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Top Gun: Maverick 

(SPOILERS) I’m a long way from the effusive responses of – seemingly – the preponderance of Top Gun: Maverick’s audience. Nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly possible, as some have attested, to appreciate this sequel while in no way having any partiality toward the original. Indeed, in some respects, Maverick even manages to cast a certain lustre on that movie’s iconographic elements (the soundtrack, the visual acumen), even as it also rehearses its essential emptiness of character and emotion in tandem with its rousing militarism. That’s principally because Joseph Kosinski’s movie is a technical marvel, and every time it takes to the air, it throws everything else about the picture (those characters, emotions, and the rousing militarism) into sharp relief.

Does the filmmaking proficiency here straightforwardly explain Top Gun 2’s phenomenal success, surely by leaps and bounds greater than anything Paramount imagined in their wildest dreams? It certainly helps, but such acumen didn’t make Mad Max: Fury Road a mega hit. So is it nostalgia? For not only the movie, but also an era past? It certainly did Spider-Man: No Way Home no harm. This isn’t nostalgia for Tom Cruise; it’s nostalgia for Tom Cruise in that role (see also Tobey Maguire).

Indeed, as one who couldn’t fathom Tom’s appeal at the time, I found his presence here, 36 years later, particularly disconcerting. He occupies an eerie hinterland, a kind of halfway zone between aging and all those botox treatments struggling to keep him forty at sixty (to be clear, I’m talking the Tom we see in the movie; I’ve no idea whether the guy currently walking around and doing stunts in M:I is the actual Tom). It makes for an additional layer to the unreal, super-lucid veneer he tends to bring to all his parts (the beach football sequence, straining so hard to rekindle the similar from the first movie, just without the same homoerotic abandon, is faintly embarrassing, the more so for how Tom evidently selected his carefully curated “buff-ness” as his closing-credits image).

He’s supposed to be a middle-aged boy-man here, of course, which explains why Jon Hamm (nearly a decade his junior) seems like a fully-grown adult (boy, has he drawn the short straw in unrewarding big-screen roles, though). It can’t explain why Jennifer Connelly, also almost a decade younger, is attracted to Mav, any more than now-super-non-trophy-item Kelly McGillis (and while I’m stuck in the shallow lane, commenting on looks, Connelly’s yet another female star who appears to have been personal-trainered/dieted to borderline emaciated oblivion).

It’s tempting to say Tom has the only “proper” character here, but it isn’t much of one either. Mav has essentially one extended beat; guilt over Goose and the desire/promise to see right by Rooster (Miles Teller). But it’s still more than he had in the original, and perhaps the most dependable part of this movie is that everyone is a caricature. That’s why there’s barely a memorable line in the whole picture, and if there is a memorable one, you can bet it’s already been used by another (likely better) movie.

Phoenix: Everyone here is the best there is. Who the hell are they going to get to teach us?

Maverick butts heads because his call sign does what it says on the tin, first with craggy Ed Harris’ rear admiral and then with Hamm’s vice admiral. These guys have to be bastards, trying to chain Mav to the ground, or the character doesn’t work. Just like calling on Mav’s services has to be (Oprah-) couched in terms of his unsurpassable genius in the air (the quote above). Mav doesn’t just get hero moments; he repeats the same ones at fist-pumping intervals. Going to dispense with the programme? Fly like crazy shit! Going to dispense with him as instructor? Fly like crazy shit! And you know what? It works like gangbusters, because those sequences are visual dynamite (Tom nearly hyperventilating in an F-18 is the only part here where I believe him). It’s what’s in between that’s a soggy lettuce.

So nothing involving Connelly’s Penelope – not Mav’s ritual bar humiliation, or her taking him sailing, or having her daughter warn him “Just don’t break her heart again” – is anything but empty, flavourless calories. It’s obviously designed to bolster Mav as devoutly heterosexual, but Cruise’s complete lack of chemistry with his co-star has perversely the opposite effect.

He still has more spark with poor Val, who gets second billing but the one scene (and some texting). I’m in two minds about his appearance here. Most have talked about how touching it is, and it is very sad to see Kilmer like that, but the flip side is that it rather draws attention to the scene being about Val the actor, and having very little to do with Ice Man the character. You can go back to my previous comments about paper-thin characters in that regard and suggest now-wise admiral Ice Man offers an improvement, but to me, it’s giving the picture an unearned emotional boost. It doesn’t have those resources to call on naturally.

