Monday July 04, 2022
Movie Review: Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Watching the original “Top Gun” back in ’86, I remember being surprised at the end when they went beyond maneuvers and actually engaged an enemy. I thought, “What the fuck? We’re not at war with anybody.”
Watching the sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” 36 years later, and at the end they engage the enemy, known simply as “the enemy,” who are faceless and voiceless. And I thought, “Makes sense. We’re at war with everybody.”
It’s been a helluva 36 years, hasn’t it?
It’s nice that some of that shows up on Tom Cruise’s face. He’s still in great shape but he’s finally showing his age. Tom, you’re finally showing our age. Both of us were born in 1963, and there’s bags under the eyes and sags by the jawline (at least you have one), and those little puffy indentations by the mouth. Would’ve been nice, of course, if someone in the film had mentioned it. Or if he had. Or if he’d mentioned something about aging. “Acid reflux at zero gs is the worst.” “I really should’ve worn sunscreen during those beach volleyball games.” “I feel the need … the need to pee.”
Instead, Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, nearly 60 now, still has better stamina and reflexes than the twentysomethings he’s training, such as “Rooster” (Miles Teller), “Hangman” (Glen Powell) and “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro), all of whom were born a quarter century later. (The actors were all born after “Top Gun” was released.) It’s like pretending Cecil Fielder or Edgar Martinez, two '63 babies, could play better than Mike Trout or Juan Soto right now.
For what it is, though, “Top Gun: Maverick” is a fun movie. They do a good job. In that airless world.
I’d heard good things (Rotten Tomatoes: 96%/99%), but from the raves I was expecting something like “The Right Stuff,” and this doesn’t come close to that.
It does open with a kind of “Right Stuff” vibe, and not just because of Ed Harris. Maverick goes into work to fly his zoom-zooms and he’s told by his team that, since they’d never hit Mach 10, Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Harris) is pulling funding to spend the dough on a different favorite project. Except Cain ain’t there yet. So Mav fires up the bird (no stick of Beeman’s), takes it to 10, then, being him, pushes the envelope. Oops. Down goes the bird. We skip the crash landing and cut to a frazzled Maverick in space-man outfit entering a crowded diner, where he chugs a glass of water and asks where he is. The awestruck boy near the cash register: “Earth.” Great line.
For the insubordination, Mav should be gone, fired, but he’s given another opportunity by his former rival and old pal, Adm. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), to return to the “Top Gun” school and train the best-of-the-best for a new mission. That mission involves flying low and fast through enemy canyons, dropping a pinpoint bomb to blow up some uranium macguffins, then soaring over mountains and hopefully making an escape. It’s like the Death Star canyon run in the original “Star Wars” but without the whole “Use the Force, Luke.” Wait, I guess there’s that, too, since “Rooster” has to learn to trust his instincts. He has to learn to not think.
Oh, if they could only teach that to some of us critics.
“Rooster,” in case you didn’t know, is the son of “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) from the first movie, the pal who dies, the wingman our hero can’t save and who blames himself for the death. As a result, Mav and Rooster have issues. Not because Mav caused Dad’s death. You kidding? Pfft. No, it’s because Maverick initially prevented Rooster from following in Dad’s footsteps. We later find out that he promised the boy’s dying mother (Meg Ryan, unseen except for ’86 footage) to keep the boy from becoming a pilot—that’s why he did it. Also he really didn’t think he was ready. Turns out all these recruits have a thing like that: Rooster thinks too much, Hangman is too reckless and solitary, Phoenix is … No, I guess it’s just Rooster and Hangman. Everyone else is just there. A Benetton ad.
The goal is for the team to do the Kessel Run in under 2 ½ minutes and bond like a team. None of the recruits is able to do the former and the latter only comes in fits and starts. It mostly happens in that give-each-other-shit, sweaty-football-on-the-beach way. The bigger issue, for Mav, is those damn admirals. I keep referencing “Star Wars” but the movie is a little like “Star Trek” in this way. Mav is the balls-out captain without the green alien babes, just a shockingly beautiful Jennifer Connelly running the aviator bar, while Ed Harris, then Jon Hamm as Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, are the admirals who keep getting in the way. And when Iceman dies of cancer, Mav is cut from the project because Jon Hamm has a different idea about the Kessel Run. Why not 4 minutes instead of 2 ½? Right? So much easier. Sure, then the enemy will scramble its jets, etc., and our heroes probably won’t make it back alive. But mission accomplished!
Instead, Mav steals a plane, demonstrates that the run can be done in 2 minutes and 15 seconds, so Jon Hamm appoints him Team Leader for the mission. And for his team, Mav picks pretty lady, black dude, nerd boy and Rooster. And off they go to take it to the enemy.
Psst. They win.
Goose, Rooster, Loon
Admittedly, it’s thrilling. Throughout, director Joseph Kosinski (“Oblivion,” “Only the Brave”) and DP Claudio Miranda film the actors within the F-14s and 18s, and we can feel the difference. We can see the pressure on them. This ain’t green screen, kids. From the IMDb trivia page:
- Cruise's involvement was predicated on the condition that real aircraft be used in the aerial sequences, not CGI.
- Cruise personally designed a three-month aviation course for the new actors to get ready riding in F-18s.
- Three of the actors threw up every day of filming in the jets, per Miles Teller.
All of which accounts for a lot of the critical enthusiasm. The movie is real. It’s about heroes who are super rather than superheroes. And (admittedly again) it's not all sweaty football on the beach. The scene where Mav visits Ice, and they talk, is powerful and powerfully acted, particularly by Cruise. One shot in particular—myriad complex emotions crossing his face. I’m like “Damn, this dude can act when he wants.”
But you could write most of the characters’ personalities on a Post-It note. Connelly as Penny is given almost nothing to do. They’re exes, and she: 1) teases him feistily, 2) teases him softly, 3) leaves the door open for him. When he returns after the mission, she’s off sailing with her daughter. I guess to show she has her own life? Or to provide a thrum of last-minute tension? Right. Imagine if she never returned. Instead, in the final reel, yep, there she is, in magic-hour light standing next to a 1973 Porsche 911 S, like in a car commercial. That said, Connelly looks fantastic. And when was the last time we saw 50-year-olds making out in a movie?
Should the movie have worried more about Rooster? He barely knew his father, yet he: 1) trains at the same academy for the same job that killed the old man; 2) sports the same moustache; and 3) sings the same fucking song at the same fucking bar. Goodness gracious, that’s weird. Plus the whole double-o bird connection. (Was “Loon” taken?) But sure, let’s ignore all that. His issue is he’s “too cautious.” Until he isn’t—during the Kessel Run.
To be honest, hearing about “Top Gun: Maverick,” then seeing it and writing about it, I'm reminded how much I hated “Top Gun” back in the day. I guess I hated what its popularity meant. It meant the cynical period I grew up in was over. We were that much more mindless, that much more jingoistic, that much more ready to buy the bullshit. And every year it’s gotten worse. It’s almost as if we stopped thinking.