Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

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Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Throw on some shades and a leather jacket then jump on a bike. It’s been 36 years but, finally, we can ride into the danger zone again. Top Gun: Maverick is the long-delayed sequel to the camp 1986 classic. Tom Cruise takes to the skies again as Pete’ Maverick’ Mitchell: a showboating, thrill-seeking insubordinate. He’s not by the book, but damn it does he get results. The last time we saw him he’d been humbled by the death of his best Radar Intercept Officer and best friend, Goose – a lesson he’s since forgotten. So not a man you necessarily want teaching. But after a death-defying intro, where he tests a new plane to its limits and then beyond, that’s where he finds himself. On the recommendation of his former wingman Ice Man, now an admiral, he’s tasked with putting together a squad for a suicide mission. It’ll involve travelling barely above ground level down a well-guarded trench for precision bombing, followed by a steep incline and highly likely escape. Oh, and among those competing for limited places is Rooster: the son of Goose, with whom Maverick has a difficult relationship.

If this sounds like an algorithm of numerous action flicks, then it sort of is: a legacy sequel built to order. But hear me out – it’s a really good one. Maybe Top Gun Maverick’s greatest achievement is how well it captures the somewhat dated spirit and aesthetic of the original without lapsing into either naffness or self-parody. The first is a good film in its own right – there’s a reason people continue to watch it decades later. Yet even before it was lampooned so well in Hot Shots, it was already bordering on being a novelty flick and a relic of a bygone age (something alluded to in the dialogue several times about Maverick). The cheesy music, corny dialogue and unintentional homoeroticism all make people like it, yet they contribute to it being considered a bit of a punchline today. It’s the kind of film that’s watched in a semi-ironic way, ala Commando or Rocky IV. Very watchable, although maybe not for the reasons Tony Scott intended. The same is not for the new one, which entirely takes place in the same universe, slavishly emulating it to the similar score, use of iconography, shot composition and even the oily beach sequence, whilst also succeeding as a genuinely thrilling action movie. It’s just as daft at times but crucially, for me, it also surpasses the first in every possible way.

It may be because of how well it establishes the near-impossible odd the pilots are up against. The dramatic stakes associated with the Star Wars style premise get increasingly severe as the movie goes on, and the aerodynamic action even more impressive. The drama is also decent, with Maverick’s grief given some weight. Tom Cruise may be ageless, looking incredible for a guy that’s nearly 60, but there’s a sadness to the character, and his self-destructive lifestyle has taken its emotional toll. It’s rewarding to see him in a teacher role, wrestling with past demons and sharing his wisdom. Naturally, they teach him as much as he teaches them, and it’s enjoyable to see him out of his depth. Tom Cruise is best known for playing cocky, near-perfect heroes, so it’s refreshing too. And true, an even slightly seasoned cinema-goer can likely work out almost all of the plot beats: who will make Maverick’s shortlist and how the mission will go. It doesn’t matter though – they are delivered with such spectacle and fun that I was never not invested. Where its source material was fairly slow, the pacing is phenomenal too – the near 2.5 hour running time flies by until a packed third act that’ll take your breath away.

On that point, initially, I assumed the new recruits would overwhelm the storytelling for the sake of setting up a sequel (that’s him on the poster after all – it isn’t Creed!). However, an hour in I was just as invested in Rooster’s journey as I was Maverick. He has a lot of doubts to overcome, and is probably the most relatable part of the film. Granted, not all of squad get the same screen time, with some being mere action archetypes. But they still have enough personality for me to want to watch another that focuses on the next generation. Like Maverick, their arcs are well-handled and expertly woven into the fabric of the pilot scenes, giving them some dramatic depth. After all, everyone feels vulnerable at that speed and altitude. The air scenes themselves are stunning, with some top-notch stunt work and the soundtrack giving them so much momentum – be sure to see this on the big screen. In the days of heavy CGI, this takes the genre back to practical effects. Moreover, some of the cockpit sequences look so authentic you could swear Cruise and co are piloting the planes (in real life, they are in there as passengers). It’s awe-inspiring, high-octane excitement. And there’s heart to it too: a big swelling, beating heart that kicks in when the ace pilots have moments of vulnerability and fallibility. Maverick’s courtship with single mother Penny is also much less sordid than watching him shag his teacher. There’s a laugh out loud funny bit involving them that also really made me care.

There are a few misfires too: Rooster’s rivalry with the jocular Hangman is less personalised than Maverick and Ice Man’s was (Val makes a sombre but sweet reappearance here) – the latter is a bit of a jerk to everyone. Jennifer Connelly also has little more to do than look worried as her man goes off for another adventure. Monica Barbaro’s performance as Phoenix does something to redress the gender imbalance, but this is very much a sausage fest like the first. Finally, the shameless military propaganda angle is back in abundance: boy’s toys, US exceptionalism, and an obvious allusion toward Iran becoming a nuclear power. It’s no wonder considering the movie was made with the support of the Air Force. Still, it’s maybe too selective to pick on it for that since supporting the military-industrial complex is, unfortunately, a staple of the action genre. One only needs to Google the way Marvel derives funding from the pentagon and branches of the army, provided they can satisfy them with positive and substantial representation. Something that oddly doesn’t come up when YouTube reviewers talk about ‘an agenda’.

Besides, as mainstream blockbuster action films go, this is among the best of the millennium so far – probably the strongest I can think of since Fury Road. Like that one, and Tron Legacy which shares director Joseph Kosinski with it, Top Gun: Maverick is a brilliant love letter to its source material as well as a tasteful update for this century: new engine but vastly improved model. As a sequel it passes with flying colours, but also as a cinema experience I can’t imagine it getting much better this year. As the sound of the engines roared around me, and the (goodness gracious) great balls of fire went off, I haven’t been this thankful for Cineworld opening again – apparently it’s stunning in 4Dx too. Big dumb, sentimental fun that I found it impossible not to like.

Rating: ★★★★★

About david.s.smith 422 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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