CAST: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connolly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Monica Barbaro, Charles Parnell, Danny Ramirez, Manny Jacinto, Bashir Salahuddin, Jay Ellis, Jake Picking, Raymond Lee, Lyliana Wray, Jean Louisa Kelly, Greg Tarzan Davis, Bob Stephenson, Chelsea Harris
RUNNING TIME: 131 mins
BASICALLY…: Top aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) returns to his old air base to train a new group of pilots…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
A year has now passed since cinemas in the UK finally reopened after lockdown restrictions were lifted. In that time, we’ve seen several high-profile releases get their long overdue shot on the big screen where they belong, from No Time to Die to Black Widow, but even as audiences started to come back in droves, one film still waited for the right moment to pounce. This sole dissenter – a maverick, if you will – had to make sure that cinemas everywhere were finally free of all the social distancing, testing kits, and general trepidation of spending two hours in a crowded room with countless other humans, before unleashing itself upon the world, and given both the timing and the extraordinary feedback it’s been receiving, it looks like the heavy gamble has paid off.
The film is, of course, Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to late director Tony Scott’s 80s cultural phenomenon and the film generally regarded to have launched Tom Cruise into superstar territory. Now, Cruise returns to one of his most iconic roles for a follow-up that’s literally been years in the making, and it’s pleasing to say that the wait was worth it: a pure, unadulterated summer blockbuster, this is guaranteed to be a significant audience hit, the likes of which haven’t been seen for a good few decades.
The film catches us up quick with Cruise’s ace Navy pilot Pete Mitchell (callsign: “Maverick”), who’s been test-piloting some nifty military aircraft and avoiding promotions in the field in order to keep flying. His stubbornness eventually catches up with him, and he is ordered to return to his old Top Gun training base to teach a group of young fighter pilots a new set of tricks for an upcoming special mission. There, Maverick learns that one of the pilots is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his fallen wingman Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, and who has nothing but hostility toward his late father’s best friend. Despite the animosity and arrogance of his new pupils, Maverick aspires to whip them all into fighting shape, and complete the dangerous mission that lie ahead for them.
The original Top Gun was certainly a movie I enjoyed, but never one I fully appreciated as a complete film, since it is rather thin on character, drama and genuine emotion (ironically, the parody Hot Shots! had much more to offer than the movie it was predominantly spoofing). Like many legacy sequels, Top Gun: Maverick often has its predecessor on its mind – the opening sequence is in and of itself almost a shot-by-shot remake of how the first movie opened, from the placing of the credits to exact music cues – but very quickly it branches off into something else entirely, presenting a simple but easily accessible narrative that offers more emotion, character growth, and genuine stakes than the original, completing the experience that the 1986 film never quite managed. Here, you really get to know a lot of these characters beyond their most basic personality traits, and the movie does a very good job at humanising them to a point where you honestly don’t want anything bad to happen to any of them, even the ones who are more or less douchebags. Though some of the supporting characters get the inevitable short-straw, the ones that stand out – from Monica Barbaro’s fun “Phoenix” to Glen Powell as the charmingly smarmy “Hangman” – are plenty of fun to be around, for you can feel them channelling the spirit of the cheesy original in new and exciting ways.
There’s also a lot of great stuff that Maverick himself has to deal with, including the irrelevance of his piloting position as the military moves toward drone activity, and rekindling a sweet romance with Jennifer Connolly as a former flame (not Kelly McGillis’ character, who is never even mentioned here). All the while, you never feel like the character has been compromised; from the moment we first see him, he’s still the same Maverick that he was back in 1986, older but not necessarily more mature, and disobeying direct orders as though his life depended on it. However, unlike the previous movie, there is also a genuine concern for his mortality, because the dangers he has to go up against do leave you wondering if he’s going to make it out alive with his new teammates, and even if he does, how much longer can he realistically take to the skies? It’s an arc that comes from the minds of people who really know and admire this character inside and out, none more so than the actor himself. Cruise delivers a blockbuster performance in every sense of the word, retaining his natural movie-star charisma and also opening up some unexpected emotions that do remind you of how, amidst all the awe-inspiring stunt work he performs, he is a genuinely great actor; get ready for one scene with a particular former co-star to hit you in all the feels.
Beyond the film’s deeper emotional resonance, it is also an excellently made film. Most remarkable is how, even though Tony Scott is no longer with us, Top Gun: Maverick really does look and feel like an old-school Tony Scott movie. Director Joseph Kosinski – who worked with Cruise on the 2013 sci-fi Oblivion – and cinematographer Claudio Miranda really nail the sun-drenched testosterone that slowly became Scott’s visual trademark, from the eternal sunset lighting to the tight slow-motion close-ups of muscular male bodies playing sports on the beach, to a point where you start to wonder if they performed some voodoo magic on Scott’s body to bring him back to life just for this movie. Then, of course, there’s the flying sequences which are not just impressively executed – the actors really did fly those F18 jets, just in case there was any doubt – but stunning in how well they are edited, framed and performed. If it looks real, then chances are it IS real, especially if Tom Cruise is involved, and Top Gun: Maverick offers an exciting new kind of practical filmmaking that is literally airborne.
This is a blockbuster that has something for just about everyone, whether it’s intense action or gripping emotion, fun new characters or the bittersweet return of old favourites, or just the absolute thrill of seeing something made with such love and care, without a single hint of franchise cynicism. Audiences everywhere are going to fall in love with this movie, and for good reason: in a cinematic marketplace overrun by endless CGI and direct-to-streaming titles, to see a practical blockbuster like this on the biggest screen possible (and do make sure you try and catch an IMAX screening of this movie) is an irresistible option, and a reminder that there are still hard-working and dedicated people who just want to give the viewer the best possible ride they can imagine. The fact that it just also happens to be a great movie, on top of being a fantastic piece of filmmaking, puts it up there among the most thrilling cinematic experiences since they finally opened back up.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Top Gun: Maverick is awe-inspiring blockbuster filmmaking, made with real love and dedication to the craft with fantastic aerial sequences, greater character and emotional depth than the 1986 original, and a top-notch Tom Cruise performance that serves as a strong reminder of why he’s a great movie star. It’s one of the best blockbusters in years, and one of the year’s best.