By John H. Foote
(***1/2) Now in Theatres
Any fears that Top Gun: Maverick will feel like a very expensive video game can be cast aside. The film is a huge entertainment machine where everyone involved is firing on all cylinders.
For two years, this film was delayed due to COVID, but Top Gun: Maverick thunders into cinemas this week with the force of a fighter jet engine. This is a big, muscular MOVIE, an event that we once expected and wanted from summer movies. An epic-sized sequel to Top Gun (1986), the film that launched Tom Cruise as a major super star, comes 32 years after the original, and surpasses it in every way. Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott, was mostly about machismo, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, good looking men in cool uniforms flying kick-ass jets, the need for speed, and beautiful MTV shots. Scenes were cut to the beat of the bass on the score, typical of music videos at the time. To be honest, the film resembles a two-hour music video.
And the camera worshipped Cruise.
Director Scott did everything to ensure Cruise appeared the same height as his love interest, the comparatively towering Kelly McGillis. Watch close and you will see her crouching uncomfortably throughout the film. McGillis became a star with Witness (1985) only to fade just as fast. She was not invited to be a part of the sequel.
As much as anything, Top Gun: Maverick is about the Tom Cruise legend and mystique. Nearing 60, he looks 20 years younger, is in incredible physical condition, insists on doing most of his own stunts, and still carries a blockbuster effortlessly on his shoulders. He expressed doubt about a sequel but finally approved the screenplay. They shot the film two and a half years ago, and there it has sat awaiting COVID to end.
Is it a work of art? Well, not like The Godfather Part II (1974), the greatest sequel ever made, is a work of art, but it is entertaining, a huge popcorn film that will help bring audiences back into theatres. Beautifully made, with impossibly good-looking stars, it should easily surpass $1B at the box office and re-ignite the bright star of Tom Cruise. And none of this baloney that cruise is a lousy actor, he most certainly is not. Three time he has been nominated for the Academy Award and should have won for both Jerry Maguire (1996) and Magnolia (1999). Further nominations should have come for The Color of Money (1986), Rain Man (1988), A Few Good Men (1992), The Last Samurai (2003), Collateral (2004) and Tropic Thunder (2008). His performance in Rock of Ages (2013) was drop-dead brilliant, but the film was so poorly reviewed it sank without a word about Cruise. He will land back in the Academy Awards race sometime soon, not for this, though it is a glorious performance, so cool, confident, so Cruise.
Peter “Maverick” Mitchell was scarred after the death of his best friend Goose in the previous film, and became a loner, retreating into himself to heal. Still flying jets, still a daredevil, he is threatened with being grounded after a stunt in the desert. Told he can retain his wings by teaching, he agrees, though is none too happy about it. His students will be established pilots, not kids, and they are the very best of the best. Given this position by his former nemesis Iceman (Val Kilmer), the two have a single scene together. Kilmer’s throat cancer has been incorporated into the film, and the actor is no longer the gorgeous young blonde God he was in the first film. He looks ravaged, and it works for the film. I think this was an extraordinarily generous bit of casting.
The pilots know who Maverick is, he is legendary after all, and know his reputation for risks. They also know his best friend died working with him. In fact, one of the pilots is Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller) and he is unimpressed with Maverick’s heroism. He makes it very clear Maverick has nothing to teach him. He also blames him for his father dying and wants little to do with him. The other pilots may be in awe of Maverick, but Rooster could care less.
Much has changed since 1986, including the fact there is a female pilot among the macho boys flying the jets. All feel the need … for speed, and it remains like a drug to each of them.
The movie is engineered to be a massive entertainment, with shots in the heavens that are truly breathtaking and give an idea of what it is to move at Mach 10. The actors did many of the scenes in the jets, so reactions are real, and they must be commended for handling the gut punches of supersonic speeds. I would be hanging off the wing screaming bloody murder, but this group pulls it off.
Maverick has been brought back to train them for a dangerous mission, and his methods, while unorthodox, will of course work like a charm … eventually. But first, he needs a lesson in humility. The group eventually is fighting a faceless villain. Count on Academy Awards for Film Editing, Cinematography and Sound next year, maybe Visual Effects too as the below the line award possibilities seem strong.
Once the story is set up, something about taking out a functioning uranium plant in a hostile country (never named), the jets thunder to life. Count on edge of your seat action and awe-inspiring scenes. I am sure some CGI effects were used, but I could not tell when and where; the effects men really did their jobs.
Cruise is playing a version of himself, or rather the Tom Cruise he wants us to know. How he has managed to remain so private is a mystery but not much is known about his true personal life. He is a nice guy, I have interviewed him, and really liked him because he takes such an interest in you. And charisma? It just explodes off him the second he walks in the room.
His Maverick has matured from the cocky warrior he was in 1986 to a quieter, still wildly confident but not a brash man. Loss will do that to you. What he understands better than his young charges is that death is very real and can happen in an instant, and cannot be changed. The weight of Goose’s death hangs over him like a pall. Iceman knows this and it’s why he chose him for this mission. A stated above, Cruise has always been a much better actor than critics give him credit for being, and he fills in the character here nicely, finding nuances not written for him.
Miles Teller does a great job as Rooster. The two grow to admire one another, even respect each other’s gifts in the air. Goose hangs over the film like a haunting presence, Anthony Edwards fine performance in 1986 is remembered in flashbacks and still photos.
Ed Harris is as always terrific as the tough old commander. I could watch Ed Harris read the phone book. His character sees a future with pilot-less jets. Though he’s grown impatient with the massive egos of his fliers, he would mourn the end of their lot.
And Val Kilmer, a single scene, realistically not shying away from his throat cancer. Iceman has been ravaged and it shows, but Kilmer does not back away from that nor do the filmmakers. It is a bold, gutsy move that elevated the film for me, a respite from the Hollywood beauties in the cast for a short time.
Top Gun: Maverick is a big, old-fashioned movie—the kind that draws audiences in by the millions and racks up a nice box-office tally. It is a knockout.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.