' ' Cinema Romantico: Top Gun: Maverick

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick

Though Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” finds the eponymous renegade Naval fighter pilot (played once again and with no less of a waggish smirk by Tom Cruise) returning to Fightertown USA and assembling a crew of new and more diverse Top Gun pilots, this 2022 sequel to Tony Scott’s stone cold 1986 pop culture classic is less about Naval Weapons Fighter School than an essentially impossible mission. Indeed, this “Top Gun” frequently has less in common with that “Top Gun” than with one of Tom Cruise’s admittedly excellent modern “Mission: Impossible” movies, right down to the scene where Maverick himself watches what is tantamount to the IMF secret message video. Those Twenty-Tens M:I movies made the typically phony bigger is better mantra of sequels ring robustly true through its continuing escalation of exhilarating action scenes, a formula that “Top Gun: Maverick” copies with its you-are-there aerial combat, meaning that it roundly triumphs in spite of its flaws.  

Living in the desert and pushing some sort of super-secret, supersonic aircraft to the extreme as the movie opens, Maverick is deliberately cast in the light of Chuck Yeager. This “Right Stuff” vibe is furthered in the appearance of Ed Harris as Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain, showing up to shut Maverick’s test pilot program down. Nominally this in service of funding a drone program, though Kosinski and his trio of screenwriters never pull too hard on that thread, preferring to evoke this closure more as an emblem of aging. “Your kind is heading toward extinction,” Cain intones. Perhaps, but while Cruise occasionally fills his eyes with at least a smidgen of sorrow, his physique, his very air, is innately ageless, rebutting the movie’s own stated belief that the end inevitably comes for us all. 

No, Father Time is more effectively rendered in the brief appearance of Maverick’s old Top Gun rival Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now Admiral of the Pacific Fleet, though on some level (the deepest level) you know this poignancy connects as much to Kilmer’s own real-life physical ailments, written into the role, and the unmistakable sense that this might be the last time we see him on screen as it does to the movie. But then, real-life echoes abound in “Top Gun: Maverick.” Kosinski might have made additional space for Glen Powell to really let his magnificent charisma loose as the cocky Jake “Hangman” Seresin, or for Monica Barbaro to truly explore her Jenette Goldstein vibes as Natasha “Phoenix” Trace, but hey, this is Cruise’s show. The roaring training montage in which Maverick takes out his pupils in simulated combat one-by-one, each of them comically punctuated by mandatory push-ups, might as well be Cruise sending a message to his youthful supporting cast, if not the broader cinema landscape.  

If Maverick’s derring-do once perturbed Iceman, here it is what prompts him to enlist his ex-antagonist as leader of a uranium enrichment plant strike that demands flying at dangerously low altitudes through a canyon. In essence, Maverick becomes what Viper and Jester once were even as it continually makes clear that Maverick’s recklessness puts him at odds with the Navy in general, embodied by Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, nimbly played by Jon Hamm as Principal Vernon in military khakis. Maverick gets to both issue orders and refuse them, a neat narrative trick ensuring New Maverick is the same as the Old Maverick. The only person who truly calls him on the carpet is Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), the No Scrubs bartender and Maverick’s old flame, the one whose heart he broke long ago. A scene where she takes him out on her boat is the only one where he doesn’t have the upper hand. 

Alas, Cruise and Connelly generate no heat. I mean, no heat; none, zilch, zero. We talk about Cruise and Leo as two of the last movie stars, and whereas Leo and Connelly manifestly shot sparks in those resplendent “Blood Diamond” (2006) bar scenes, Cruise and Connelly objectively shoot blanks. Point, Leo. This is a recurring Cruise problem, of course, and “Top Gun: Maverick” is at least smart enough to know that a Cruise sex scene has to be a sex scene disguised as an action scene. (See also: “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” motorcycle chase.) That’s why the real sex scene is that scene of Penny taking him out on her boat, though even there Kosinski can’t disguise the absence of romantic chemistry. People ridicule the “Take My Breath Away” scene of the original, but Tony Scott knew he had to conjure amour out of thin air which is why he gloriously laid his aesthetic on thick. That specific brand of amplification, it turns out, is not in Kosinski’s bag of tricks. Scott’s “Top Gun” was a sensory explosion, first and foremost, indulging in images and moments as much as story whereas Kosinski’s most sensory moment is a pure nostalgia trip, the “Danger Zone” opening a facsimile of 1986. Otherwise, he’s more concerned with narrative, where even his homage to the original’s volleyball scene, translated into football, becomes less about music video styled posing and male bonding than team building. 

Maverick’s team, however, includes Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Goose, who stills bear a grudge toward Maverick for his father’s death and with whom Maverick must make amends. True, Rooster’s subplot about not being able to live on the edge feels rote, but the resolution to his and Maverick’s conflict is superb, rendered all the more joyful for its inherent implausibility. You can imagine Kosinski and his team sitting down and scheming up the most bananas way to get these two into airplane together. That spirit extends to the bombing run itself. If the enemy’s anonymity is appeasement to global box office or just a kind of I’m Not Into Politics evasiveness, it nevertheless works by transforming the mission into a cockamamie, life and death obstacle course, American Gladiators rather than geopolitics. That comes through even clearer in the movie’s best scene, when Maverick goes rogue to prove to his doubting cadre of pilots that the mission is possible. It’s evocative not only of the movie’s aerial photography, a Hollywood hosanna for practical effects in this dispiriting age of CGI sludge, but how editors Chris Lebenzon and Eddie Hamilton deftly mix in basic reaction shots to heighten the sensation. For a moment there, we become the pilots in that briefing room just as Tom Cruise becomes Maverick and Maverick becomes Tom Cruise, their spirits intertwining, the actor proving to a weary moviegoing faithful, just as the pilot proves to his doubting charges, that, truly, you never know what cinema can do until you get it up as high as you can gooooooo...........

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