Top Gun: Maverick

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Continuing Oscar catch-up: Nostalgia can exert a powerful magnetic pull. The first Top Gun, from 1986, never won my heart, but Top Gun: Maverick felt like coming home, in a weird way. There’s no reason in the world it should have worked, but it does. Maverick was put together by a bunch of craftspeople — not necessarily artists — who are very good at what they do, and who know what works, damn them. Two and a half cheers, then, for an entertainment that delivers on its promise (and never even thinks to pretend to be more). It tickled the same part of my brain that lights up whenever the radio plays ‘80s songs. 

I don’t know why we care about Maverick (Tom Cruise) and his arc from rule-bucking perpetual captain to teacher and leader of an elite squadron of pilots. But we do. I don’t know why we care about Rooster (Miles Teller), one of those elite flyboys, whose father (Anthony Edwards in the original movie) flew with Maverick and died, and who is sore at Maverick for holding back his career. But we do. I don’t even know why we care about the mission, which involves dropping bombs on some secret uranium plant in some country somewhere — North Korea? Canada? who knows? — and then skedaddling at dangerous speed before the deadly counter-attack. But we do. It’s the architecture of the thing as much as the plot details. It’s built to please — all quadrants. That’s what it does. That’s all it does.

Cruise has been a star now for forty years. Gravitas has gathered around his jowls and the thickening of his nose, but he sounds pretty much the same — the pitch is the same, anyway, though the words don’t come gusting out in an impatient rush any more. This older Maverick thinks a little before he talks. The mantra in the movie is “Don’t think, just do,” which seems at odds with the shrewd businessman Cruise seems to have become. (His own “do, don’t overthink” period was from 1989 to 2004, let’s say.) What Cruise has to sell here, though, is his image as a doer — the crazy cat who does his own stunts, climbs up skyscrapers, jumps out of planes and chats with us on the way down. What he does is old-school movie-star acting, which is fine for Top Gun, and he knows just how much self-deprecating comedy he can allow at Maverick’s expense without damaging his credibility as a leader of soldiers. And he has aged into someone who at least looks like he could instruct and command. That’s not something we could have guessed from the first Top Gun, where his hot-shot callowness was sort of the point.

Of the neo-Blackhawks on Maverick’s team, only Rooster and another guy, the arrogant, toothy Hangman (Glen Powell), really register. The ranks are more diverse — there’s a woman, some pilots of color — but it’s still essentially a triangle of white guys, aping the Maverick-Goose-Iceman dynamic in the first one. Speaking of Iceman, Val Kilmer is back, and his quiet presence gives his scene some substance. Iceman also brings some homely reality to this franchise, a sense of mortal threat that comes not from enemy fire or malfunctioning jets but from one’s own mutinous body. It’s not a narrative beat you’d expect to encounter in most blockbusters of this stripe. But the scene is played so honestly and with such direct access to sorrow and humor that it transcends its surroundings. The dialogue isn’t telling us much — Iceman tells Maverick to go get ‘em, basically — but it’s still a three-minute great drama, supported by a lot of aerial zooming and shooting and whizzing. Whatever it takes. 

Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, sequel

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