Top Gun Maverick is not a bad movie.
But it fails itself and the audience by not going the extra mile beyond being deeply self-reflective fan service.
Don’t get me wrong. It does a nice job with the fan service. The technology has improved. Cameras have improved. Workouts for actors have improved.
From beginning to end, there was nothing that happened that I could not anticipate, either in the flow of storytelling or from the idea of the movie I had before I sat down in a movie theater, which is where it should be seen.
What has become clear from the response from a lot of film writers is, they love coming into the theater humming the movie. I don’t think it’s just that the film is pre-chewed, but that the filmmakers chewed it in a way that isn’t embarrassing to enjoy. This is not a summer stock version of Broadway show. It’s the real thing. It’s the best In-n-Out burger or Heinz Ketchup or W Hotel room there is. Comfy, delicious, and unsurprising.
This time, Tom is not the cocky young guy… he’s the cocky old guy. This time, he isn’t trapped by his ego (but there will be a variation on that theme to replace his former glory), but by his unshakable belief that he is a fighter pilot until the end.
The movie opens with “Danger Zone,” with a montage reminiscent of the original… though cut in a way that seems almost to be making fun of the past, so much so that I literally was thinking it was a device to separate the past from the current. Like, “this ain’t your daddy’s Top Gun.” But then, they write strains of the song into the score throughout the movie, celebrating it.
The women of the past are in the past. The only 3 women present are Jennifer Connelly and Jean Louisa Kelly as the much younger love interests of 2 of the original characters and Monica Barbaro and the spunky, but underwritten, one female pilot.
Tom Skerritt and James Tolkan and Michael Ironside are still around and working… not present. Insert Ed Harris, who seems to be squinting and blinking painfully from the recreated blinds-with-sun-shining-through Simpson/Bruckheimer style as “Rear Admiral.” Jon Hamm is in the thankless job of being the hard ass boss.
Scene by scene by scene, idea by idea, Maverick reflects its origins, either in literal recreation or reference. Racing a plane taking off on the motorcycle. Does Penny live in the same house as Charlie? And how will they fit in a funeral without Maverick being connected to killing another pilot?
Switching 4-man beach volleyball for 12-person beach football makes perfect sense… but it’s everything that was weird about the movie. It’s no longer a battle of macho dickheads. It’s a group therapy effort. So we enjoy the reference and the pleasure of the characters, but it feels obvious. And while Rick Rossovich was the only one besides Tom who showed a hint of a six-pack in the original, even though all the boys were beautiful, everyone in this group seems to have been training with a bunch of Marvel actors, all with the six pack and the crazy pecs, etc. Do pilots spend 4 hours a day in the gym?
But here’s the thing… I had a pretty good time… the same way I sometimes crave hot McDonald’s fries. Cruise is still a compelling star. Connelly is still a stunner, even beyond her looks… her eyes are deep and loaded with meaning even when she’s forced to do Basil Exposition for 15 minutes in the first act. Hamm does what he needs to do, skillfully. And I loved both Charles Parnell and Bashir Salahuddin, who are forced to do the “magical black man” thing, but who have so much personality, in very different ways, that they steal every moment they are on screen.
I am also happy that Miles Teller is having a moment with this and The Offer. He’s a really compelling screen actor and at 35, with a wife, he seems to be ready for being a star this second time around. I am rooting for him, though it is a shame that they never let him have really light moments like Anthony Edwards did. Instead they rode their story idea right to the very end of the movie, narrowing his range.
But it is typical of this film that Teller’s “Rooster” hates Crusie’s Maverick so deeply that the movie isn’t comfortable giving him one reason to stay angry through the entire film, but two. One drawn from the original film and another just made up and not well constructed. But they needed both.
They didn’t need both. And by not deciding, they didn’t make the best drama… just longer drama.
It was funny to look back at Top Gun and see just how limited the dog fights were. In the current world of CG, it was also surprising how limited the clarity in dog fights are here. It’s not like they are bad. They are well done. The filmmakers seem to eschew CG exteriors, for the most part, which is great… until the big finale. And I was only reminded a few dozen times that they stole the ending of Star Wars as the big challenge for the fliers in this film.
Looking back at Top Gun, I was also a little surprised how really simple the story was. I had forgotten. It was never my favorite film or even one of my Tom Cruise favorites. It was edgy at the time. We hadn’t see all of that stuff, especially with Tony Scott’s eye and the use of music. But what was really magical about the original were the intimacies and the time Scott took with them. That volleyball game. The elevator scene. The motorbike riding. The Danger Zone opening. The flyby. The singing. Goose and his family at the bar. So many long shots of Tom Cruise just thinking.
This film doesn’t have such intimacies, for the most part. Everything in it is running into an old girlfriend, not meeting someone new.
So yeah… for those who are going to proclaim Top Gun Maverick better than Top Gun, okay. It is a more complex piece of visual filmmaking.
But is it more complex storytelling? No. It doesn’t have an original idea in it’s body. Even the inevitable sex scene is in the exact style of the original.
Joseph Kosinski is an interesting director. I’m still not sure what he is going to become. But unlike Sam Raimi delivering uber fan service for Dr. Stranger then adding his horror stylings, this just feels like Kosinski was going for a variation of the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho using an Tom Cruise movie as his paint-by numbers without getting caught red-handed. Same ingredients but a a different shaped pan and slightly different frosting. He also watched The Right Stuff a lot of times… but somehow failed to take its greatest lessons in filmmaking.
I was fully ready to let my brain go and let this movie take me on the ride of the summer. There were some wonderful moments for me. The Val Kilmer stuff is excellent and there are a few small surprises along the way that suggest what the whole movie could have been. But the film is so steeped in Top Gun, it kept stalling out in small ways throughout.
If only they could have come up with a couple good chunks that were not about Tom Cruise’s Maverick reliving his past.
At one point, there is a character who says that the mission they are trying to figure out could be done in a way they hadn’t thought of… and I had hope. Someone smarter… someone better than Maverick at something. Maverick could, as we expect is inevitable from frame one, still be at the center of the big heroic moment of the film. But what if someone used their brain and changed the game, which then allowed others to succeed in a way that Maverick could not? What if some other character reflected Maverick’s childish attitude so obviously that Maverick, as a teacher, had to rise to the occasion to change that person’s life or know he would destroy himself?
For me, the great version of this sequel would have been 50% Maverick’s journey and 50% fresh, involving Maverick. Instead, we got 90% a reflection on Top Gun and 10% fresh and surprising.
In the process of writing this, I have repeated myself, with variety, so many times that I feel like I am doing what I was complaining about in the movie. At least it took you less than 2 hours to read this.
But I won’t blame you for your pleasure. I mean, there is better pound cake than Entenmann's in Los Angeles. But how I would love to bite into that specific flavor that I loved growing up and haven’t had in so long. Pleasure is pleasure. But while we are on the subject, maybe I could interest you in Claire Denis’ new movie, Both Sides of the Blade.
Sorry. Asking too much. Enjoy the show!!!
DAMN GOOD REVIEW. NOTHING WRONG WITH CHOCOLATE MILK AND POPCORN. CREATING AN ECHO IS NOT EASY. I THOUGHT YOUR REVIEW OF LICORICE PIZZA WAS THE BEST WRITTEN REVIEW I HAVE READ IN YEARS. GOOD WRITING