By Marc S. Sanders
Top Gun: Maverick is why we should never, ever give up on movie theaters and only settle for the flat screen TV. This is a film, a sequel to a very hokey, cheesy 1980s blockbuster, that will top my list of most unexpected surprises. This picture seemed inconceivable to accept, and yet, barring an unnecessary love story subplot, I relished every second of it. Finally, a movie delivers more, a lot more, than its trailers ever promised.
One of Tom Cruise’s best films has him return to preppy boy Navy Aviator pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. He’s a captain now, declining opportunities for promotion over the last near 35 years since we first saw him on screen in 1986. Like Cruise, Maverick looks like he’s barely aged. So, with that in mind, I guess we can accept that he can jack up his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle to unbelievable speeds with no helmet, and can take a super powered jet to Mach 10 speed, crash it and survive with everything on his person still intact.
Maverick is called upon by his old Top Gun classmate and former competitor Iceman (Val Kilmer) to teach a class of the current one percent of elite fighter pilots. They are about to embark on a mission to take out an enemy weapons depot hidden behind treacherous low altitude mountain terrain with sharp curves and narrow pathways. The area is also highly secured with machine guns, rockets, advanced radar, and enemy fighter jets. This film truly convinced me that this mission is actually impossible. Even Ethan Hunt of the Impossible Mission Force couldn’t survive this.
The highlight of Top Gun: Maverick is of course the aerial training and combat maneuvers done with actual F-18 jets that Cruise has gone on record insisting that the cast fly in. The barest minimum of CGI and manufactured effects were used. As a producer powerhouse in Hollywood, if Tom Cruise demands his action to be as convincing as possible, you are going to get your finished product. Much of the second act of the film focuses on Maverick outsmarting his students in the skies. These are the best the country has to offer but they haven’t encountered Maverick yet. The planes fly at one another and over each other and spiral together like a well synchronized ballet. I believe the footage that Tony Scott provided in the first Top Gun film still holds up very well. In this new film, it’s a tremendous enhancement. I know nothing about the laws of physics or computing the trajectories a jet can make at a particular speed, but what this film demonstrates is that what seems inconceivable is downright actual. You can not help but be impressed.
Still, to satisfy my particular movie requirements cannot hinge on action alone. I have to care about the characters. The characters are the stakes at play in dangerous action films like Die Hard or Indiana Jones. It’s what heightens the suspense. Fortunately, the script from Peter Craig takes time to invest in an older, more mature Maverick who remains haunted, but wiser following the loss of his best friend and co-pilot Goose. Now, Goose’s son, code name Rooster (Miles Teller) is one of the stand out students who holds a grudge against Maverick. It’s not as simple as the guy losing his father at a young age. There’s more to it to be revealed.
Teller plays well off of Cruise, as do the other hot shot students made up of Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, and Glen Powell. They’re all daredevil pilots like the first film offered, but they are written with more believability this time. These are not the frat house beach bum guys that were so often shown in 1980s pictures. Powell, known as Hangman, and Teller’s Rooster fill the Iceman/Maverick opposition here. Only this time, it gets more personal as the characters go after their back stories and history. Maverick is caught in the middle. So, the drama is well played here.
Director Joseph Kosinski makes the mission easy to comprehend. Graphic maps show the impossible trajectory these pilots are expected to face. The audience easily understands the challenges of going at impossibly low altitudes followed by fast upward careens into near atmospheric space while still trying to maintain consciousness and not get shot down.
At the very least, to enjoy this picture, I think I’m thankful that I’m not a Navy pilot. If I was, perhaps I’d be apt to dismiss the daring stunts that are committed over the course of the film. I don’t want to know what can and can’t be done. Let me have my illusion. What’s especially appreciated is the perspective you’re given from the cockpit of these jets whether they are flying in a straight line, or alongside another plane or when Cruise himself is there in his trademark Maverick helmet taking his aircraft into an inverted and upside-down position with the top of the snowcapped mountains beneath him. It’s positively mind-blowing.
Maybe you have an idea of how the film will end up. I won’t spoil it, but I certainly stopped thinking about it as the movie played along. This movie had my undivided attention for just over two hours. Moments occur where characters are in such convincing peril that any outcome would have worked and kept the integrity of the film.
Naturally, there’s a love story. Most people didn’t care for the romance of the first film. Not me. I really liked how Kelly McGillis and Cruise performed together. It was sweet and sensitive. It took its time. (See my review.) For this picture, McGillis wasn’t welcomed back. Google her quite frank and very honest response as to why she’s not here. Instead, Jennifer Connelly romances Cruise as a bartender named Penny Benjamin (yes, the Admiral’s daughter). Opposite Cruise, they look like a good couple. However, when their shared scenes come up, honestly if you need a pee break this is when to rush out of the theatre. The two characters don’t challenge one another like the first time around. Penny has to just hide Maverick from her teen daughter. Meh. That’s sitcom fare. This is nothing terrible here. It’s just not overly necessary. Does Maverick need to have a love interest? Is it the end all be all? This movie would have held up just fine without the love story. Just be glad there’s another shirtless beach scene for the guys to frolic around this time with a couple of footballs.
Without question, to date as of this writing, Top Gun: Maverick is the best picture I’ve seen this year. I already declared the inventiveness of Everything, Everywhere, All At Once as one of the reasons why that film is one of the best of the year. Cruise’s film tops it though. The craftsmanship on display is like nothing you’ve seen before. It challenges the technical marvels of James Cameron’s auspicious achievements and raises the bar for anything to come out after it.
If people like Tom Cruise and other daring producers in Hollywood can manufacture films on this level of story, adventure and suspense, then please, please, please do not close up the Cinematic Multiplexes. Top Gun: Maverick is meant for the big screen; the biggest screen you can find with the best sound system available. I’ll be sure to see again it while it remains in theatres. In fact, release this film every summer until something else tops it. It is a that good a film.