Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Until just the other day, I had never seen Top Gun. Growing up in the 80s into the 90s, I was familiar with the film as it was a staple in friends’ homes, as was the lousy Nintendo video game, and one of the major pillars of Tom Cruise becoming a superstar, but I was too young when it came out and then it got buried behind other movies I always intended to catch up with. Honestly, as I got older, I just didn’t have much interest in rote military thrillers the likes of Tom Clancy (I dub them “dad movies,” as they’re my father’s long-standing Clancy-loving preference). Then came the 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, and it became Cruise’s highest-grossing movie of his blockbuster career and the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time. I’m probably one of the last few people on the planet to finally catch Maverick and I’m a little befuddled what made this movie as highly praised, to the point where it’s a given it will be nominated for Best Film awards and even stands as populist chance of winning. Maverick is a perfectly enjoyable action movie with satisfying character arcs. It’s an example of what big-budget moviemaking can accomplish when the right artists are aligned. However, let’s not start jumping on any couches and going nuts here. It’s a solid sequel elevated by a great finish.
We follow Maverick, a.k.a. Pete Mitchell (Cruise), as he’s tasked with training the next generation of top guns for a very specific, highly dangerous aerial assault mission to take out a foreign nuclear arms lab. The big issue is that one of these pilots, Rooster (Miles Teller), is the son of Maverick’s former wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died in the 1986 original movie. Mav has been denying Rooster senior-level opportunities out of fear of being responsible for the death of father and son, but Rooster will not be ignored and denied, and they’ll square their feelings of guilt and resentment over the course of this impossible mission.
I can see why this movie would be successful. It plops our older hero down in a teaching role which allows the satisfying arc of building a team, gaining his own feet as a teacher, and the two-way transmission of respect. It’s a formula that works. We watch the younger pilots grow and become more capable, we watch Maverick settle into a natural teaching role, reaching out to others, and we also watch him and his team stick it to the naysaying Naval authority with every victory. It’s all there and developed with enough precision by screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Singer Warren, and Cruise-lifeline Christopher McQuarrie to operate smoothly. In the 1986 movie, we had hotshot pilot Maverick learning personal responsibility and teamwork, though much of that original movie was preoccupied with so… many… characters telling young Mav how gosh darn special he really is and how the U.S. Navy needs him so bad. The emotional reconciliation also works between Maverick and Rooster (I guess the name and the mustache are affectionate odes to dear deceased dad) and serves as an effective emotional foundation for old fans and new. The drama works and the legacy elements and cameos feel better incorporated, though the “Great Balls of Fire” piano bar singalong was awkwardly forced nostalgia bait. The romance with Jennifer Connelly’s single mother barmaid even feels a little wiser and more honest rather than setting her up as a good-looking woman cheering our hero onward. Nobody’s going to leave the film citing the prerequisite love story as their favorite part, but it’s at least more thoughtful and less tacked-on than I was dreading. For all these reasons, Top Gun: Maverick has the tools to succeed as a sequel that can transcend its initial nostalgic fandom.
Where the movie really takes flight is in its action photography and the final act. Director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Spiderhead) filmed the aerial sequences with IMAX cameras and the in-cockpit perspectives make the action far more immersive and thrilling. The actors were charged with being their own camera operators while flying in their planes, so Kosinski would wait on the ground and then review the footage and then send the actors back up in the air for further takes. It’s a painstaking process, made more so by Cruise’s obsessive insistence on making things as real as possible, and it pays off remarkably. The dazzling footage within the cockpits as they swoop and swerve has an exciting verisimilitude that can’t be replicated by computer effects. The dogfights are easy to understand and follow thanks to the careful visual orientation from Kosinski, smooth editing that doesn’t become jumbly, and clearly stated goals and mini goals within the mission training (McQuarrie is so good at this stuff). It made me wish that they never got out of the air. It also made me envious of the grandiose IMAX presentation.
It’s the final act that really seals the deal from an entertainment standpoint. The team tackles their mission at the 90-minute mark, and it’s thrilling and everything you’d want in an action set piece. The way the mission is structured in well-defined pieces working in tandem reminded me of the Mission: Impossible franchise during its 2010s swing into becoming the best studio action franchise. It makes for a satisfying and thrilling conclusion, and it’s not a real spoiler to say that the team of underdogs defies the great odds and succeeds, but then the movie surprised me. There was still twenty minutes left, and Top Gun: Maverick says, “Oh, you think we’re done? We’re not going to just give you a good climax, we’re going to give you a buffet of action peaks, each somehow elevating the movie even higher while still working with the established character arcs.” It is a feat of deft studio action construction. After the mission, there’s a personal behind-enemy-lines rescue and escape that literally hinges upon a recognition of nostalgia as intrinsic value. I won’t explain the exact particulars, but the characters literally survive relying upon the devices and training of old, surely a reassuring nod to the older generation audience members. It’s like the movie has taken Cruise’s penchant for showmanship to heart and wants to give you everything it can. The results are a good action movie flying off the charts by the end with a fantastic finish.
Still, it’s hard for me to join the cheering masses declaring Top Gun: Maverick as one of the best films of recent years. It’s slickly made, solid in its storytelling and emotional foundation to produce satisfaction, and it’s filmed with visual panache from its commitment to practical effects and realism. The final act is a fabulous sendoff that shows the heights of blockbuster popcorn cinema. Maverick is without a doubt the superior Top Gun movie. The original had its own sense of style from director Tony Scott, one that became synonymous as the visual vocabulary of Hollywood military thrillers for decades. It’s also hard to watch the movie in 2022 and not see the dozens and dozens of imitators that came after, making the movie feel less enticing and more simply the progenitor of a genre formula that isn’t my favorite to begin with. Maverick improves in every way and sheds the worries of being a late-sequel nostalgic cash-grab. It’s a good and effective movie with a rousing and uncommon finish, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe people are looking for something that feels like comfort food done right, and I suppose that could be Top Gun: Maverick for many, as the box-office numbers would chiefly indicate. I might not be in its inner fandom but I can see what others would celebrate, even if I do less.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Posted on December 22, 2022, in 2022 Movies and tagged action, christopher mcquarie, jennfier connelly, jon hamm, joseph kosinski, miles teller, military, sequel, tom cruise, val kilmer. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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