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MOVIES: Top Gun: Maverick - Review

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Top Gun: Maverick somehow manages to do the impossible and drag the most 80's film that ever 80s’d into a new era, having been due to be released since before the pandemic, the film was so close to its release date that it even had screenings prior. Now; finally – in its complete format with a Lady Gaga song to rule them all, Top: Gun Maverick ultimately establishes its self-worth as a film that has, like its main character, Pete Mitchell, Maverick, to prove why it matters, to a navy that’s increasingly reliant on algorithm-driven artificial intelligence. It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot, is the message that runs through the film – and Maverick exceeds in delivering on that.

Tom Cruise, the ‘last movie star’ – in the sense of big-name actors who haven’t gone to streaming or TV yet – knows how to make movies for the big screen. He’s delayed Top Gun: Maverick in order to have it held out for a theatrical release date rather than a day and date streaming or even just being dumped on streaming altogether and that’s an excellent choice because every frame feels designed, purpose-built to be seen on the biggest screen possible. From the aerial thrills of the high-intense combat to the small, intimate character moments that make Maverick Tom Cruise’s most real, emotional and human character – these are all elements that play to Top Gun: Maverick’s favour. Tom Cruise has rarely, if ever, felt more mortal than this movie and there is a sense that he’s never been more aware that even he too, can age, whilst Maverick might seem immortal, he’s anything but.

The strength in the character is that Maverick is human – he makes mistakes – his relationship with the son of Goose, his co-pilot in the first film whose death still sends shockwaves on multiple viewings later; Miles Teller’s Rooster – and the film goes out to make a point to prove that it has to show the characters, and the audience, that a human can make these flights. Teller’s Rooster – moustache and all – gives a performance that establishes him as one of the standout franchise breakout stars of the last few years; up there with Jessica Henwick in The Matrix Resurrections and Ana de Armas in No Time to Die. You buy the estranged stand-in father figure that Maverick’s role is there to achieve, and he’s cast in a role that he hasn’t really operated in before to a significant degree – there are hints to a past of what Maverick’s been up to since the ‘80s, but this is the first time that we see him in the flesh return to Top Gun Academy, to oversee not just the best of regular recruits, but the best of Top Gun recruits – the best the Navy have to offer. Iceman believes Maverick has something left to offer the service – and after an almost-identical opening to the first film featuring the likes of Danger Zone, we soon find out why that is.

According to Miles Teller in an interview with Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo for The Take Podcast; Top Gun: Maverick has more footage (800 hours) filmed for it than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, which sounds daunting in its own right. On top of that; every actor in this movie feels like they could have actually been fighter pilots capable of handling the intense pressure that the characters are put under – there’s a real sense of charisma and bravado that every one of them has. Teller’s Rooster has the heavy shadow of the past hanging over him and is the central character in the film – but there’s a good arc for the other newbies too, and I’m sure many here will go onto greater things. Monica Barbaro makes the most out of her role as Phoenix, and Glen Powell’s Hangman takes up the cocky false bravado role that Maverick himself had in the first Top Gun, except with a more toothless edge – he doesn’t care if his co-pilot lives or dies as long as he completes the mission. The thin touches of character material for these actors outside of the main stars give them room to make these people feel real, larger than life personas – right down to Lewis Pullman’s Bob, who gets arguably, the best call-sign in the whole franchise, so understated compared to the likes of Payback and Fanboy but just as with the first film giving characters call signs like Rooster, Goose and Maverick, it tells you everything you need to know about their personalities.

Also worthy of a mention outside of the pilots themselves is Jon Hamm – his opposition to Maverick gives the closest sense of a real foe that the film has, and Val Kilmer makes the most out of his small scenes in his returning role as Iceman – living up to the name as ever, and we learn why Iceman has advanced with decorated experience and why Maverick is “only” a Captain. The touch of respect that Iceman and Maverick shared at the end of the first film is still there and shared between Kilmer and Cruise, who give heartfelt and tender performances in their scenes. I loved to see Jennifer Connelly play a significant role here too – even if it means that unfortunately, Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan are shut out. The choice feels weirdly deliberate to remove any mention of Charlie from the film save for very minor missteps, which may have been a missed opportunity even in a film that is not shy about its nostalgia where it is necessary for it to be used.

Given the sense of overwhelming nostalgia at times it’s a testament to Top Gun: Maverick’s ability that it’s never fully stuck in the past and in the height of the Cold War. It feels relevant with something new to say – new about Maverick’s character; why he matters, why humans matter. The film acts as tool for him to come to terms with Goose’s death and feels intimately personal on that level; refreshing in an age where sequels often feel the need to go bigger and bolder than ever before. Not making Maverick timeless was the way to go here; doing something new with an established franchise that has made the best legacy sequels like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Force Awakens, Tron: Legacy, Doctor Sleep, Blade Runner 2049 and Creed work. In part this is due to how much Kosinski borrows from Tony Scott – the visuals are similar to the great directors’ work; and although the original film may have been Scott’s worst movie (still a banger, showing just how good he was as a director), and Kosinski approaches the original work with something of a reverence that’s much appreciated given Scott’s legendary output.

The technical accomplishments are a marvel, and it puts the work of recent big-budget CGI-heavy fuelled blockbusters to shame. The sheer practical care where possible is used; shots inside the cockpit add to an authentic feel and Cruise’s commitment to doing as much of his own stunts as possible – whilst are as always, sheer madness, only add to the spectacle. There are multiple moments that leave you breathless in the high-octane dogfights even if it is just a simple training exercise, and director Joseph Kosinski is always aware of the sense of spectacle needed to make these films play well to the audience. The spectacle is only enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s score; and the soundtrack, both familiar (Great Balls of Fire, Danger Zone) and new (Hold My Hand), is all-timer. But given how great the 1986 film’s soundtrack is, is it a surprise?

Kosinski is no stranger to taking big swings and legacy sequels – his Tron: Legacy was ahead of the curve in that regard for the 2010s at least, a personal favourite. Oblivion crafted an interesting vision of a futuristic dystopia, and you can safely say that he’s spent his entire career taking wild swings at big ambitious projects. That experience pays off here – every moment feels well-planned and designed – and it has a sense of identity and purpose to it, never afraid to make the hard call where needed. It's also worth mentioning Claudio Miranda's cinematography - the sheer impressive capturing of the in-cockpit cameras would have been a daunting task for anyone, but the efforts of everyone involved only aid the experience that demands a return to the cinema.

Top Gun: Maverick is a triumphant success in every single way possible – culminating with an emotionally-charged final act that’s one of the best in recent memory. Following what made the first film work so well with plenty of heart and soul; Maverick builds on a film that was famously never getting a sequel - but proves that sometimes the wait can be worth it, no matter how late you came to it. In an age of convoluted sequels and expanded universes, sometimes it's refreshing to get a old-school, simple plot with a premise that's as straightforward and as compelling as they come, culminating in an all-timer of a finale.

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