tron Legacy and Oblivion, of making austere-looking, epic action movies that sometimes feel like they lack a bit of heart or humanity. With Maverick, he brings everything he knows how to do and, thanks to Cruise and the team of writers behind the script, assumes the role of the late Tony Scott with aplomb.

He manages to perfectly balance capturing that feel and look of the original film, making this an homage, but also giving it new life and zest, as well as a more tangible and visually-stunning sequel (you can’t call this a reboot). He handles dramatic, emotional scenes with real skill, but once the planes start flying, his action movie directing credentials are there for all to see.

The script has five (!) writers, which usually means something very bad happened and the film is going to be shit. Conversely, here a solid sequel script is given some emotional boosts and a bit of a modern coat of paint: it’s no surprise to me that Christopher McQuarrie (writer and director of the last two Mission Impossible films) is one of the five, alongside Ehren Kruger, Warren Singer, Peter Craig and Justin Marks, because the storyline has that sense of purpose, movement, humour and peril that McQuarrie excels in writing.

Altogether, what the script writers and Kosinski manage is to port that feel and style of the original over to a modern day movie. It’s got that 80s soundtrack coursing through (the best part of the original, for me), the sweeping American sunsets and baking hot desert/ocean days, and the mixture of tension, smarm, wholesome charm, military love-ins and homoeroticism (there’s a sports game, on a beach this time, with music and slow-mo plus lots of bare chests… they know what they’re doing!).

There’s definitely a stronger story this time around though, mostly thanks to the script ensuring that the (lesser-seen) acting abilities of Cruise are given some time onscreen. An ethos of working together, working for the common good and believing in your instincts permeates the movie, with lessons learned and taken on or ignored as you’d expect: but there’s nothing too deep or dark. This is the epitome of a summer blockbuster, all sunshine, edge-of-your-seat thrills and hokey relationships. This extends to the unnamed, unseen villainous “enemy”, like the first film – it’s not all super-serious, nor political.

If there’s a fault to be had, it’s that the movie feels more predictable as it goes, though I was less sure of the fate of the large ensemble cast. As it is, while it doesn’t have too many surprises, how it depicts everything on its way to the conclusion is what drew me in and what I enjoyed the most. This is absolutely one of those movies you can see Americans standing up and whooping at, and it’s the ultimate popcorn blockbuster.

What Kosinski, the stunt teams, cinematographer Claudio Miranda and editor Eddie Hamilton have crafted for us – once we’re in the air – is nothing short of a gamechanger for any action film with planes. A Cruise-led (who else!) training programme led to the pilot actors all going through the most metatextual experience ever, in that Cruise helped teach them to be co-pilots (backseat drivers) in actual jets, and they learned to film themselves in the air.

That all leads to, quite frankly, some of the most ridiculous action footage I’ve seen. You’ve got the actual actor in a proper fighter jet, with the incredible vistas all around them, flying at god knows how fast. And as a result everything feels more realistic – I say that so much in reviews, but the more something feels risky and real, the more enjoyable it is when it comes to stunts. It’s absolutely incredible at times, in particular in one scene centered around Maverick, in which you’re only too aware that Cruise is experiencing unreal G-forces and flying around at hundreds of miles an hour.

Miranda’s cameras capture the sun-drenched bases and beaches as clearly as the mountains, valleys and deserts the planes soar through, with the final act’s basis in a snowy mountain/valley range acting as a vivid contrast to what’s come before. Essentially, this is a film that feels like it’s got barely any scenes in a set or stage – it all feels outdoors. I’m sure CGI has been used in places I couldn’t tell, and that always enhances the action experience.

His work wouldn’t succeed without Hamilton’s editing, which eschews choppy cuts and jerky camera for a more steady, tension-building visual feast. There’s an escalating pace to certain points, and it’s in that skilful editing of all the (hundreds of hours!) of aerial footage that we can easily follow the action. He also knows how to slow it all down in the more emotional, dramatic dialogue scenes, letting us rest between the high tension action scenes and take in the character-focused elements of the film.

Finally on the technical side of things, it’s worth mentioning the soundtrack and score. If you’re here for the Top Gun Anthem and Danger Zone, let’s just say you’ll not be disappointed – and to be honest, the 80s elements of the score (rejigged and reheated from Harold Faltermeyer’s original by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe) are its strongest parts. You can hear Zimmer and Balfe in much of the newer, less memorable score – while Lady Gaga and Ryan Tedder can’t hold a torch to Kenny Loggins or Berlin, sadly.

It bears repeating, as I point out often in my reviews, that the acting is not always the most important thing about blockbuster movies (and it’s not normally great either!). This is the Cruise show, and the film wouldn’t be made without him. What surprised me was his often unused acting talent being on show – aforementioned scenes with Kilmer were excellent, while his balance between cocksure arrogance and a man haunted by guilt is only built on by his utter insanity when it comes to stuntwork. He’s definitely the last Movie Star, and when he stops putting his life on the line for these sorts of films, cinema will be worse off.

Teller is all pent-up fury and repressed anger as Rooster, his casting a clever decision given his resemblance to Anthony Edwards. He makes the role unique with that simmering rage, buttoning it up until releasing it (and reminding me of how good he was in Whiplash years ago). Jennifer Connelly takes a thankless love interest role and gives it a little more class, but the character (an old flame of Maverick’s that we’ve never seen or heard of) has little to do within the story, sadly.

Outside of the main three, Jon Hamm feels miscast as a stuck-up military man butting heads with Maverick, while Glen Powell’s mini-Maverick “Hangman” is all smarm, attitude and swagger, blending elements of Cruise and Kilmer in his sheer arrogance. Of the large group of other pilots, only Monica Barbaro’s “Phoenix” makes an impact, more than holding her own among the macho brigade.

There’s a well-placed cameo for Ed Harris as your stereotypical grumpy, hard-ass military general pissed off by Maverick’s, well, maverick behaviour. Last but certainly not least, Val Kilmer’s real-life throat cancer experience has left him nearly unable to speak, and the way the film brings him back is an emotional and acting highpoint. Scenes that might otherwise have been anodyne are genuinely poignant, the reality supercharging the emotion and bringing the best out of Cruise.

It’ll take a lot to beat Maverick as the action film of 2022, and I can’t emphasise enough how you should see it in the cinema. Cruise personally held this back nearly two years to ensure people saw it on the big screen, and he was right to do so – it’s the blockbuster to beat this summer.

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