There’s also Tom as teacher. I was put in mind of Pauline Kael’s merciless assault on his showing as Ron Kovic (“He has a little-boy voice and no depth of emotion… he’s negligible”). There’s never the remotest sense this guy is a military man, less still that he has the authority to command other military men (and women). That scene where a fight breaks out between Rooster and Hangman (Glen Powell) says it all; he’s straining ineffectually to assert some kind of order, because the only way Tom can appeal to anyone is to flash his pearly whites and adopt a veneer of faux-sincerity.

All that said, the Rooster relationship does work, kind of. Mostly because Teller is so good; he does the heavy lifting for both of them (it’s also pretty funny how Teller absolutely towers over Tom). I don’t tend to find him a very personable actor, but that works in his favour here, the intensity adding something to the unfinessed beef with Maverick.

As for his co-stars, Powell brings exactly the correct air of cocky shamelessness to Hangman (because broad strokes are everything in such a part). In terms of next-gen dynamic, Teller’s effectively the Ice Man to Powell’s Maverick. You also have Lewis Pullman doing his unassuming Bad Times at the El Royale thing (but without any worm turning) and Monica Barbaro as Phoenix, there to hold in check anyone wishing to go overboard with avowals about how unwoke the movie is, and how its success is a direct protest against the same.

In fairness, on that score, I think it’s a case of the picture not being expressly woke, rather than actively fighting against it. This is a movie made with the full sanction of the US armed forces – Bruckheimer and them are like that – and it’s surely keen to bolster its equal-opportunities-for-all-to-kill-and-maim cred (even if that ends up being at the joystick of a drone). It also explicitly avoids any statements about her presence (not even in an Aliens or Starship Troopers way).

Of course, there was fat chance the previously mooted Top Gun II could have envisaged such a development, since it was nixed – by the Navy – due to the Tailhook Association annual convention involving hundreds of rapey Top Guns – doubtless many in their ranks having been inspired to sign up by the exploits of Tom himself – allegedly molesting and mauling 87 women (per the Pentagon’s own investigation, as reported by Matthew Alford in Reel Power, “… the movie fuelled misconceptions on the part of junior officers of what was expected of them and also served to increase the general awareness of naval aviation and glorify naval pilots in the eyes of many young women”).

The entire military premise – veneration, basically – serves to emphasise this is old-school entertainment, retro fare that was already indigestible in the ’80s, or should have been (see also An Officer and a Gentleman). It’s interesting how, in a redux, Maverick must yet again confront an unnamed enemy, softly-softly, ginger-footed. In Top Gun, it seems it’s nigh impossible to identify for definite who the bogeys are supposed to be. Here, contrastingly, there’s unanimous agreement that it’s Iran.

There’s an irony to this faceless enemy quality, though, because it rather underlines the detached, removed drone warfare Admiral Ed is threatening at the outset. Even when downed, we don’t see Mav or Rooster required to face an enemy at close quarters. They get to blow up or down aircraft (and even talk up kill counts at the end, like this is a WWII movie. Or a computer game). The final assault is consciously evoking A New Hope, obviously, right down to Tom giving an Obi-Wan pep talk to Teller (somehow, it reaches him through the aether), which further serves to emphasise this is all high fantasy.

Helping in that regard is Kosinski, who is finally – deservedly – having his talent recognised as one of the best wide-screen visualists going (it’s no coincidence that his best prior pictures are SF ones) Much as he’s picking up the Tony Scott baton, I’d argue his achievement in terms of kinetic set pieces eclipses anything Scott ever managed (and I rate a number of Scott pictures very highly).

And while I’m talking up the SF, Maverick’s McGuffin revolves, of course, around uranium enrichment, utilised for the express purpose of perpetuating the evergreen nuke threat programming. In the same ballpark, how about Admiral Ed being told, as an excuse for Mav’s link “breaking up”, “This is where we’ve had trouble with coms sir. It’s the Earth’s curvature”. Now there’s a giveaway if ever there was one; Admiral Ed knows instantly he’s BS-ing, of course, because any pilot worth their salt is cognisant there is no curvature.

How that will affect Tom’s space movie, I have no idea. I don’t think we’ll ever see it, somehow. As for Top Gun 3, Paramount will want it with or without Tom. The problem is, you try flying this kind of project solo, you get Cruise(less) Control. Oscar prospects? Stranger things have happened, but while I can see it as a shoe-in for four or five technical wins, a Best Picture nod is a stretch. Its real achievement is making a Top Gun movie that doesn’t stink and one that, despite everything about its raison d’être being formidably unappetising, is an intermittently dazzling movie.

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