Top Gun: Maverick Review – Mid Gun

From the very first moment, nostalgia is baked into Top Gun: Maverick. The first screen, a flash card explaining what Top Gun is, is identical to the one that opened the movie in 1986. This is followed by a warmly saturated shot of various crewmen performing busywork and anonymous planes taking off, all to the soundtrack of – you guessed it – Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone.

This nostalgia is what will get people through the door, but you’d have hoped that once you were lured back by Maverick’s grin he’d have a new story to tell you. Unfortunately, it’s often reliant on nostalgia to a fault. Everything is a callback, including some shot for shot rehashes of the original’s most popular scenes. You think up there you’re dead, you can be my wingman anytime, Great Balls of Fire, Maverick’s jacket, the volleyball scene, and Maverick riding his motorcycle on a taxiway while a plane takes off behind him are just some of the callbacks included. At times it feels less like a sequel almost 40 years later and more like a remastered, alternative cut made of unused footage.

The worst part is if used sparingly, these callbacks could have been quite evocative. The analogues between Goose in the original and his son Rooster, played here by Miles Teller, conjure up bittersweet memories and while letting Rooster stand on his own. The wingman moment is well used too, just as it was in the original. But it comes in the midst of reference reference reference, callback callback callback, reshoot reshoot reshoot. It’s hard to connect when you feel like you’ve seen it all before.

Of course, it’s not the same movie. Maverick is back teaching (despite 1986’s ending, he quit teaching initially after just two weeks) and is training up a squad of 12 elite pilots to undergo the most dangerous mission ever conceived. He also has to select six from that initial 12, but given that only six ever get screentime, you won’t find any stakes or mystery in Maverick’s dilemma there. The movie tells a simple story well: Maverick must train the team to carry out this mission, then they must carry it out. It’s entertaining and exciting, and for a lot of people, that will be enough. Under any sort of scrutiny though, cracks begin to appear.

‘It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot’ is a running phrase throughout the flick. Perhaps another fitting phrase is ‘it’s not the movie, it’s the audience’. If you want to see spectacular plane stunts, Tom Cruise as a wise-cracking flyboy, and as many callbacks as the need for speed will allow, then get ready to strap yourself in and feel the Gs. If you’re looking for anything more substantive though, and you’ll notice the wings creaking under the strain, the systems falling, your vision blurring as the convoluted G-force pushes down on you and the jet wash of trite tropes is sucked into your engines.

It starts off small – we initially see the various recruits going up three at a time with Maverick for a dogfighting exercise. It’s an early taste of the stunts we can look forward to, and helps show some flashes of character from the recruits. Given some are offered full scenes and others packaged into a montage, it also lets us know which ones are worth paying attention to. After all the exercises are done, we get one more go around with Hangman (the Maverick of the class) and Rooster (closer to Iceman than his father Goose), even though they’ve both been up and both perform the same flight role, meaning they’d never fly as a team.

As it goes on, we see Maverick tell us things are impossible before then pulling them off with ease. There’s always a new problem, and even sooner after it’s discovered, there’s a new solution. This makes it hard to really get behind Maverick’s mission, especially as we see it over and over and over again throughout the movie. Also, in what I can only assume is an attempt to appeal to all territories, where the mission takes place is deliberately obscured, with the pilots decked out in all black, nondescript uniforms and no geographical hints.

It’s aggressively apolitical for a movie all about a covert military operation on a nuclear plant, and while I’m not yearning for yet another movie with generic Arab villains, it dramatically lowers the stakes. The villains of the movie are less the actual bad guys with a nuclear program and more the hotshot Hangman and Jon Hamm’s Cyclone, who tells Maverick what he can or can’t do as a Top Gun instructor.

It also opens with a focus on unmanned drones, and there’s a suggestion that the idea of being left behind by a world that no longer needs you will be the underlying theme – the perfect plot for a Top Gun sequel about Maverick – but this is quickly dispatched and forgotten. I suspect the first draft of the script was a richer, more character driven affair, and the notes came back ‘more planes’.

The planes, however, are spectacular throughout. The biggest transition between the training mission and the real mission is in the scenery, which could teach the Marvel machine a thing or two about creating high octane action scenes without terrible green screen. When the planes are in the air, all of the other criticisms are left in its dust, and its a testament to the film's commitment to authenticity (the actors are really in planes and its all practical) that the stunts are consistently intense. It’s a visceral, heart-thumping, white-knuckle thrill ride, even if the story itself doesn’t always hold up. It even knows how to pull your heartstrings, though it steps on its own heroic ending not once, but twice, in service of wrapping everything up in a neat bow.

There’s also a romantic subplot which could have carried the movie to a wider audience, but it’s neglected a little too often despite Jennifer Connelly’s solid performance. In Val Kilmer’s cameo, he again underlines that Hollywood owes him a better career. He and Maverick both text each other with full stops after each message though, which a) almost makes me sick but b) is a good indication of how they’re two old men being left behind by time.

Cruise is just… Cruise throughout the whole thing. Often shallow, always likeable, the last of the real movie stars carrying this film well. Miles Teller, disappointingly, is underused. He has to remind Maverick of Goose, while playing the Iceman role, and carrying the plot plus the bulk of the emotional baggage, all while being completely starved of screentime until the final act. It feels like a huge waste of Teller’s skills to keep him so tightly on the leash. Glen Powell’s Hangman faces the opposite problem – he steals the show in the early exchanges but is slowly pushed to the fringes once it becomes clear he has little to do in the story besides be there.

Top Gun: Maverick will appeal to its core audience, but it doesn’t quite have the depth to be the great blockbuster it poses as. Despite Cruise, Connelly, Teller, and Powell putting in good performances, a repetitive and shallow script means it never quite gets off the ground. Much like the drones at the movie’s opening, Top Gun: Maverick is fast, ferocious, but ultimately empty.

Score: 3/5. TheGamer was invited to a screening for this review.

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